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The Trouble With Meteors

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Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Phil Plait works up a pretty good lather in his TEDTalk, How to Defend Earth from Asteroids, about the dinosaur die off 65 million years ago.

Many scientists believe the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite six miles in diameter traveling fifty times faster than a speeding bullet. According to Mr. Plait, when it struck the Yucatan peninsula the meteorite not only left a crater 200 miles wide, it released more energy than if all the cold war's nuclear weapons were detonated at once. As a result, 75 percent of life on earth was wiped out. This is not a trivial event.

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But the dinosaur die off is small potatoes compared to the mass extinction which separated the Paleozoic from the Mesozoic era 252 million years ago. That event killed off approximately 96 percent of Earth's marine species, and 70 percent of her terrestrial vertebrates! In fact, it's the only mass extinction to have wiped out a huge number of insects which are considered pretty hearty creatures (just think of the cockroach).

It's possible a meteor caused or contributed to this extreme die off, nobody knows for sure. This is kind of alarming given it's the most severe extinction event known to man. Whatever the reason, it took life approximately ten million years to rebound.

Unfortunately for us, earth has experienced at least five mass extinctions during the past 540 million years. Some scientists believe it may be as many as twenty. In other words, mass extinction events are not uncommon.

But look at the upside. We are the product of such an event. If it weren't for a meteorite wiping out the dinosaurs, who's to say humans would have evolved into our current form?

Mr. Plait suggests we need to develop the technology to prevent future asteroid strikes, thereby avoiding another mass extinction. He cites the work of the B612 Foundation, a group I greatly admire and have written about as early as 2006 and as recently as last month. B612 is in the very early stages of developing the "Gravity Tug," an unmanned rocket designed to orbit an asteroid on a collision course with earth and gently redirect its trajectory. Pretty neat stuff.

Of course it's understandable why we'd want to prevent a mass extinction especially if it included us. But one has to ask, should we really interfere with the natural order of things?

For perspective, 98 percent of all documented species are extinct. What then makes us think we're so special? Just as lightning strikes promote new growth in old growth forests, meteors are the universe's way of hitting earth's reset button.

The National Park Service is the first to tell you there were all sorts of unintended consequences (most of them negative) when they stopped waiting for lightning strikes to clear old growth forests and began doing it themselves. Isn't warding off meteors the same thing? They've since stopped by the way. Maybe we should, too.

So, as much as I respect Mr. Plait's argument, let's not be selfish. What gives us the right to prevent evolution's next generation from taking center stage? We've had our chance. Perhaps some other life form should get its turn. Who knows? Maybe they'll even be smart enough to leave well enough alone.

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