Results for “asteroid”
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The Destruction from an Asteroid Strike

The Day the Dinosaurs Died is an amazing tale of scientific discovery. You should read the whole thing. One sub-point, however, is a vivid description of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The asteroid was vaporized on impact. Its substance, mingling with vaporized Earth rock, formed a fiery plume, which reached halfway to the moon before collapsing in a pillar of incandescent dust. Computer models suggest that the atmosphere within fifteen hundred miles of ground zero became red hot from the debris storm, triggering gigantic forest fires. As the Earth rotated, the airborne material converged at the opposite side of the planet, where it fell and set fire to the entire Indian subcontinent. Measurements of the layer of ash and soot that eventually coated the Earth indicate that fires consumed about seventy per cent of the world’s forests. Meanwhile, giant tsunamis resulting from the impact churned across the Gulf of Mexico, tearing up coastlines, sometimes peeling up hundreds of feet of rock, pushing debris inland and then sucking it back out into deep water, leaving jumbled deposits that oilmen sometimes encounter in the course of deep-sea drilling.

…The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phytoplankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999 per cent of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.

…One of the authors of the 1991 paper, David Kring, was so frightened by what he learned of the impact’s destructive nature that he became a leading voice in calling for a system to identify and neutralize threatening asteroids. “There’s no uncertainty to this statement: the Earth will be hit by a Chicxulub-size asteroid again, unless we deflect it,” he told me. “Even a three-hundred-metre rock would end world agriculture.”

When the asteroid hit it unleashed the energy of a billion Hiroshimas, that’s one reason I support foundations like the B612 Foundation who are working to map asteroids and develop systems to protect our world. As Tyler and I point out in textbook, protection from asteroids is a true public good which is one reason why we aren’t spending enough on this project.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

More on Asteroid Defense

In a very good piece on the risk from asteroids the Washington Post quotes me going all crunchy-granola:

Tabarrok says his hope is that private efforts in space will one day soon focus on mining asteroids for valuable resources. If you have miners and private developers working with asteroids in space, that could inadvertently make it easier to defend the planet against an asteroid collision.

And of course, there is the option that people on Earth could somehow get the motivation to work together, and asteroid defense might ultimately be a reason for unifying the world, says Tabarrok.

“The idea that the whole planet is potentially under threat from an asteroid does make us think that the world is our home, and we’re all in this together – Spaceship Earth, to get a little crunchy granola. And that makes us think a little more about our fellow travelers, our fellow world residents, that we’re all in this together.”

I may have to turn in my hard-headed economist card.

Asteroid Deflection as a Public Good

I wrote this post over the weekend but given Paul Samuelson's classic contribution to public goods theory and to economic textbooks it seems to also fit today.

In Modern Principles we use asteroid deflection as our example of a public good.  Aside from memorability, the example has two virtues as a teaching tool.  First, asteroid deflection is a true public good for all of humanity which raises free riding issues on a worldwide scale.  Second, asteroid deflection is an example of a public good that is currently provided neither by the market nor by government. Thus the example underlines the fact that public goods are defined by their characteristics–nonexcludability and nonrivalry–and not by whether they are publicly provided, a point of confusion for many students.

The example may seem fanciful but Tyler and I are quite serious about the
importance of asteroid deflection.  Large asteroid hits are rare but if
a large asteroid does hit, billions will be killed.  As a result, sober calculations suggest that the lifetime risk of dying from an asteroid strike is about the same as the risk of dying in a commercial airplane crash.  Yet we spend far less on avoiding the former risk than the latter.

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences discusses efforts to detect near earth objects (NEOs).  Progress is mixed:

The United States is currently the only country with an active, government-sponsored effort to
detect and track potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs)…
Congress has mandated that NASA detect and track 90 percent of NEOs that are 1 kilometer in diameter
or larger. These objects represent a great potential hazard to life on Earth and could cause global
destruction. NASA is close to accomplishing this goal.

