PLEASE NOTE:


*

CCNet 73/2003 - 12 September 2003
---------------------------------

"Will the Minister please explain when the 14 recommendations of that
task force will be implemented, and, if they have not been implemented,
why not?"
     --Lord Razzall, House of Lords, 11 Sept. 2003


"So far as I know, all the recommendations have been implemented
although there is a question in some cases of finding the funds
for the use of the particular telescopes which have been allocated."
     --Lord Sainsbury, House of Lords, 11 Sept. 2003


I'm afraid the Science Minister was ill-advised in his response to the
House of Lords and appears to have misled Parliament unwittingly.
     --Benny Peiser, 12 Sept. 2003


(1) HAS BRITISH SCIENCE MINISTER MISLED PARLIAMENT?

(2) NEO DEBATE IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS

(3) GOVERNMENT WARNED ON NATURE'S WMDs

(4) BRIAN MARSDEN PROPOSES EFFECTIVE CHANGES TO NEO RISK COMMUNICATION

(5) QQ47 BACKLASH: "NEAR EARTH, BUT FAR OUT"

(6) SPACEGUARD'S SPIRITUS RECTOR AND THE 9/11 NEO IMPACT

(7) DON'T IGNORE SMALLEST ASTEROIDS, COMETS

(8) RE: EINSTEIN, SZILARD & TELLER ON HITLER AND THE BOMB

(9) AND FINALLY: "LET'S HOPE THEY GIVE US TIME TO PANIC WHEN DOOMSDAY COMES"


=============
(1) HAS BRITISH SCIENCE MINISTER MISLED PARLIAMENT?

Benny Peiser <b.j.peiser@livjm.ac.uk>

Yesterday afternoon, once again, the House of Lords debated issues
surrounding the NEO hazard. The second chamber also addressed questions
about the Government's activities in response to the UK Task Force Report
on Near Earth Objects.

To my disappointment, yesterday's debate was somewhat spoilt by an
obsolete first question. It was indeed a bad start to a generally
poor debate when the chairman of the Astronomy and Space Environment
Group, Lord Tanlaw, asked the Government "whether asteroid 2003/QQ47
will pose a threat to United Kingdom citizens on 21st March 2014."

I don't know whether Lord Tanlaw's superseded question was due to
poor advice he had received on QQ47, or whether he was just another
victim of the press who predominantly failed to withdraw the 2014
scare. Whatever the case, I cannot imagine that he had to submit his
(outdated) question to the Science Minister a week in advance, i.e.
when the QQ47 scare was still widely reported.

While Lord Tanlaw's 'own goal' undoubtedly wrong-footed his whole case,
Lord Sainsbury's eagerness to make light of it seems to have backfired.
In fact, it would appear that he may have misled Parliament.

As last speaker in the brief NEO session, the Liberal Democrat peer,
Lord Razzall, asked the Science Minister:

"My Lords, while I recognise that this topic inevitably has an air of
science fiction tinged with the humour so beloved of your Lordships,
will the Minister please recognise that his task force to which he
referred indicated in its last report that the risk of a near Earth
object hitting the Earth was certain? Will the Minister please
explain when the 14 recommendations of that task force will be
implemented, and, if they have not been implemented, why not?"

Here is what Lord Sainsbury answered in response:

"My Lords, as I said, there is a risk. It is a very small risk but
nevertheless it is a very serious one because if such an incident
happened, the implications would be very great. So far as I know,
all the recommendations have been implemented although there is a
question in some cases of finding the funds for the use of the
particular telescopes which have been allocated. I shall meet with
the task force in October to review the position and to consider the
progress made."

Now, this answer is evidently incorrect in that the first, and most
important recommendation of the NEO Task Force has not been implemented.

Lord Sainsbury's reference to the funding of "the particular telescopes
which have been allocated" obviously refers to the allocation of existing
UK telescopes that have been considered for reactivation.

Clearly, it is not a reference to the funding of a new 3-meter NEO
telescope dedicated for the search of small asteroid, as recommended
unambiguously by the NEO Task Force:

"We recommend that the Government should seek partners, preferably in
Europe, to build in the southern hemisphere an advanced new 3 metre-
class survey telescope for surveying substantially smaller objects
than those now systematically observed by other telescopes. The
telescope should be dedicated to work on Near Earth Objects and be
located on an appropriate site."
(http://www.nearearthobjects.co.uk/report/summary_of_recommendations.htm)

Not only has this recommendation not been implemented. It has never
been advanced. As a matter of fact, there have never been *any* attempts by
the Government to lobby for or build an advanced new 3 metre-class survey
telescope. All that has been done so far is to assess whether some
old, mothballed and inadequate telescopes may be used for follow-up.
There have been neither plans drawn nor decisions taken to seek partners
to build the dedicated NEO telescope. In none of the various meeting between
UK and European space officials has this recommendation been pushed or
tabled. It's simply not on the agenda, let alone "implemented", as Lord
Sainsbury claims.

