Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dr Doom, intelligent cockroaches and the permutations of Mercury

I saw the asteroid induced Tsunami a long time before Deep impact. I used to think of what would happen if a 1 km asteroid hit the gulf of Mexico, and I used to imagine the wave as it hit the coast, which invariably gave me the shivers. I had the great fortune, or misfortune if you like, of being fascinated by doomsday scenarios. And I still have it, I gawk at a falling stock market, hurricane, earthquake, volcanic eruption. Anything will do. Most people who have noticed this about me have given me the nickname "Dr Doom", its stuck with me for a long time and the same nickname has resurfaced from totally different people over the years. At the age of 15, I convinced my sister that a comet was going to hit the earth on March 24th of that year, and she was somewhat unsettled by it.But felt bad for the deception, owned up, and of course we are still here. So at any rate, I liked Deep Impact, even though it was filled with some pretty damning inaccuracies. For one thing blowing the comet to kingdom come so close to Earth would not have helped, the myriad fragments would have incinerated in the atmosphere with pretty much the same kinetic energy, only spread out over a much wider area, and probably generating enough heat in the process to broil anyone unfortunate to witness it. And Disney's Armageddon, lets not even go there, I guess the special effects guys thought giving the asteroid the appearance of a rock that looked like lava rock from your gas grill was scarier than showing what most if not all asteroids look like; a potato with craters. A spud the size of Texas lumbering towards your planet to cause an extinction level event WOULD have been scary, but maybe a little less dramatic. I guess its the same logic that all spaceships in space movies must make a sound as they move through space (save 2001), its more fun I suppose.
At any rate, I often wondered, what would be the creme De la creme of disasters? That question has been answered without a doubt, by two independent research studies from the Paris observatory and the University of California, which has shown in computer simulations, that over the course of the next 3 billion years, its just remotely possible (the estimation is 1 percent chance) that the gravitational influence of Jupiter on the planet Mercury could cause its orbit to change enough to bring it into more extreme gravitational interactions and possibly a collision with either the Sun, Venus, or the Earth. Or it could be thrown out of the solar system altogether. And don't plan on moving to Mars to escape the mayhem, another simulation has Mars being slingshot out into interstellar space. It seems our solar system isn't quite as tranquil a place as we have imagined it.
To be sure, a collision between Earth and Mercury will ruin your weekend, not to mention completely destroy every living thing on the planet. But don't lose any sleep, the earliest this is theorized to happen is on the order of 40+ million years from now, assuming it happens at all. And since most species go extinct in a much shorter period of time, its more likely we will be absent from the scene when it happens. Of course there might still be intelligent life on Earth then, cockroaches have of course been around since the dinosaurs, and they are pretty tough little guys. Maybe over the course of the next 3 billion years, they will evolve intelligence, and develop a way to save the planet. Maybe that's a real stretch, but when you consider that only 65 million years ago, our ancestors were the size of a small shrew with comparable intelligence, so maybe the roaches can pull it off in 3 billion. their cousins, the termites, already have a sophisticated social order and elaborate architecture. So maybe in the far future, intelligent insect descendants of cockroaches will develop the super science needed to avert the Mercury Earth collision. Think about that the next time you take off your shoe to flatten one. Happy trails.

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