Next Up: Locusts

A friend called me out on this morning’s column, a piece about Cathy Plesko, a Los Alamos scientist working on the asteroid mitigation problem (sub/ad req). He said he’d gotten all the way to the end before he realized it was really a column about global warming.


Back in the ’90s, I wrote a lot about asteroids. The LINEAR asteroid search project is based here in New Mexico, which gave me an easy local angle because they were finding all the cool objects. Their automated survey techniques, originally developed to track commie spy satellites, were revolutionary. It was a fun story, but I have a relatively short attention span, and hadn’t really thought much about the asteroid threat for years when I recently heard about Plesko’s work.

She’s doing modeling work on mitigation techniques – essentially what happens when you touch off a nuke to deflect asteroid:

If we ever need to use Los Alamos scientist Cathy Plesko’s research, we’re in nail-biting trouble. But at that moment we’re likely to be very glad she did it.

Plesko is trying to figure out how to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

“You hope you never need it, but you know, you hope you never need car insurance,” said the 29-year-old researcher.

The technical part of the work is fascinating – trying to constrain the uncertainties associated with a bet-the-planet decision. But the really interesting thing to me was the questions the work raises about how we might go about incorporating the sort of science she does into the political and policy process if/when we really have to face up to The Big One:

We’re a long way from knowing enough about the problem to actually deflect an asteroid, Plesko said. But the research raises interesting questions about how society might go about using information developed by scientists like Plesko to make bet-the-planet decisions.

On the surface, it looks like a simple problem — get the scientists’ best advice, then act on it. But cases where we end up arguing about what really counts as their “best advice” are legion, from nuclear waste disposal to genetically modified foods to climate change.

No matter how precise the calculations, there will be uncertainties attached. Rather than deflecting Apophis completely, would the nudge merely shift its path so it hits in the mid-Pacific, saving Costa Rica but creating a towering tsunami that destroys coastal California?

Dan Sarewitz, an Arizona State University researcher who studies what happens at the interface of science and societal decision-making, thinks the asteroid problem would be easier to act on than something like climate change or nuclear waste disposal.

If and when we discover an asteroid actually headed toward Earth, “There will be very little argument about whether that’s a serious problem,” Sarewitz said.