I'm afraid the Science Minister was ill-advised in his response to the
House of Lords and appears to have misled Parliament unwittingly.

Benny Peiser

=========
(2) NEO DEBATE IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS

House of Lords, 11 September 2003, 3p.m.
http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199697/ldhansrd/pdvn/lds03/text/30911-12.htm#30911-12_star1

POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS NEAR EARTH OBJECTS

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the
Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as the founder chairman of the
Astronomy and Space Environment Group.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether asteroid 2003/QQ47 will pose a threat to
United Kingdom citizens on 21st March 2014 and why a potentially hazardous near
Earth object of this size had not been identified sooner.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, calculations have shown that there will be
no threat to United Kingdom citizens from asteroid 2003/QQ47 in 2014. The next
potential impact of this asteroid will be in 2058 with a currently estimated threat
of one-

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I have not given noble Lords the statistics yet.
The next potential impact of this asteroid will be in 2058 with a currently estimated
threat of one in 8,333,000. The reason a potentially hazardous near Earth object of that
size was not identified sooner is that there is an enormous amount of space to look at.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, that is why the international space community
is focusing on ways to improve detection.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for Science for his reply. I note that
the "giggle" factor as regards this subject is still alive and well. Could this category
of near Earth object be described as one of nature's missiles of mass destruction which
could pose a far greater threat to British citizens than any material discovered under
the sands of Iraq? Therefore, could not the funds presently allocated to the search for
Saddam's elusive weapons of mass destruction be more gainfully employed by implementing
the 14 recommendations listed in the task force report on potentially hazardous near Earth objects dated September 2000? Does the Minister agree that such a policy could reduce the
number of false alarms, increase the lead time for national mitigation procedures to be established and allow an effective global asteroid deflection programme to be put in place?
Will he say-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, noble Lords have had their fun laughing at this Question. What
would be the minimum time required to launch a proven asteroid deflection programme?
Could it be in place before 21st March 2014, supposing the threat of impact from asteroid 2003/QQ47 became a reality?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, this is a more interesting subject than
occasionally is thought. There is clearly a risk. That is why I set up the task force
in January 2000 to look at the whole issue. We are pursuing a policy of trying to get
the matter on to the international agenda because it is clearly an international
issue. Nevertheless, one must keep the issue in proportion. So far as we can make out
there has never been anyone killed as yet by an asteroid. Dinosaurs may have been but
not people. There has yet to be such an incident. The chances of that happening are
still extremely remote-one in 800 million. That is a very small probability. The only
probability that comes anywhere near that that I can find is one in 1.5 million,
which is the risk of dying in one's bath. So these are very remote possibilities.
We should not spend too much time worrying about them.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, with regard to the Minister's first response, what
is being done to predict more accurately the risks posed by long period comets
where advanced warning may be as short as one year?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the only way in which the matter can be dealt
with is by an international effort. As I say, the UK has taken a lead both in the
OECD workshop and in the United Nations Action Team. We hope that we shall be able
to get the matter on to the agenda of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses
of Outer Space and in that way have a system which will give us the earliest
possible warning.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, while I recognise that this topic inevitably has an air
of science fiction tinged with the humour so beloved of your Lordships, will the
Minister please recognise that his task force to which he referred indicated in
its last report that the risk of a near Earth object hitting the Earth was certain?
Will the Minister please explain when the 14 recommendations of that task force
will be implemented, and, if they have not been implemented, why not?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as I said, there is a risk. It is a very
small risk but nevertheless it is a very serious one because if such an incident
happened, the implications would be very great. So far as I know, all the recommendations
have been implemented although there is a question in some cases of finding the funds
for the use of the particular telescopes which have been allocated. I shall meet with
the task force in October to review the position and to consider the progress made.

Copyright 2003, Hansard

=============
(3) GOVERNMENT WARNED ON NATURE'S WMDs

The Scotsman, 11 September 2003
http://www.news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=1921408

By Andrew Evans, Lords Staff, PA News

Money and effort used to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would
be better spent improving systems of detection and deflection of asteroids, the
Government was told today.

