Ask an Astrobiologist about the Apocalypse

Ask an Astrobiologist about the Apocalypse September 13, 2012

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.

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