Periscope Depth

2011: the year in review

The astronomer raised his head from the eyepiece of his giant telescope and rubbed his eyes. He had checked all his figures and couldn’t escape the obvious conclusion.

“An asteroid is going to hit the Earth,” he said.

Picking up the phone, he called 911. “An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” he said.

“Out of our jurisdiction,” said the dispatcher. “Please stay on the line.”

He called FEMA. After several hours of transfers, he got a voice mail. “An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” he said. Then he hung up.

He called his representative in Congress. “An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” he said.

“Your Congressman shares your concern,” said a junior staffer. “He’s working with the other members of the Ruling Party to keep America strong. He’s grateful for your support in the next election.”

I need to think bigger, the astronomer thought (bigly), dialing the metro desk of his local newspaper. “An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” he said.

“Okay,” came the reply. “Let me schedule an interview for you next month. Also: do you know any people we can quote for opposing viewpoints? Just for a sense of balance.”

“There aren’t any opposing viewpoints,” the astronomer said. “The asteroid is actually going to hit. And is it my job to get these people?”

“I’m not really sure. I’m an intern. We’ve laid off, like, a lot of writers.”

Realizing that traditional means wouldn’t work, the astronomer set off to make a spectacle. He made the biggest sign he could comfortably carry and a thousand pamphlets and headed downtown to City Hall. Once there, after negotiating for space between the LaRouchies and the homeless guys, he hoisted his sign in the air.

“An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” he said.

An asteroid is going to hit the Earth.

Tens of thousands of people passed him on their way to work. Most dismissed him as crazy, because most people with signs outside City Hall are crazy. But a few stopped to listen. Those who did were treated to a quick but informative rundown of the astronomer’s observations. A few people joined him.

“An asteroid is going to hit the Earth!” they said.

By now, the astronomer and his friends were a big enough crowd to draw hecklers. “If there’s a real asteroid, why isn’t NASA doing anything about it?” someone yelled.

“I don’t know,” the astronomer replied. “I’m trying to make sure NASA hears about it!”

“Then why don’t you go to Houston, or wherever the hell NASA lives?”

“I can’t afford to! Could you go?” But the heckler had wandered off.

A few people believed the astronomer, but got offended at what he was saying. “So what if an asteroid is going to ‘hit the Earth’?” said one. “Screaming about it in the streets isn’t going to do anything. This country survived the Revolutionary War, the Great Depression and Bud Selig as commissioner of baseball. It can survive an asteroid.”

“An asteroid’s nothing like the Great Depression,” said the astronomer. “It’s an asteroid. And it affects the whole Earth. And I’m not screaming.”

Worse than the hecklers, though, were the well-intentioned critics. “It’s important that you’re bringing this to people’s attention,” said one science blogger. “But by protesting like some crazy hippie …”

“I’m not protesting,” said the astronomer.

“… you discredit the whole scientific community. You make us look irrational. What you need to do is publish your list of grievances as a letter in a reputable journal …”

“I don’t have grievances!”

“… and then submit a study for peer review.”

“Anyone can look at my data,” said the astronomer. “It’s on the web at I’m not doing this because I want publication; I’m doing this because I fear for the future of life on this planet.”

As more people reviewed and corroborated the astronomer’s data, the crowd outside City Hall grew. Frowning, the mayor put in a call to the Police Commissioner, who deployed a SWAT team.

“We respect your right to criticize the government,” said the Commissioner.

“I’m not criticizing!”

“… but local statutes forbid interest groups from occupying this privately-owned plaza immediately in front of City Hall without a permit.”

“I’m not an interest group,” the astronomer said. “Unless the entire human race is an interest group, because the entire human race might be in danger from this asteroid that is going to hit the Earth!”

The SWAT team drew their Tasers.

The violent crackdown on the astronomer and his two dozen followers got some media attention. “Scientists are taking to the streets,” said an Opposition Party candidate, “holding the Mayor accountable. And it’s about time. Our nation has lagged behind China, India and other shoe-producing countries in science education for far too long. Unless we make our children a priority, the 21st century is going to hit America like an asteroid!”

“The asteroid isn’t a metaphor,” the astronomer said. “It’s an actual asteroid that will hit the actual Earth.” But he wasn’t on camera, so nobody heard him.

Members of the Ruling Party were harsher. “In this time of economic crisis,” said a prominent Senator, “it’s irresponsible for anyone to suggest spending taxpayer dollars on some anti-meteor laser or giant force field. These are the sorts of boneheaded ideas that ivory tower academics produce all the time. The moral depravity of America’s universities continues to sicken me.”

“Who said anything about a laser?” the astronomer said. “Or a force field?” But a quick search uncovered similar protests in other cities, protests with very specific lists of demands. “Who are these guys?” he wondered.

As the circle of “Kum-Ba-Yah”-chanting protesters linked arms to prevent the SWAT team from dispersing the camp with non-lethal shotguns, a FEMA coordinator struggled through the crowd. He had played the astronomer’s voice mail from a week earlier and had finally caught up with him.

“I believe you,” he told the astronomer. “I checked the data with NORAD and it all makes sense. So now what?”

“I don’t know,” said the astronomer.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Aren’t you the leader of this movement? What’s your agenda? What’s your platform? Where are your bullet points?”

“It’s not a movement,” the astronomer said. “I don’t have an agenda.”

“Then what are you even doing here?”

Having delivered this speech several times over the last week, the astronomer was able to control his patience. “Look,” he said, “I’m an astronomer. I’m not an engineer or a civil defense coordinator or a paramedic. Those are the people who need to know about this asteroid that’s going to hit the Earth. But I can’t make them act.”

“I don’t think a paramedic will know how to deal with an asteroid hitting the Earth.”

“Probably not. But someone out there will, and if I keep saying this loud enough and for long enough, that person will hear this and think about it. And then they’ll come up with a solution. Failing that, if everybody accepts the fact that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth – because it is – then maybe people will start doing what they need to do to minimize the damage, instead of passing it off or pretending that traditional institutions are capable of dealing with it. I can’t make anyone do anything. All I can do is tell people what I know: that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth.”

“Makes sense,” the FEMA coordinator said. “Have you called your Congressperson?”

The astronomer started crying.

Meanwhile, the SWAT team had just received the order to move in. “It’s too bad,” said one officer, checking the non-lethal rounds in his non-lethal shotgun. “I sympathize with these guys, I really do. I mean, who wants to get hit by an asteroid?”

“I’m with you,” said his sergeant. “But we live in a society of laws. If you want someone to do something about an asteroid, you line up and vote like the rest of us.”

“Amen to that. Me and Sully are grabbing some beers after; you want in?”

“Nah, I’m gonna head home,” the sergeant said, looking up at the sky. “It got dark awful early today.”

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