Crossbencher Lord Tanlaw, founder chairman of the Astronomy and Space Environment
Group, described such near-Earth objects as "nature's missiles of mass destruction".

But science minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville replied at Lords question time that
chances of recently discovered asteroid 2003/QQ47 hitting the Earth in 2058 were put
at one in 833 million.

Contrary to earlier reports, there was "no threat" to the UK in 2014.

Lord Tanlaw said an asteroid would "pose a far greater threat to British citizens
than any material discovered under the sands of Iraq".

He suggested "funds presently allocated to the search for Saddam's elusive weapons
of mass destruction be more gainfully employed" by implementing recommendations of
a report on potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

Lord Sainsbury, stressing they were being implemented, replied: "As far as we can
make out, there has never been anyone as yet killed by an asteroid - dinosaurs maybe,
but people not.

"These are very remote possibilities and I don't think we should spend too much
time worrying about them."

The Scotsman

============
(4) BRIAN MARSDEN PROPOSES EFFECTIVE CHANGES TO NEO RISK COMMUNICATION

Brian G. Marsden <brian@cfaps5.cfa.harvard.edu>

INTERPRETING SHORT-ARC ORBITS

     Following up the remarks I made in CCNet on Monday, as well as the
excellent comments from other correspondents concerning the inadequacies of
the Torino Scale, I should like to make a suggestion that is both
constructive and easy to apply, given that the situation during the past couple
of weeks involving 2003 QQ47 has resulted in a broad appreciation that the
Torino Scale can be particularly fallible if it is applied to a case when
the observations cover only a few days.

     What one should consider is the _ratio_ of the time interval spanned by
the observations to the time interval remaining until a potential impact. 
For example, if the observations span one week and the impact possibility
is in a little over 10.5 years (or about 550 weeks) in the future (as it was
when the 2003 QQ47 story broke), the ratio would be about 1:550.  And when
the impact possibility for 2003 QO104 in May 2009, only 5.7 years (2080 days)
in the future, made its final appearance and the observed arc was eight days,
the corresponding ratio was 1:260. 

     If, in early March 1998, when the observations of (35396) 1997 XF11
covered a little under three months, there really had been a possibility of
earth impact in October 2028, the ratio of the times would have been about
1:130.  If we had known enough then (before the 1990 observations were found
and made the object safe) to consider that there was clearly an impact
possibility for this object in 2040, that ratio would have been more like
1:180.  On the other hand, the case of 1997 XR2, lost after being observed
for 28 days but appearing perpetually on the risk pages at Torino Scale 1 for
a putative event in 2101, currently weighs in at a paltry 1:1300.

     Contrast the above figures, ranging from 1:1300 to 1:130, with the
figures for (29075) 1950 DA and its impact possibility in 2880, 877 years from
now--and the observations span some 53 years.  Here the ratio is as high
as 1:17.  Clearly, this is a much more intriguing case than any of the
others mentioned above!  Another rather good case is 2000 SG344, the probable
old rocket casing with observations spanning some 17 months.  The moderately
high impact possibilities in 2070 and 2071 yield ratios around 1:50.  It's
perhaps just as well that the 2030 impact possibility initially touted for
this object went away, for if it hadn't, we should have to contend with a
ratio of 1:20.  This earlier calculation was from the same total observed arc,
but the incorporation of additional data significantly improved the
distribution of the observations, a point that in this case indeed made the
difference between impact probabilities of 1 in 500 and truly zero.  It is
also worth noting that, if by some chance we have still not found 1997 XR2 by
mid-2100, just one year before its impact possibility, the
observation-span/time-remaining ratio would then be 1:13.    

     This brings up the point that, if we have had under observation for 24
hours a new discovery that may hit us in 48 hours more, the ratio would be
1:2.  Tomorrow, when we have observed it for 48 hours and only 24 hours
remain, the ratio would be 2:1.

     How large does the time ratio have to be in order for us to take impact
possibilities seriously?  That is a good question!  If we've had something
under observation for a week, and there's an impact possibility in two years,
that's, say, 1:100.  Perhaps that is a reasonable rule-of-thumb value for us
to pay attention to any situation, but the obvious thing to do here is make
observations for another week, and then to see if the impact possibility is
still there--and the ratio is 1:50 (or actually 1:49.5).  Of course, there is
also the question of whether we can actually mitigate against an impact in
two years, as opposed to 30 years, or to nine centuries, but this is a
separate issue.

