|Illustration by Calef Brown|
A DIFFERENT TOM AND I TALKED FOR ALMOST an hour straight, almost without moving, almost without topic, using telephones. At the 56-minute mark, the shapeless discussion veered sharply toward asteroids and comets after I said, “I just read this story in the current Harper's about how life on Earth is destroyed by the occasional asteroid or comet. I found it terribly comforting.”
“Comforting?” said a different Tom, and I confirmed, “Yeah. Tom Bissell wrote this great article called 'A Comet's Tale: On the Science of Apocalypse.' It opens with a David St. Hubbins quote from This Is Spinal Tap and takes off toward all manner of fascinating shit — the serene etymology of the term apocalypse, volcanic winter in the 16th century, catastrophic implications of Earth's human population doubling between 1960 and 2000, Shoemaker-Levy 9's impact on Jupiter in 1994, that kind of thing. Ten thousand words, at least. But what stuck with me most was a section near the beginning describing the aftermath of a collision with an asteroid upward of a kilometer in diameter, called a 'civilization-ender.'”
“Do you have it in front of you?”
“Gimme a hundred words.”
The typical civilization-ender would be traveling roughly 20 kilometers a second, or 45,000 miles per hour — for visualization's sake, this is more than 50 times faster than your average bullet — producing an impact fireball several miles wide that, very briefly, would be as hot as the surface of the sun. If the asteroid hit land, a haze of dust and asteroidal sulfates would enshroud the entire stratosphere. This, combined with the soot from the worldwide forest fire the impact's thermal radiation would more or less instantaneously trigger, would plunge Earth into a cosmic winter lasting anywhere from three months to . . .
“That's a hundred. Should I go on?”
“That was a hundred? Gimme . . . another fifty.”
. . . six years. Global agriculture would be terminated, and horrific greenhousing of the climate and mass starvation would quickly ensue, to say nothing of the likely event of world war — over the best caves, say. In the event of a 10-kilometer impact, everything with the ocean's photic zone, including food-chain-vital phytoplankton . . .
“And you said,” asked Tom, “that you found this information . . . 'comforting'?”
WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH WAS A WEE LITTLE LAD, HE got caught doing something that was real, real bad. Several times. Whatever it was that he did — backhanding the chauffeur on the way home from church, say, or giving his dog paper cuts with 100-dollar bills, burning off the head of a Texas-size cockroach with a magnifying glass — whatever it was, he felt a sincere regret at having been caught. And so did tears of frustration flow from his eyes; and so did Barbara Bush clutch her son to her bosom and blot the tears, whispering, “There, there. Don't torture yourself, Georgie. It's not the end of the world.”
If only young George hadn't listened to his mother.
Upon impact, the larger pieces of Shoemaker-Levy blew fireballs thousands of kilometers high into Jupiter's atmosphere and were plainly visible through telescopes on Earth. When Fragment G collided with the King of Planets two days after the first impact, the flash was so bright that infrared scopes all over Earth were momentarily fried. The scar left by Fragment G was larger than Earth itself, and the explosive energy released was the equivalent of a Hiroshima-size nuclear bomb exploding every second for 13 years.
“The comforting part being . . .?”
“Being that I much prefer the idea of routine cosmic annihilation to being murdered by petroleum- or faux-religion-based fascist cults, whether it's Bush, Ashcroft, Saddam Hussein, Sharon, Arafat, bin Laden (remember bin Laden?), Carrot-Top, Geraldo, AOL Time Warner or Charlton Heston.”
“Oh, that,” said Tom.
“Anything but being wiped out by one of our own.”
“Right,” said Tom. “Or even, like you said, by Carrot-Top.”
WHILE MOST VARIETIES OF COCKROACH ARE VULnerable to incineration via disturbed child's play, those roaches lacking such ill-mannered hosts live long, guilt-free lives that greatly resemble those of our fair planet's most accomplished military-industrial lobbyists. You might recall hearing that cockroaches have the ability to flourish in the radioactive aftermath of nuclear war. Oh, yes, they can. An average American human will succumb to a mere 800 rems, while her roachly counterpart can withstand up to 67,500 rems — roughly equivalent to the radiation generated by a thermonuclear explosion. (German roaches can take 90,000 rems and more.)
“Yeah, there's just a certain kind of comfort one can take to one's mass grave, no matter how shallow, knowing that the planet wasn't ruined by . . . uh . . . What's the term? You just said it a minute ago.”
“No, the other one.”
“No — the planet gets ruined by . . . those guys . . . you know . . . fuck . . .”
“Yes! Evil fucking morons! Why anyone would want to be murdered by evil fucking morons when they could be cosmically obliterated by Big Bang detritus is beyond me.”
“I have to go now.”
“Okaybye. But, more comforting still, Bissell says a comet might arrive with nothing but 90 days' notice — CNN would have to scramble for appropriate graphics, and advertising firms would be hard-pressed to bastardize just the right '70s rock for zero-percent-down end-of-the-world clearance on prosthetically enlarged trucks . . .”
“The end. I'm overdosing.”
“Did I mention the part about Jesus and the volcano?”
“Hanging up now, Shulman. Shut the fuck up and finish your story. Thanks for cheering my ass up. Buh-bye.”