Congress has more recently mandated that by
2020 NASA should detect and track 90 percent of NEOs that are 140 meters in diameter or larger, a
category of objects that is generally recognized to represent a very significant threat to life on Earth if
they strike in or near urban areas….The administration has not requested and Congress has not
appropriated new funds to meet this objective….[Thus] the current near-Earth object surveys cannot meet the goals of the 2005 NASA
Authorization Act…

Moreover, detection is only the first step towards deflection.

As a classroom discussion starter I like the video embedded below.  The jovial attitude of the announcers contrasts amusingly with the topic while subtly illustrating some of our biases in perception yet the video does cover the main points about the worldwide risk, the fact that asteroid deflection is a public good and it hints at the free rider problem.  I do doubt the bit about the riches available from asteroid mining.  Enjoy.

How to stop an asteroid

A mission to smash into a space rock to deflect it and study its structure has been given priority over five other potential asteroid projects by the European Space Agency…Scientists don’t know enough about asteroid insides to predict how one would respond to attempts to nudge it off an Earth-impact course or turn it into harmless dust. While no asteroids are currently known to be on track to hit the planet, experts say a regional catastrophe is inevitable in the very long run– over millennia. And run-ins with small asteroids that could incinerate a large city occur ever few thousand years.

It’s nice to see the Europeans supplying a global public good of this kind.

…the mission could launch in five to six years.

Don Quijote [the project’s name, probably not a political winner] is similar to NASA’s Deep Impact mission, which is slated to fling a small probe at a comet on July 4, 2005.

Here is the full story. Here is Alex’s earlier post on asteroid deflection as a public good. And the ever-insightful Randall Parker offers further commentary.


Ironically, we spend very little on one of the few public goods that I support, asteroid detection and deflection. Even among the strange group that I interact with, this predilection of mine about avoiding asteroids is considered a little odd. But consider that the probability of being killed by an asteroid collision is about the same as being killed in a commercial airplane disaster – small, but all of humanity is aboard that plane.

Assuming there are enough of us around after a hit, I can just see the commission now.

Q. Why was our government woefully unprepared to prevent the deaths of millions of citizens and world-wide devastation?

A. We had only vague, historical information.

Q. What about 2002 EM7?

A. That was a previous administration.

Q. What about 2004 FH

A. NASA did not provide us with a specific threat.

Q. Didn’t you know about Tunguska?

A. That was a foreign threat.

Much more information, with plenty of references, comes from Randall Parker, the far-seeing Future Pundit, who actually works on things like asteroid detection.

Sunday assorted links

From the comments, on alien visitation

…it looks like Avi Loeb (Harvard astronomer) is writing a book that will argue that we have been visited by aliens.

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star.

In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.

That is from Josh P.  And here is the Amazon link.

How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.

Friday assorted links

1. Shoplifters’ forum with discussion topics, some involving the idea of arbitrage.

2. Unconventional strategies for practicing Spanish.

3. The culture that is Sweden? Cook criticized for making food that is too tasty.

4. The culture that is (near) Maldon, Essex.

5. My two most read Bloomberg columns were on UFOs and Boomers.

6. Redux of a 2008 post: “For the people caught up in these intellectual traps, it all boils down to which groups of whiners they find most objectionable.”

*The Case for Space*

The author is Robert Zubrin and the subtitle is How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.  I found this book fun, ambitious, and informative, even if I was not entirely convinced.  Zubrin thinks big and bold in an exciting way, here is one bit:

Exploring Mars requires no miraculous new technologies, no orbiting spaceports, and no gigantic interplanetary space cruisers.  We can establish our first small outpost on Mars within a decade.

There is not much talk of the stress space (or for that matter life on Mars) might place on the human body.  Zubrin talks of Mars tours of four or six years or more.

Yet my biggest difference with Zubrin is this: I think of space and planetary exploration as presenting many surprising and difficult problems, ones which cannot be foreseen and fixed in advance by stocking a spacecraft with “just the right materials.”  There are many sentences like this:

Mobile microwave units will be used to extract water from Mars’s abundant permafrost, supporting such agriculture and making possible the manufacture of large amounts of brick and concrete…

But when the problem of missing parts arises, or perhaps missing links between systems, you can’t run to the local hardware store.  Try this one too:

Extracting the He3 from the atmospheres of the giant planets will be difficult, but not impossible.  What is required is a winged transatmospheric vehicle that can use a planet’s atmosphere for propellant, heating it in a nuclear reactor to produce thrust.