     In addition to monitoring the time ratio, we do of course need to
watch the impact probability, for if that eventually vanishes, there is
obviously nothing to worry about.  And that's really all that is needed, for
even the Palermo Scale is weighted according to the size of the hazardous
object, or specifically according to the energy of any impact we propose to
prevent from happening.  (What is important, surely, is the energy required
to _mitigate against_ an earth impact.)  But the Palermo Scale does at least
also weight up impact possibilities that arise soon, as opposed to a century
or more away.

     We are now promised, it appears, a revision of the Torino Scale.  Can
it in fact be appropriately revised?  Certainly, I suppose the words that go
with it can be "sexed up" (or, better, down), but the simple use of probability
versus energy is obviously rather meaningless--as Konrad Ebisch remarked in
CCNet on Wednesday, in describing Torino as the "Fruit Salad" scale.  If all
else fails, and numbers with two decimal places are somehow considered too
complicated for the press to handle, could not the "new" Torino Scale figures
perhaps simply be the Palermo Scale numbers rounded up to the next higher
integer, starting with zero?  Anything that is Palermo negative would then be
Torino zero (as would anything with absolute magnitude fainter than 26.5 and
likely to burn up high in the atmosphere).  With a slightly positive Palermo
value for a while, 2002 NT7 would be the sole case to have so far reached
Torino 1.  Palermo +9.01 might be a trifle improbable, but then so would be
Torino 10, which could also be applied to all Palermo cases that are larger
than +10.00.  O.K.: these may not be the best adjustments, but Torino numbers
computed along these general lines, coupled with the ratios of the time
intervals discussed here, would seem far preferable to what we have now.
    
Brian G. Marsden

==========
(5) QQ47 BACKLASH: "NEAR EARTH, BUT FAR OUT"

Spiked online, 5 September 2003
http://www.spiked-online.com/Printable/00000006DF00.htm
 
by Joe Kaplinsky

The asteroid 2003 QQ47 has made a bigger impact across the world's media than it is
ever likely to make colliding with the planet.

It was first spotted by scientists at the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Programme
in New Mexico on 24 August 2003. Racing through space at 75,000 miles per hour and
weighing 2600million tons, if it collided with Earth it would hit with the force of
20million Hiroshima bombs. Based on one week's observation, scientists were unable to
rule out a collision in 2014. Some of the headlines that followed included: 'Armageddon
set for March 21, 2014', 'Asteroid could blast us back to dark ages'. and the more
direct 'Earth is doomed' (1).

Sounds scary. But in fact, there is no reason to think that 2003 QQ47 will collide with
Earth. Calculating the precise location of an asteroid in over a decade's time is a
tricky problem. From one week's data it is often hard to tell which side of the sun it
will land up on, let alone whether it will collide with our planet. So scientists did not
issue a warning - they posted a notice to a website calling for observations to more accurately
pin down the asteroid's position and velocity. Further observations have already downgraded
the risk of collision, and should soon rule it out all together.

So is this just another case of media sensationalism? Not quite. The headlines were
triggered by what must be the most bizarre branch of the British state: the Near Earth
Objects (NEO) Information Centre. The UK government has an office dedicated to warning
the public about the threat posed by asteroids and comets. Of all the institutions thrown
up by the system of organised paranoia under which we are governed, this has to be one of
the strangest. It was a press release from the NEO Information Centre that transformed
2003 QQ47 from a posting on an obscure website into a global threat (2).

It is understandable that some astronomers are obsessed by asteroids. They spend their
lives investigating, thinking about, and searching for them. No doubt they also spend more
time than the rest of us considering the risk of collision. There is nothing wrong in that;
after all, developing true expertise often requires dedication to subjects of seemingly
little relevance to everyday life.

But what is more worrying is what society has drawn out from the astronomers' investigations,
and the direction we push them in. When astronomers got together to create a 'Torino scale'
for communicating the risk of asteroid impacts to the public, it was a product of their
own insecurities, not public demand (3). A more forward-looking society would just have
ignored the Torino scale and demanded instead that astronomers educate us about the
amazing discoveries and possibilities for exploration in space. Instead, the government
has treated it as a profoundly important initiative.

