Monday, January 07, 2013

Asteroids: The news offers a “new Thing to Be Feared for 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? Read More