The case for an occasional asteroid

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 | 2:42 p.m. CST; updated 1:52 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of how absolutely inconsequential we really are. 

That’s right.  You, like me, are completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Now, before anyone takes offense, understand that this is not a personal jab.  If anything, this is good stuff.  A little perspective is the spoonful of sugar we need to make life go down — especially in this day and age. 

Of course, being inconsequential does not mean we cannot be useful, influential or engage in meaningful acts in our time on Earth.  Evidence to the contrary is everywhere.  We are insignificant because certain events, such as what happened last month over Indonesia, leave little room for debate.

Although most people are oblivious, residents of South Sulwesi, a province of Indonesia, witnessed what had to be a life-altering light show on Oct. 8.  Around 11 a.m. local time, an asteroid 15 to 30 feet in diameter and traveling roughly 45,000 miles per hour entered a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere above the island.  

The sudden friction from entering the atmosphere caused the rock to heat rapidly as it ripped across the sky, and somewhere between 15 and 20 miles above sea level, the ablating space rock exploded into a fireball. 

Estimates put the energy released by the explosion at 50 kilotons.  That’s the equivalent of about 110,000,000 pounds of TNT.  As Universe Today points out, the hydrogen bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki each released about 20 kilotons of energy — a mere 44,000,000 pounds of TNT. 

Although the event happened in an instant, the explosion sent shock waves strong enough to be detected by monitoring stations 11,000 miles away. Other than testimonials and eyewitness accounts, the only evidence of the occurrence so far is a shaky recording showing a large trail of thick smoke hanging in the middle of the sky.   

If that’s not enough to get your gears turning, here’s the kicker: No one even knew this asteroid existed or that it was coming.

What’s more, The Daily Telegraph reported that “if the object had been slightly larger — 20 to 30 metres (60 to 90ft) across — it could easily have caused extensive damage and loss of life.” 

And on top of that, Dr. Nick Lomb, curator of astronomy at Sydney Observatory told MSN’s Nine News, "100m-wide asteroids could destroy a city, and if it's coming from the southern part of the sky, there's a good chance it would come in undiscovered."

While the odds of a 100-meter-wide asteroid event remain, ahem, astronomical, in response to the Indonesian asteroid, NASA said that an “event of this magnitude” was to be expected every two to 12 years, according to the Telegraph.

Talk about gaining some perspective. 

While the confusion of the moment had to be pretty terrifying for those who witnessed the asteroid, the clarity of thought such an anomaly must provide has got to be amazing.  As the bolide scorched the midday sky, surely no one was thinking about the e-mail they needed to send or the deadline they were rushing to meet only moments before.

Being reminded that you are but a dissonant organism on a big rock in the middle of an inexplicable universe composed of rogue space matter that can erase your existence in a flash makes most other day-to-day toils seem a little silly. But whether they are mind-blowing affairs or the simplest observations, these incidents are important for our sanity.      

Oftentimes, people refer to such revelatory moments as surreal, which Webster’s defines as being “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” But these moments are not dreams and are usually so unsettling because of their raw realism. Surreal moments are those brief flashes of life beyond the comfortable and compartmentalized version we are used to – and often prefer.  

And that is why these moments of perspective are growing more important. Instant communication and a digital world have revolutionized the way we live, allowing us to insulate ourselves from the unpleasantness of reality, but they also come with a whole heap of  stress. Our ideas of control and importance are not only illusions, but they are becoming more skewed by the day.     

Certainly the notion that we are powerless in the face of much larger cosmic forces can shake a person's faith in what they know and believe, but embracing the reality of this situation is very freeing. Such a mentality allows us to do a better job of filtering what's important in life and to regain some perspective.     

Every day we carry our stress and worries everywhere we go. E-mails, texts and phone calls come straight to our pockets, and we never have an excuse to be late. We have jobs to complete and roles to fill, and while all of this is necessary for our society to function, we must frame everything appropriately. 

Our entire lives are spent looking down, but every now and then, take the time to look up.  You won't see an asteroid, but think about if you did.

Andrew Del-Colle is the arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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