Setting up the NEO Information Centre was part of the government's crusade for transparency.
The aim of the press release that triggered the 2003 QQ47 scare was clearly to head off an
'asteroidgate' in 2014, when it comes out in emails that ministers knew about the risk of
a collision as far back as 2003. In a sheepish press release announcing the downgrading of
the risk from 2003 QQ47, NEO's Kevin Yates defended the original story by claiming that
'openly sharing this sort of information, in a none [sic] sensationalist way, should help
to dispel the popular myth that governments and astronomers would keep the discovery
of a dangerous asteroid secret' (4).

Yet the thing most likely to generate 'popular myths' about asteroid cover-ups, is the
eccentric mission of the NEO Information Centre. Trying to figure out why such an obviously
unnecessary body exists might easily drive people to conspiracy theories.
 
Read on:

Rocking our world?, by Joe Kaplinsky

(1) Earth is doomed, Daily Record, 3 September 2003; Asteroid Heading for Earth,
May Hit in 2014, Reuters, 2 September 2003; Asteroid could blast us back to dark ages,
3 September 2003, Mirror, 3 September 2003

(2) Potentially Hazardous Asteroid given Torino 1 rating, Near Earth Objects Information Centre, 2 September 2003

(3) See the Torino Scale section of the NASA Asteroid Comet Impact Hazards website

(4) Latest on 2003 QQ47, Near Earth Objects Information Centre, 3 September 2003
 
Copyright 2003, Spiked Online

============== Letters =============

(6) SPACEGUARD'S SPIRITUS RECTOR AND THE 9/11 NEO IMPACT

Sir Arthur C Clarke, Sri Lanka

Dear Benny,

Would you remind the team leaders of the NASA NEO Report that I invented the name
SPACEGUARD, thirty years ago in RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA - which opens on TODAY's
(WORLD TRADE CENTER!) date with the worst catastrophe in human history....
But I guess we should be grateful to the comet/asteroid that gave us a
chance, by removing the competition some 65,000,000 years ago.

Haven't touched THE LAST THEOREM for weeks - waiting for DRAGON DICTATE -
at least that's my excuse...

Best

Arthur     11 Sept 03

=============
(7) DON'T IGNORE SMALLEST ASTEROIDS, COMETS

Jens Kieffer-Olsen <dstdba@post4.tele.dk>

Dear Benny Peiser,

The Space.com article on Nasa's long overdue report on NEA detection includes
the following paragraph: 

"Astronomers broadly agree that by finding 90 percent of all NEO's 140 meters
and larger would answer, one way or the other, whether Earth is due for an impact
anytime in the foreseeable future. Even smaller objects can cause local
damage, but most analysts agree they are too numerous to warrant the investment
of precious financial resources anytime soon."

Let's hope those analysts will soon be outnumbered by those who disagree!
In fact, the NASA report makes a point out of emphasizing that over 60% of NEAs greater
than 50m will be detected. It seems safe to conclude therefore that data from
dwarf asteroids smaller than 140m will constitute a majority of data collected,
and that their orbits will require a majority of observation time to refine.

The NASA report makes no mention of objects smaller than 50m, but the airburst from
such a small meteorite could easily wreak more havoc on Manhattan than the hijacked
airplanes two years ago. I feel confident that the hunt across the 30m - 50m size
range will be the subject of a follow-up program for the years after 2028.

The weak part of the NASA report is, as Ed Grondine described it, the apathy with
which it faces the threat from comets. How great a percentage of the residual risk from
>1km objects stems from comets? How can the objects in that size range be deemed
100% detected, if comets are excluded? The report expects that the new search
programme will lead to a guaranteed six-months warning time for comets, but is
that so? I fear not, since the asteroid search is likely to concentrate on the
skies near the ecliptical plane. But stray rocks traversing interstellar space
may arrive from any direction.

Let's not commit the same mistake as sultan Mohammad in Persia in 1219,
when he considered the Pamir mountains a 'safe' border not worthy of a
defence force, only to be overrun by Genghis Khan's horsemen.

Yours sincerely
Jens Kieffer-Olsen, M.Sc.(Elec.Eng.)
Slagelse, Denmark

===========
(8) RE: EINSTEIN, SZILARD & TELLER ON HITLER AND THE BOMB

David Fisher <dfisher@miami.edu>

In the article, "(5) EINSTEIN, SZILARD & TELLER ON HITLER AND THE BOMB", you
wrote " Eventually, the U.S. recognised that Hitler had to be defeated by
American military force and entered the war."

