Its in the movies. Its in the headlines. Its in our fears.
The end of the world.
In the rom-com Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve Carells character seeks to find an old love before a 70-mile-wide asteroid slams into Earth.
In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd talks about her own cosmophobia.
Then theres the Miami face eater. That has to be a sign of a Zombie Apocalypse, right?
There are a lot more amazing and fascinating things happening out there than the ones we make up, such as the Mayan calendar and all that stuff, says Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer who views such cases with both amusement and concern.
It sells movies, but theres no reality.
Tarter, 68, is calling from Californias SETI Institute, where she holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Tarter has devoted her career to discovering if we truly are alone in the universe.
In Contact, the 1997 movie based on Carl Sagans novel, the lead character played by Jodie Foster, Ellie Arroway, was a nod to Tarter. The character is Carl, Tarter says. Ellies experiences are mine.
Tarter is a real-life alien hunter who believes that movie aliens say more about us than they do about any threat. Contact, she says, would be a reason for hope, not fear.
If we detect a signal, we learn that its possible for us as a technological civilization to have a long future, she says. Detection tells you that its possible.
Forget Prometheus or Men in Black. The private, not-for-profit SETI Institute has discovered only a handful of false positives over the years that initially suggested E.T. was phoning home, or Earth, in this respect.
But what about those asteroids?
Its a real threat – theres a rock out there someplace with our name on it, Tarter says.
But we actually now are on the verge of (having the technology) that, if given advanced information, we could, in fact, do something.
But reality trumps any movie fears.
The laws of physics tell us that if we just change the velocity (of an asteroid) a tiny bit, then you can avoid a collision with the Earth, Tarter says. But political reality is that if an asteroid is going to ... hit Washington and you want to move it – you want it to miss Earth altogether – but now maybe that line takes it across London or Moscow or whatever.
Now, Tarter says, you have to deal with the scary political ramifications of asteroid defense.
And, she says, theres another side effect to humans response to a perceived space threat.
Tarters SETI colleague, Dr. David Morrison, who answers questions at NASAs Ask an Astrobiologist website, has had to debunk Internet stories about fictional killer planets (Nibiru) and December doomsdays.
All (such stories do) is sell movie tickets, and what could be bad about that? Tarter asks. The downside of this is that people who dont think enough for themselves get frightened and can take very harmful actions.
Tarter wishes we all would be more skeptical.
Its quite remarkable what humans are willing to believe without any evidence or data as part of the picture.
Well, that makes us feel better.