Asteroid risk: a shared threat we can agree on?

Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a compelling argument for investment in ‘pure’ science. In the most recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast, he condenses what he says should be a half-hour answer down into a handful of sentences. Put simply, research into medical science doesn’t give you MRI scanners or X-rays. Research into ovens doesn’t give you microwaves. We can’t always predict what we are going to find and we certainly can’t predict its applications. So we should chase the lofty goals and always support (and fund) curiosity, even where its application isn’t clear.

Space is deGrasse Tyson’s passion. He would probably be a passionate supporter of one lofty goal proposed at this week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union: weaponised spaceships to defend us from asteroid and comet impacts.

The scientists proposing this are not joking. Drilling on the site of the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs recently revealed the scale of the devastation it caused, driving granite “flowing like liquid” into a tower ten kilometres tall. An impact a fraction of this size would be catastrophic if it landed on or even near a city, as the 2013 airburst over Chelyabinsk showed.

In a time of austerity, it may be hard for politicians to argue for more funding for ‘pure’ research. Objectively, it is the best route to long-term economic growth and improving our overall welfare. But in this post-fact world, that means little. Flaming death from above, though? Surely that’s a narrative that everyone can get behind. What better project to unite the world than the defence of the human race?

Of course, we already have a big project on our hands to save the human race. One that presents a much more certain risk to our continued existence: climate change. The interests ranged against that campaign are many and varied, though, and currently enjoying a return to power.

But asteroids? No-one’s going to lobby for asteroids. Unless of course, they believe that they are a NASA conspiracy too…

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Tom Cheesewright