That's not exactly how it happened. We didn't "enter" the war voluntarily. 
The attack on Pearl Harbor was recognized as an act of war committed by Japan,
and our reply was to declare that "a state of war exists" between us and Japan. 
Japan, not Germany. Then Hitler declared war on us! It's not clear that we
would have done anything against Nazi Germany at the time, but instead would
have gone to war solely with Japan.  Hitler was honoring his pact with Japan
at the time, but it's not clear why he did so since he was only obligated to
join Japan if she was attacked, not if she initiated the war. Also, of course,
Hitler had no history of honoring any treaty obligations.  Luckily for all of
us, he was not only a sociopathic monster but also an idiot.

david fisher

MODERATOR'S NOTE: That was actually my point: The U.S. entered the war
against Nazi Germany reluctantly and against popular opposition. It was
bellicists like Einstein, Szilard, Teller and a minority of other
far-sighted people who argued that Hitler had to be stopped. BP

===========
(9) AND FINALLY: "LET'S HOPE THEY GIVE US TIME TO PANIC WHEN DOOMSDAY COMES"

Chicago Sun-Times, 11 September 2003
http://www.suntimes.com/output/wiser/cst-ftr-paige11.html

BY PAIGE WISER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

This is a bad date. September 11th will always mean September 11th, no matter what happens on this day in years to come. It is also the birthday of Harry Connick Jr., Moby and my brother's friend John, but that doesn't mitigate much.

It's the worst of all the bad dates: Jan. 8 (the Brown's Chicken Massacre). Feb. 3 (the day the music died). April 15 (tax day). April 19 (the Waco murders, the Oklahoma bombings). April 20 (the shootings at Columbine, Hitler's birthday). Aw, let's go ahead and declare April a bad month.

Aug. 9 (the first of the Manson killings). Aug. 22 (the release date of "My Boss's Daughter").

I could go on -- but over the last month or so, I've experienced a brand-new, building sense of terror. Last week, I thought I'd finally hit upon what the problem was. It turned out to be tied to another date: March 21, 2014.

That was the day, grim scientists reported, that asteroid 2003 QQ47, currently traveling at about 20 miles per second, MIGHT strike the earth. It would have an impact 20 million times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In other words, and I'm loosely paraphrasing here, that MIGHT be THE DAY THE WORLD ENDS.

After I read that in the newspaper, I quietly tore out the article, got under the kitchen table and waited for my neighbors to start rioting. This is it, I thought: Maybe one more good decade, and then -- WHAMMO.

Was it the work of terrorists? Almost certainly.

But hours later, as night fell and my legs started to cramp, it began to occur to me that perhaps martial law hadn't been declared. My mailbox hadn't even been vandalized.

It was very quiet.

I was very disappointed.

It's been like that lately. Something horrible happens, and the public reacts with grace and dignity. The explosion of the shuttle Columbia, the enormous blackout -- by and large, America rose to the occasion and got through it with strength.

(Notable exception: Courtney Love, who threw a tantrum when her lights went out in New York and Virgin Records neglected to send a limo to rescue her.)

In the case of QQ47, the majority of the country was right: It was no big deal. The meteorite would, in all probability, miss us. "The odds are very, very low," a London researcher told the BBC. "We have to keep some kind of perspective."

That's exactly the kind of statement that freaks me out. But at last report, there was just a 1 in 909,000 chance that QQ47 would flatten the northwest suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Advisory System stands at yellow. Which is exactly how I feel.

Regular readers of the Bible know that there will be an Apocalypse one day, and that there will be a few hints beforehand. I can't remember exactly what the clues are supposed to be (Note to self: Rent Demi Moore's "The Seventh Sign"), but I can take a stab at it:

Flesh-eating bacteria? The Cubs and Sox, both in a pennant race? The fact that Osama bin Laden is still holed up in a safe house somewhere, watching game show reruns? Jamie Kennedy's book deal? President Bush applying for an $87 billion line of credit, when he can barely make the minimum monthly payments?

Am I the only one putting this all together?

Maybe, for me, Sept. 11 will always feel like Doomsday. It was the day that I witnessed unimaginable horror, senseless slaughter -- literally the end of the world for thousands, and figuratively for the loved ones they left behind. All via satellite.

Many people will mourn today. Others will look to the future.

But I don't want to keep "some kind of perspective." When the end comes, won't we wish we'd taken the time to panic?

It could be that the rest of you are too optimistic to worry about tragedies yet to come. But think about this: While it's unlikely that QQ47 will obliterate the planet, there are still hundreds of uncharted space rocks out there. It's only a matter of time before one finishes the job.

I'll just keep waiting for the other asteroid to drop.

Copyright 2003, Chicago Sun-Times

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