My other worry is that if we do not find it profitable to inhabit rural Nevada, Mars might stay empty as well.  Zubrin does make a detailed economic case for the value of space, though to my eye much of it falls on satellites.  Asteroids have valuable minerals, such as uranium, and that might spur mining operations, powered by nuclear fusion.  But is that really the cheapest way to get more uranium, in any case I suspect its price and value would fall rapidly with quantity.

Zubrin puts forward the interesting hypothesis that life in space will encourage a great deal of political freedom:

Historically, the easiest people for a tyrant to oppress are nominally self-sufficient rural peasants, because none of them are individually essential…In a space colony, nearly everyone will be individually essential, and therefore powerful, and all will be capable of being dangerous to those in authority.

Hard to verify, but worth a ponder.

Under another scenario, arks full of large, smart salamanders, genetically programmed to build incubators by instinct, will settle the galaxy at “a speed exceeding 20 percent the speed of light.”

There are many interesting ancillary points, such as using the length of the growing season to estimate global warming, or how pp.284-285 offer an ambitious take on the spin-off benefits from the space program so far, or pp.294-295 on exactly why taking out an asteroid with bombs is so hard.

With plenty of caveats of course, but recommended, the author of this one is never coasting.

Tuesday assorted links

Blockchains in Space!

As far as I can tell, this is Not From the Onion.

Blockchain venture production studio ConsenSys, Inc. has acquired the pioneering space company Planetary Resources, Inc. through an asset-purchase transaction. Planetary Resources’ President & CEO Chris Lewicki and General Counsel Brian Israel have joined ConsenSys in connection with the acquisition.

…Ethereum Co-founder and ConsenSys Founder Joe Lubin said, “I admire Planetary Resources for its world class talent, its record of innovation, and for inspiring people across our planet in support of its bold vision for the future. Bringing deep space capabilities into the ConsenSys ecosystem reflects our belief in the potential for Ethereum to help humanity craft new societal rule systems through automated trust and guaranteed execution. And it reflects our belief in democratizing and decentralizing space endeavors to unite our species and unlock untapped human potential. We look forward to sharing our plans and how to join us on this journey in the months ahead.”

As Eli Dourado quipped, cryptocurrency mining, asteroid mining, pretty much the same thing, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Oumuamua and the Fermi paradox

“Where are they?”, cried out Enrico Fermi in anguish.  We have wondered ever since.  In spite of some subsequent refinements, I still find the Fermi paradox a…paradox.  Where are they?

Now, Oumuamua comes along…

And furthermore:

The object’s trajectory is so strange and its speeds are so blistering that it probably did not originate from within our solar system. Its discoverers concluded that the object is a rare interstellar traveler from beyond our solar system, the first object of its kind observed by humans.

So what do the academics say?

“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.

Given the Fermi paradox, shouldn’t we assume a fairly high probability this is in fact some form of alien contact or display?  It’s like when you are expecting a package from UPS and then finally the doorbell rings…

So I’m excited, even though I don’t see much of a chance of a visit.  p = 0.3?  I need to crack open those old Arthur C. Clarke novels.

The nudge that is toast

Or should it be the toast that is nudge?

The creators of a new gadget on Kickstarter called the Toasteroid want people to make the most of their morning toast time. Yes, toast is one of life’s simple pleasures, but it serves no functional purpose in our lives beyond satisfying hunger. We’re busy people; we have things to do, and we need to optimize our time. The Toasteroid lets users design images to go on their toast through a companion iOS / Android app. More crucially, they can program it to print the day’s weather or a reminder.


File under: There is no Great Stagnation, Markets in Everything, Who Needs SMS? Be a Good Host, Will it Cut Down on My Carbs?

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.