You may have read about it. NASA, in a test to see if we had the wherewithal to prevent an asteroid from crashing into earth and extinguishing all life, crashed a rocket into a small asteroid, Didymos. The test was successful. Didymos was nudged out of orbit. It was a small news story, swallowed by the headlines about war and politics, but to me, it was quite significant. It was the first time I can remember that someone, some nation, did something to benefit not just themselves, but all humanity, indeed the entire planet. That’s really quite rare, it’s almost never done. Most of the time nation states act and move to benefit only themselves; that’s what’s holding back real action on climate change.
Climate change and nuclear holocaust are the two manmade threats to all civilization, even to all life. But the threat of a large asteroid colliding with earth is not manmade. It is astrophysical, built into the laws of the cosmos and of planetary orbits, and it has happened before. It is well accepted now that an asteroid colliding with the earth 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs, and not incidentally changed the biosphere and the climate in a way that gave rise to early mammals, and eventually, human beings. In a sense, we were all created by an asteroid, and we can be destroyed by one, too. That fact is an example seemingly out of science fiction, that the scientists of earth—or at least of NASA—have the technological sophistication to change the orbit of an asteroid. Actually, it was science fiction before it was a real event. In the 1998 movie Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis, that was the exact plot. The Willis character leads a team of demolition experts on a spaceship to an asteroid, a team who sacrifice their life to blow it up with a nuclear bomb and save humanity. It’s not the first time science fiction has pre-imagined an actual historical event. There was the 19th-century novel by Jules Verne about a trip to the moon, written a hundred years before the Apollo team actually did it. Jules Verne imagined submarines before they existed too.
It is trendy these days to question the notion of an absolute truth or an absolute fact. All truths are relative, some say. I have my facts and you have yours. There is no absolute truth, no inarguable fact. Well, an asteroid hitting the earth is a fact. NASA hitting an asteroid with a small rocket and changing the asteroid’s orbit is a fact. When I was in college, during the height of the Vietnam War, I attended a lecture by the famous left-wing philosopher Herman Marcuse. He spoke of facts from a philosophical, and probably somewhat Marxist, point of view. After the lecture, someone raised their hand and in a critical, mocking tone asked, “Dr. Marcuse, what is a fact?”
Marcuse replied quietly, “The Vietnam War is a fact.”
Some of my friends died in that war. Their death was a fact. Their names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Those names etched in stone are facts, too. Maybe social media and the maddening drumbeat of misinformation and propaganda make us nearly believe that there are no longer facts, only beliefs. I think this view is a luxury of living in a wealthy, prosperous country, where we are insulated from the hard facts that most people in the world cannot escape from.
I’m glad that NASA hit the asteroid and showed that there are hard facts, scientific facts, and in a world of hard facts, it is possible to do some good for everyone. Will we learn that lesson in other, more controversial spheres?
What do you think?
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