Tip for NASA – being smart doesn’t stop asteroids…

NASA Asteroid Data Hunter contest hopes humans will outsmart dinosaurs, says the Guardian.

Which, if that’s what NASA, currently bigging-up its asteroid crowd-sourcing plans at SXSW, in Austin, Texas, really does think – and it appears to be – then it suggests they’re looking that the problem through the wrong end of the telescope (sorry 😉  )

So, they want to recruit geeks with telescopes and computers, and whatever, to spot celestial objects in potentially dangerous orbits. Fine, no argument with any of that.

Where it does rather go tits up is in NASA’s – or anyone else’s – current ability to actually do anything about it.

We have ample technology, still, to enable us to destroy ourselves several times over (the avoidance of which, I’m sure, Putin is currently banking on), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an asteroid-killing ability. Hell, NASA doesn’t even have much of a space program any longer, aside from what it has already out there (a couple of birds heading out into the cold and dark beyond the solar system, the Pluto mission, and a pair of Mars rovers is about the extent of it). And while putting Curiosity down on Mars was a hell of an achievement, that’s no help in asteroid-avoidance either.

And, frankly, we have no real idea how smart dinosaurs might, or might not, have been,** just as we have no real idea what’s lying in wait for us out there, beyond our solar system, but there’s one thing we can be sure of. When a previously unsuspected, Manhattan-sized hunk of rock, spawned billions of years ago on the far side of the galaxy, drops in, at thousands of kilometres per second, on a never-to-be-repeated trip through the precise area of space we happen to occupy at the time, smart counts for bugger all.

**The NASA view that they were simply big, aggressive, and/or dumb, while popular, might not be accurate. Dinosaurs were the dominant life form for 135 million years, but the view we have into dinosaur “society” is tiny and based on relatively few fossils (relatively few considering the time span), the interpretation of which is, well, open to interpretation. It’s not unknown for an entire creature to be posited from, say, a single knuckle bone, which has always struck me as being just a tad over-ambitious.

I’m not saying dinos were super-intelligent (though by the law of averages, some almost certainly must have been pretty bright, just as some primates could give some US presidents a run for their money), or had a space program – what I am saying is that even if they were, and did, we might never know, because the window we have into their 135 million year history is less than a pinhole in the wall of the British Museum. And most evidence of whatever dinosaurs did is gone forever. What we claim to know about them is mostly extrapolation from a relatively few facts. And extrapolation isn’t foolproof. An alien, for example, could never extrapolate the existence of, say, Tokyo, or London, from a cluster of grass huts in the African bush.