Are you optimistic or pessimistic about humankind's ability to prevent a killer asteroid from killing us all?

In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, Oxford physicist David Deutsch writes:

If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris wants to know what you think of Deutsch’s claim, and has set out a brief survey on his blog at the New York Times. Morris told me, "It may seem like another innocuous Internet quiz, but take my word for it—it isn't one." He also said, "There is a hidden question, which I’m not at liberty to reveal, that I think will interest you." and on his blog, he writes "When the results are announced, there will be a surprise."

I'm intrigued! I love surprises, even when they involve killer asteroids.

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?


  1. We’ve survived massive die-offs in the past. I see no reason we couldn’t survive anything smaller than a complete planet-wrecker.

    Our civilizations, governments, technology infrastructure, and collective knowledge-base, on the other hand, these are probably doomed.

    Oh well.

        1. That’s what I tell my wife when I’m driving.
          “Did I hit it? NO. Then what’s the problem?”

      1. That was before we spread everywhere, though. Now people are one of the most cosmopolitan single species* on the planet, together with the things that live alongside us. In a disaster, we have a much better chance than most to leave a few survivors.

        * To anticipate the objection: things like beetles and bacteria are not single but countless species, and individual ones do come and go.

  2. If we get enough warning – like years – then I figure we could figure something out. So long as the evidence it was coming was the stuff even warring clans could not ignore. It might even inspire peace on Earth and cooperative mania. 

    1. Just like how the several decades of warning about global warming gave everyone enough time to come together and…um.

  3. “Optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ seem like awfully POV words for an event which many YouTube comment readers would welcome.

  4. I wonder if the surprise isn’t that it’s completely unrelated to asteroids.  The statement and questionnaire seem to have more to do with how we evaluate statements made in the press by an alleged authority on the subject.

  5. I’m going to say that the surprise involves the number of asteroids that we have already deflected without telling anyone…

  6. If it happend…

    They’ll be spotted alright, depending on their trayectory relative to ours, maybe a few months, maybe a few days before impact, but too late.

    The thing is, as of today, we dont really have the necessary hardware in orbit to detect incoming asteroids with enough time to prepare a countermeasure, the technology exists, but the funding is just not there.

    Good thing we have all dozen upon dozens of giant spy sattelites up there keeping us safe from world ending threats.

  7. The problem (as I see it) is deflecting those asteroids which will kill us, while letting those through whose radiation will grant us superpowers.

    It’s a tricky business. . . 

  8. It depends on how fast that 1km rock is traveling, and where it’s coming from. We know enough about the asteroids in our own star system to know which ones are a risk (and frankly, none of them are very risky at all). However, an interstellar asteroid could pass through the solar system at any time, going virtually any speed below that of light. The faster such an asteroid is traveling, the less it would be affected by the sun’s gravity and the less time we would have to detect it and plot its course. In that scenario, we might not even know it’s coming at all. One minute you’d be here, the next minute, you’d be spread out over a few hundred thousand kilometers of open space. Just like that.

    The good news on that end is that the theoretical chance of an interstellar asteroid hitting us is nearly zero.

    Barring those interstellar bogeymen, I’d say we could pull our heads together long enough to thwart any approaching asteroid that we could see coming for us.

  9. “I love surprises, even when they involve killer asteroids.”
    Except for that one kind of killer-asteroid surprise, which involves all the killing.

  10. Well that certainly was a short survey.  I guess the “hidden question” is in the form of a question of epistemology  or some nonsense.  There wasn’t room for a teeny-tiny invisible button or a secret acrostic or something.

  11. Me  Personally like and love surprises,You know without surpise nothing seems good in my life so surprise is a really great surprise and shake for life
    Except for that one kind of killer-asteroid surprise, which involves all the killing.

  12. It’s unlikely that there are any ecosphere-killer sized objects in the solar system that haven’t been spotted already.  The caveat there is that hyperbolic comets aren’t precisely in the solar system, and big enough ones to kill the ecosphere show up (surprise!) from time to time.  All it takes is one in the wrong orbit…

    Once you drop below the energy level that the planet gets nearly sterilized, there are plenty at “dinosaur killer” levels.  Which would be hard to save “all of humanity” from – it’s going to do a right number on the whole ecosystem – but it would be relatively easy to ensure that humanity, technology, and records survive afterwards.  Decades worth of food and life support are cheap and relatively compact.  Going underwater or underground or airborne are all possible.  The global seed bank that Norway set up is an example of the type of thinking needed… just put things in very remote, hardened places, and wait.  There are already things in places that would survive that would cover some of the necessary equipment and people.  More would be deployable in a hurry if need be, once you knew which areas / hemisphere to avoid…

    Deflection depends on how much warning and how big.  A replica of Tunguska coming in?  Relatively easy.  A replica of the K-T / Chixhulub impactor?  That’s going to be a real toughie…

  13. I answered that I was optimistic and very confident due to the wording of the question and the scenario presented. On a purely technical level, we have gone from having absolutely no defense to having the ability to observe approaching threats, creating bunkers to last humanity beyond disasters, and perhaps the ability to intervene in space. If the odds of any of that doing any good are a trillion to one, it remains infinitely better than the big fat goose egg we had before the present day.

  14. I just want to know when they are sending a probe to the other side of the sun, to make sure there isn’t a massive planet hidden there waiting to head for us on a collision course, and bum us the fuck out, for like, 3 days.

    “It tastes like ashes!”

  15. All this talk of an asteroid- it’s a liberal plot to undermine the United States.  Just look at the phony “scientists” with their “telescopes”, claiming that an asteroid will hit the Earth and wipe out humanity- It’s all just a scam to increase their funding.  There are plenty of scientists who haven’t seen anything in the sky.

    These liberals just want to destroy our economy so they can redistribute that wealth by Building a nuclear warhead loaded rocket to destroy this so called “asteroid” and “save humanity”.  It’s obviously a crock.  Thank God we have our patriotic Tea Party representatives in Washington to put an end to this nonsense.

  16. I’m just hoping for a 300-mile diameter nickle-iron beast to slam into the earth tomorrow. Or Monday. It’s not that important, as long as it happens soon.

  17. My answer: Big asteroid comes, we die.
    The time they give scientists in movies to build something for the job would never be enough for us to actually build it and use it – consider that when using many of these methods/tools the asteroid would need to be intercepted at a considerate distance from earth in order for them to work.

  18. I’m sure the rich, powerful people of the world will club together their resources to….build themselves a bunker and leave us all out here to fry/freeze.

  19. Does anyone else see the second question in Comic Sans font? Because I think that might be a big clue as to what the quiz is doing, trying to undermine (or possibly establish?) how we determine credibility from sources depending on presentation. The book by an established physicist is sourced in Comic Sans and the no longer existing web source is cited in a more traditional font.

  20. I have great faith that if this should ever come to pass, the people in our government would swiftly take bold action, and do whatever they could do to blame the other party for the problem.

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