Ask an Astrobiologist about the Apocalypse

There’s a fascinating artilce over at The Awl about NASA scientist Dr. David Morrison, The NASA Scientist Who Answers Your 2012 Apocalypse Emails. Morrison is the senior scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in the Ames Research Center in California, a specialist in asteroids and potential asteroid impact and the man responsible for the Ask an Astrobiologist page at NASA. In that last capacity he’s been answering hundreds of questions about the end of the world through asteroids, stray planets and solar flares. He is, I think, an unsung skeptical and scientific hero.

The emails started filtering in at a trickle, but after a few years of what he called “relative peace,” it’s become a deluge. He estimated that over the past four years, he’s gotten over 5,000 emails related to doomsday. Lately, the column has been receiving about 50 emails a week, most of them about the apocalypse. Though Morrison’s email outreach could be classified as a hobby—he operates largely on his own, outside the occasional “go get ‘em” pep talks from NASA higher-ups—he truly goes above and beyond to engage and inform the people who write to him. Last year, 17,000 people signed an online petition asking to see all the information that the White House has about extraterrestrial life; the response? “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet” (the subtext: get a life). By contrast, Dr. Morrison spends about an hour every day on the apocalypse, either through one-on-one correspondence with the fretful—or in exchanges with other experts, such as Mayan historians, for information for his replies.

Probably Morrison’s greatest contribution is in dealing with the young people who are unable to process the deluge of rumor and suggestion they hear at school or on Facebook. Morrison reads off some examples of e-mails:

“I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I’m scared because I’m in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION.”

“I am really scared about the end of the world on 21 December. I’m headed into 7th grade and I am very scared. I hear you work for the government and I don’t know what to do. Can someone help me? I can’t sleep, I am crying every day, I can’t eat, I stay in my room, I go to a councilor, it helps, but not with this problem. Can someone help me?”

Conspiracy theories and end times predictions are frequently ghost stories for adults. They’re stories that give us that creepy little thrill, that “you never know” feeling. We might say we believe them, but I suspect that if the end times really arrived or the politicians took off their flesh-masks and turned out to be aliens, the conspiracists would be just as shocked as the rest of us. We say we believe, but we don’t act like we believe and we don’t really believe beneath a surface level. Like young William Ellery Channing, young people frequently can’t pick up on these subtle distinctions and take our thrilling stories at face value.

Morrison has the right attitude for the job:

Before coming to NASA in 1988, Morrison, who is 72, was an astronomer at the University of Hawaii for 17 years. He did his Ph.D on “Temperatures of the Terrestrial Planets” at Harvard under Carl Sagan, and still regards Sagan’s television series “Cosmos” as the standard for teaching the public about how the universe works. [...]

“I sometimes ask myself what Carl would do in this modern world,” he said. “I mean, would he be making YouTube videos and things? He was in the days when broadcast video was still the standard by which you judge these things and he was a master of it.”

What Would Carl Do? That sounds like it should be a meme.

  • Andrew Hall

    I don’t care about aliens. What really concerns me is the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

    • trj

      With any luck the zombie hordes will be eradicated in the upcoming doomsday meteor strike.

  • vasaroti

    The US Government should have included a few pop-sci book titles in its response. Never let the teachable moment go to waste.
    Life in the Universe: Expectations and Constraints (Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics) would be my choice, but Darling’s Life Everywhere is probably more accessible.

  • Ketzer

    ‘Astrobiologist’ – somewhat dubious Job considering the fact that as far as I know we
    1) don’t even know if there is any biological life outside our home planet
    2) even if a Planet candidate was found the Astrobiologist would never be able to get there (Gliese ?)
    (even unmanned probes won’t get there during his lifetime)
    Is Hawking really the only one who understood that life has no priority at all for this universe ?
    That biological life is a mere chemical wasteproduct that might pop up here or there but will be annihilated again in a blink , on a cosmic scale at least. If this universe is fine tuned for anything its seemingly the production of black holes see :(Black Holes: Millions Revealed By NASA’s WISE Space Telescope)

    • UrsaMinor

      As currently practiced, the discipline is confined to identifying potential habitats for extraterrestrial life, and performing active searches. There are plenty of spots right here in our own solar system which aren’t Earth but which do seem on theoretical grounds to have potential to host carbon-based life. Beyond the solar system, we’re going to be relying on remote spectrographic techniques for the foreseeable future. If you find a roughly Earth-sized planet in the ecozone of its host star and its spectrum includes large amounts of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere, that’s a very robust indicator of biological processes at work since it is so far out of chemical equilibrium.

      Obviously, we’re not going to be able to make any meaningful claims about the frequency of life in the universe until we have a sample size larger than one. And if the sample never gets any larger, that will tell us a lot about the universe too.

      I hope your remark about the universe being fined-tuned for producing black holes was meant to be facetious, because if not, it reveals a profound ignorance about the types and frequencies of the objects that have been observed to make up the universe.

