Asteroids: The news offers a “new Thing to Be Feared for 2013”
Do media reports engage the impact threat seriously and soberly?
January 7, 2013Published: January 7, 2013
By Steven T. Corneliussen
When it comes to threats of natural disaster, where's the line between sensationalism and good sense? Maybe the decision involves presenters' credibility.
This media report engages asteroid-impact news, but consider something recent about volcano news from the New York Times's Neil Genzlinger:
Well, that didn't take long. Two days into the new year, having barely had time to celebrate that we survived 2012 despite the apocalyptic predictions, we are being introduced to the new Thing to Be Feared for 2013: Iceland. And not by some crackpot reality show; by PBS.... In consecutive hours on Wednesday night, an installment of Nova and then the premiere episode of a six-part series called Life on Fire make clear that Iceland is a seething caldron on the verge of going kablooey, and that Icelanders aren't the only people who should be worried.
"Not by some crackpot"? Much the same can be said about the Washington Post's "Still watching for the end of the world" (the paper-version headline), a review of the book Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us. The reviewer is Marcia Bartusiak, executive director of the MIT graduate program in science writing and two-time winner of the Science Writing Award given by the American Institute of Physics (publisher of Physics Today). The book's author is Donald K. Yeomans, manager of NASA's near-Earth object program office.
Bartusiak begins by announcing that it's "just the book to sober you up—and quick." She reports some pretty sensational stuff. For example, she quotes Yeomans's judgment that an object with a diameter of a mile or more has "the capacity to wipe out an entire civilization in a single blow," then continues:
There are about 1,000 objects of that size out there, though no huge one is threatening us at the moment.... Yet despite the low probability of a devastating hit this century, Yeomans notes, such an event would be of high consequence. There was that little matter of the dinosaurs being exterminated some 65 million years ago in the aftermath of a catastrophic impact.
Later she characterizes "the devastating potential of near-Earth objects" as "worldwide firestorms, a blackened atmosphere that cuts us off from sunlight (stopping photosynthesis for our food), acid rain and possibly herculean tsunamis."
Such is the mix of the sober and the inescapably sensational from both a distinguished science writer and a NASA expert. What does this say about the Wall Street Journal's recent treatment of the asteroid-impact question?
A WSJ news forecast for 2013 contained this listing for 15 February: "Asteroid 2012 DA14 passes close to earth (see graphic on Page A8)." Under the headline "Close shave for asteroid," that graphic display declares, "Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass very close to Earth—much, much closer than the moon—on Feb. 15. Its path won't lead to a collision with Earth but it will pass close to a ring of orbiting communication satellites."
Elsewhere the WSJ display says, "Scientists will be monitoring 2012 DA14's path and updating its orbit to better predict any future threat of impact." Another label says, "Packing a Punch: If there were an impact, energy generated from 2012 DA14 would be an estimated 120 times greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima."
At the Huffington Post, editors describe blogger Phil Plait as "an astronomer and author" who "writes the Bad Astronomy Blog for Slate magazine, where he frequently discusses asteroids and other threats from space." His 21 December blog posting carried the headline "How to defend Earth from asteroids."
But do asteroids really arrive on this planet? A 21 December news article in Science complemented a scientific paper in the same issue, as summarized in the New York Times. It reported on 70 scientists profiting from a minivan-sized asteroid that left scientifically fascinating fragments in California last April. The researchers look forward to "spacecraft sample-return missions."
That news story contained no asteroid-impact discussion. But back on 12 December, the Facebook stream on the Physics Today home page reported, "This month, the most downloaded paper" from more than 1000 American Institute of Physics conference proceedings "concerns firing lasers to deflect asteroids that threaten Earth." The decade-old paper addresses what it calls "the most important immediate space challenge facing human civilization."
Is that sensationalism? Is it sober science?
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.