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The Comet Cometh | Issue | Philosophy Now

But the argument for prioritizing asteroids over comets is also peculiar, it seems to me, because, even if the assignment of low probability were accepted, it would not follow that the risk of cometary extinction is low. The reason is that risk contains two components. Probability is one of them, but what it is the probability of is the other — that is, the negative value of the feared outcome. In the cometary case that outcome is human extinction.

However one goes about assigning a number to the negative value of human extinction, it is sure to be a large one. Hence it would offset the low probability of our being annihilated by a comet and still yield a large enough number to warrant a significant investment of resources to trying to prevent it. Matheny But current policy does not recognize this.

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And I call this peculiar, as opposed to simply mistaken, because the cornerstone of all planetary defense policy is precisely the formula of risk as outcome times probability. I cannot help but surmise, therefore, that extraneous factors must be at work to account for the current neglect of comets among planetary defense policy makers. And one candidate for such a factor leaps immediately to mind, namely, nukes. Here, then, is another supreme irony of planetary defense, that just when a wholly legitimate and truly salutary use of nuclear bombs became known, retaining them became politically incorrect.

Birch Thus for this reason, it seems to me reasonable to suggest, attention was diverted to non-nuclear means of defending against potential impactors. But this meant that only city-killer-size and slow-moving objects could be targeted — in a word, asteroids. This is my explanation for what otherwise strikes me as utterly inexplicable.

Not, mind you, the rise in estimation of the peril from asteroids, which I view as a genuine scientific discovery and certainly worth addressing with a sense of urgency. Rather, a corresponding diminution to almost zero of the attention being paid to the peril posed by comets.

Case in point: At a conference on planetary defense held in April in Frascati, Italy, which I attended, not a single talk on the program featured the cometary threat. I will qualify that by noting that there was certainly a general awareness of the sorts of issues I am herein raising. Furthermore, nukes were surprisingly prominent in several discussions. But there was no systematic focus on comets and the special challenges they present. And the assumption seemed to be that improved tracking of objects orbiting the Sun near the Earth would soon obviate the need even for this.

It could have been larger, it could have hit Mars, or it could have hit Earth. Just as the Chelyabinsk meteor could have been a little larger and killed one million people. Why was the latter prospect more salient than the former? And why, a mere 21 years this month after the fact, is the relevance of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 to planetary defense but a distant memory?

Pierre Bayle, Robert C. Bartlett-Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet-

Again, the only explanation I can come up with has nothing to do with astronomical reality and everything to do with political reality. Alvarez, L. Bayle, Pierre. Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet.


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The Fermi Paradox: Extinction

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