  • Mark Temporis

    I think it’s as much an argument against the fine-tuning argument, but the case can be made:

    • Paul

      Rather than the universe being optimized for life or black holes I think the closer truth is that life self optimizes to fit the circumstances. The folks who scream the sky is falling because of global warming fail to realize that the earth has been much warmer and much colder than it is today. Yes the world is warmer and yes it is largely man made and yes many current animals and plants will become extinct but others will evolve to handle the change and the world will repopulate with what is the new “baseline” and if the climate changes back to what we see now it will again kill off lots of things while others will adapt to fill the niches left empty.

      Even the presence of molecular oxygen or liquid water may not be required. One of the theories of early life is that it operated in an environment that did not have molecular oxygen and that the first “apocalypse” was when the other single celled organisms were killed by this corrosive chemical which was eventually able to be processed by single celled animals who released CO2 that the oxygen producing plants required.

      We see extremophiles that live and thrive around undersea volcanic vents or in hot springs as well as others that survive in polar regions. I think when and if we are able to look at other planets we will find that there are more varieties to life than what we see here on earth.

      Life is amazing in its adaptability, often far beyond our ability to conceive it. The constant in life at all levels is change. Those that adapt survive until they cannot adapt, at which point they die out while others survive and die at each change.

      • Theory_of_I


        No disagreement with that.

        But if we, as the current inhabitants of earth, find conclusively that we are contributing to climate variation in excess of what would appear natural, and if it is shown that the result of our contribution is the accelerated disruption of habitat and environment for ourselves and other species, and if we have the ability to moderate the activities we know are contributing factors, do we have any responsibility to do so?

        If that is the case, to what extent can we ignore those responsibilities because climate is going to change anyway? If we can predict the possibly undesirable effects our policies and practices will have in the short term (50 – 100 years or so) then on what grounds can we justify continuing the status quo?

        • UrsaMinor

          If that is the case, to what extent can we ignore those responsibilities because climate is going to change anyway?

          If we have no moral responsibility to address potentially harmful human-induced climate change because the climate is going to change naturally anyway (at some point in the future, and probably not for the same reason), is it also justifiable to fire a gun at someone (possibly wounding or killing them) on the grounds that they were going to die naturally anyway (at some point in the future, and probably not for the same reason)?

  • Ketzer

    I know there has been a variety of exo-planets discovered, none of them seem escpecially suited for hosting life ,insofar this can be verfied from a distance, and thats all the Astrobiologist will ever be able to do.
    The obervational data so far seems to support that black holes are much more frequent than inhabited planets, which was the point of my remark , that life is a mere byproduct but no a goal.
    Yet many people seems unjustifiably biased towards the notion that life (or even humanity) is the very reason for the uiverse’s existance.

    • Kodie

      The universe doesn’t have any goals. Everything is a by-product, or just a product. Life does exist. Astrobiologists may not know if there is life or where it is but they are learning things for future humanity to explore further – not only if there is life besides on earth, but if there are habitats which support life and what has to be done in order for humans to go there. No, it’s not going to get done next week, but if we just pack it in as impossible, or assume we’re not really supposed to be here, future humans will be mad because we didn’t try and they’ll be that much further behind. Imagine if you didn’t have clean water because nobody tried.

    • Yoav

      Saying that any part of the universe is either a byproduct or a goal is resting on the false premise that there is a goal to the universe. Black holes exist so is life (at least on one planet) that’s all there is to it. Trying to understand the ways life can develop and trying to figure out if it has developed elsewhere is not the same as claiming life is the goal or the universe and it doesn’t meant you can’t also study black holes.

    • UrsaMinor

      The obervational data so far seems to support that black holes are much more frequent than inhabited planets, which was the point of my remark , that life is a mere byproduct but no a goal.

      I have not argued that the universe is fine-tuned for life, or that life is anything other than a possible byproduct permitted by the laws of physics and the current state of the universe. I am calling the following statement into question:

      If this universe is fine tuned for anything its seemingly the production of black holes

      This is a curious assertion. As far as we know, ordinary stars far outnumber black holes, so right off the bat there’s a problem with your statement. Now, if you really want to argue about the number of black holes vs. the number of habitable planets, as it seems that you do, you need to know a couple of basic things:

      1. The sample volume of the black hole survey, and its probable rate of detection.
      2. The sample volume of the planetary survey, and its probable rate of detection.

      From these you may arrive at a bounded estimate of the density of black holes per cubic parsec vs. the same estimate for the density of habitable planets (and here, I am defining ‘habitable planet’ the way that astrobiologists do; it doesn’t mean “habitable by humans”, it means “habitable by microbial life”, i.e., where liquid water is stable and temperatures are not too extreme for complex carbon chemistry to occur. And also note, ‘habitable’ does not equate to ‘necessarily inhabited’).

      Once you understand the numbers, you may start making informed statements. I’ll give you a hint: those black holes in the WISE survey were scattered across a sphere billions of parsecs in diameter. The well-sampled space for detecting extrasolar planets extends out to a few hundred parsecs at best. Comparing the total number of known black holes to the total number of known planets without taking the survey volume into account is absolutely meaningless.

  • drax

    Isn’t the date in the graphic a month early? I had planned for the end of the world in December not November! I have tickets to a show on the 25th!

    • vorjack

      I got it from the Weekly World News, so you know it has to be accurate. It’s Batboy approved.