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Tucson Weekly Homo Sapiens Stupidus?

Hey, Steven Spielberg, why not put some of your big bucks where your blockbuster is this summer?

By Dan Huff

MAY 11, 1998:  ROUGHLY 65 MILLION years ago, a fairly large comet or asteroid slammed into the earth near what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Judging by the geological evidence scientists have unearthed all over the world, the horrendous impact triggered a massive die-off of plant and animal life. Some theorize this event may have hurried the dinosaurs to extinction, thus allowing some otherwise unremarkable, possibly rat-sized mammal to flourish on the evolutionary plains of time, eventually giving rise to...well, us.

As a species, we've only very recently become aware of the distinct possibility that our pre-history may have been hammered into place by this incomprehensibly violent planetary disaster.

And now that we know, what do we--the supposedly sentient apex of 65 million years of terrestrial evolution--do?

We make movies about it and scare ourselves silly.

Armageddon, staring Bruce Willis, is due out July 1, while executive producer Steven Spielberg's Deep Impact will be released tomorrow, May 8. Both will undoubtedly pull in hundreds of millions of dollars from popcorn-munching audiences worldwide. Yes, life is good, and the movies are better than ever.

MEANWHILE, NOT FAR from Tucson, on an asteroid-sized mountain known as Kitt Peak, Tom Gehrels, a lanky, blond University of Arizona astronomer, pursues his lonely professional passion, which involves scanning the night skies with a 77-year-old telescope jerryrigged to assorted computer gear, searching for potential killer comets and asteroids.

The Spacewatch program, which the erudite Gehrels began in 1980, is one of only two early-warning programs operating full-time. The other is conducted in Hawaii. A third, part-time operation is active occasionally in New Mexico, and there are an unknown number of amateur astronomers scanning the heavens on any given night. All of the professional astronomers and serious amateurs report their discoveries to the Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams operated by Brian Marsden, of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So far, Gehrels and his colleagues have calculated there are about 1,700 potentially threatening objects--asteroids and comets one kilometer or larger in diameter--orbiting the sun. These are objects that could, in the event of an impact with earth, wipe out human civilization. The really scary thing, however, is that so far the astronomers have managed to spot only about 300 of them.

Although a catastrophic collision is unlikely in our lifetime--they happen every 330,000 years or so, according to Gehrels--nevertheless, any Homo Sapiens with an adequately evolved brain can't help but draw a slightly uneasy breath or two when contemplating the obstacles facing this intensely dedicated astronomer:

  • Here's a man who's engaged in a constant struggle for funding. "At one point," Gehrels says, "I asked my wife and children if we could sell our home, because I thought I had ruined a $90,000 CCD chip and I needed another one to continue my work."

    As it turns out, the chip, which translates extremely faint starlight into electronic signals for viewing on a computer monitor, wasn't ruined, and Gehrels didn't have to sell his home--although he says his wife and children readily agreed to the idea.

  • And even at $90,000, the chip Gehrels uses is not the best the world which he is working so hard to protect can produce. The best costs $130,000, and Gehrels has been unable to find a donor willing to foot the bill.

  • Here's an astronomer who laments that most other astronomers aren't terribly interested in doing the mundane work of cataloging the celestial threats to their home planet. It's difficult, he says, to keep good help.

  • Here's a man who says that for a mere $730,000 or so, we could improve humanity's ability to detect potentially deadly space objects by as much as eight times. With that amount of cash, we could quickly begin conducting a thorough and systematic scan of the heavens on a monthly basis, leaving Gehrels' current telescope free to keep tabs on just the potentially deadly objects he and his colleagues have already spotted.
Unfortunately, Gehrels and his colleagues have been unable to find a government agency--or, more likely, a wealthy donor--willing to pop for that $730,000 in hardware that one day may help save the planet from a real cosmic Armageddon. Which, of course, raises the age-old question:

Is there intelligent life on earth?

IN DEEP IMPACT, actor Robert Duvall plays an astronaut sent out to rendezvous with a threatening comet and detonate a nuclear charge designed to nudge it into a harmless orbit. In Armageddon, Willis' character tries the same thing with an asteroid. It's a possibility that some real-life rocket jockeys, nuke experts and even a few astronomers agree might one day offer our only hope of survival.

But with humanity's hit-or-miss reliance on amateur astronomy, and only two full-time, professionally-staffed programs scanning the skies, the likelihood that we'll spot the fat lady before she sits on our snoozing chihuahua is, at best, remote.

Which is doubly sad, really. Because, in one decisive moment, we could somewhat justify our ruinous presence in ever-increasing numbers on this beleaguered orb. In one grand, flashing moment, Hiroshima, the hideously wasteful Cold War arms race, nuclear proliferation and pollution, as well as mankind's violent and contentious nature, would all make spectacular historical and moral sense:

We evolved and suffered as individuals and as a species to save this planet.

In this view, our edgy brains and dangerous weapons are mother earth's way of preventing another disastrous wipeout of the web of life. We're planet earth's killer-T cells, man-sized macrophages who scour near-space for the solar system's disease-causing agents.

Of course, that rather novel theory of history would put Gehrels and his asteroid-hunting colleagues, as well as the scientists who developed atomic weapons, at the very top of the evolutionary scale.

Gehrels, intent on his incoming computer images as he sat atop Kitt Peak one clear night last week, merely laughed at the suggestion. Later, however, outside in the darkness under a vast sea of stars, the idea didn't seem all that implausible to the visitors who were privileged to watch Gehrel's work that night.

MICHAEL TOLKIN, ONE of two main scriptwriters for Spielberg's film, spent several nights observing the work on Kitt Peak. Then Tolkin locked himself in a suite at the Arizona Inn for about six days and produced a rough draft of what eventually became Deep Impact. Gehrels, who has devoted his life to the precise requirements of science, doesn't really approve of the finished product, although he says Tolkin is an "excellent writer."

The astronomer doesn't seem to understand Hollywood types in general--"Those people seem to hug and kiss each other a lot," he observes in mildly envious tones. And probably because of his cranky, outspoken insistence on scientific accuracy, he wasn't invited to any of the premier parties Spielberg's organization has thrown to promote the new flick.

It's too bad that Gehrels, who thinks in terms of millions of miles and thousands of lightyears, doesn't apply the same grasp of large numbers to Hollywood's money-making potential. It has apparently never occurred to him to hitch Spacewatch's chronic funding requirements to this summer's rising box-office stars.

So allow us to do it for him. We haven't asked Gehrels' permission--he'd probably try to stop us--but here goes:

Hey, Spielberg, ya wanna save the planet? For real? Then fork over $730,000 to the UA's Spacewatch program. One small chunk of change for a Hollywood mega mogul, one giant insurance policy for mankind.

Hello? Anybody out there?

Uh, how 'bout you, Bruce?

Save your popcorn money--and the planet. Send a donation to Spacewatch, Lunar and Planetary Lab, University of Arizona, 85721.


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