An asteroid called ‘trust’

Perhaps by the time you read this, the asteroid named 2005 YU 55 will have sped past the earth, missing the top of your head by like 200,000 miles, which is nothing in astronomical terms. In fact, given that most items in space are light years apart, the near rendezvous with the 1,300 foot wide ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Perhaps by the time you read this, the asteroid named 2005 YU 55 will have sped past the earth, missing the top of your head by like 200,000 miles, which is nothing in astronomical terms. In fact, given that most items in space are light years apart, the near rendezvous with the 1,300 foot wide chunk of rock and ice is essentially the same thing as a direct hit.

Yet, because astronomers have told us not to worry, I haven't noticed long lines of cars heading out of the city and up toward higher ground. I don't recall reading about a run on hard hats or Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck heading into outer space to save us. There's been no panic. Even though a slight miscalculation on the part of the astronomers who track space rocks could have left us vulnerable to a devastating direct hit. This rock the size of skyscraper would obliterate a city if such a collision were to take place, even one of considerable size that has -- cockroach like -- resisted many other attempts by nature to dispose of it, like Los Angeles.

But despite the fact that many of them grew up lonely in musty-smelling rooms chock-full of collectible action-figures from Battlestar Gallactica and large wall calendars counting down the days before the next Comic Con, we take the reassuring words we have heard from our astronomers to heart. (Haven't we seen the movies, folks? Don't we realize that all abuse these nerds must have suffered in high school scarred them and left them with plenty of motive to drop a decimal place or two, move to a shack in the Rockies and watch the unhappy ending while snuggly tucked under their Luke Skywalker sheets?)

Perhaps by the time you read this, the asteroid named 2005 YU 55 will have sped past the earth, missing the top of your head by like 200,000 miles, which is nothing in astronomical terms. In fact, given that most items in space are light years apart, the near rendezvous with the 1,300 foot wide chunk of rock and ice is essentially the same thing as a direct hit.

Yet, because astronomers have told us not to worry, I haven’t noticed long lines of cars heading out of the city and up toward higher ground. I don’t recall reading about a run on hard hats or Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck heading into outer space to save us. There’s been no panic. Even though a slight miscalculation on the part of the astronomers who track space rocks could have left us vulnerable to a devastating direct hit. This rock the size of skyscraper would obliterate a city if such a collision were to take place, even one of considerable size that has — cockroach like — resisted many other attempts by nature to dispose of it, like Los Angeles.

But despite the fact that many of them grew up lonely in musty-smelling rooms chock-full of collectible action-figures from Battlestar Gallactica and large wall calendars counting down the days before the next Comic Con, we take the reassuring words we have heard from our astronomers to heart. (Haven’t we seen the movies, folks? Don’t we realize that all abuse these nerds must have suffered in high school scarred them and left them with plenty of motive to drop a decimal place or two, move to a shack in the Rockies and watch the unhappy ending while snuggly tucked under their Luke Skywalker sheets?)

Jay Melosh, who I am hoping is actually a perfectly normal guy who played baseball and has gone on dates, is one of those "experts" upon whom we are relying. He is, according to the Los Angeles Times, a specialist in "impact cratering." What motivates a guy to choose such a life’s work? It’s probably better that we don’t ask. Because we want him to be right. We need him to be right. After all, he is one of those whose words we find comforting enough to allow us to go about our business while 2005 YU55 hurtles straight at us. "This one," Melosh said, "would be a city-buster, but would not wipe out civilization."

What a relief. It would only destroy everything in a 60-mile wide radius if it hit land or create a monster tidal wave 200 feet high if it fell into the sea.

But we take him at his word because he’s an expert. (Admittedly one who is far from both big cities and tidal-wave vulnerable shorelines.) Experts like him are telling us not to worry. And once again, trusting souls that we are, we are buying it.

We just have to hope that these experts are better than the experts who told us that deregulating international financial markets or allowing banks to cook up all sorts of derivative markets without any adult supervision would make us all safer. We have to hope that they are smarter than the experts that told us that bankers could be trusted to "self-regulate." We have to trust that they know more than the geniuses who got paid tens of millions to watch after other peoples money and who assured them the best place for it was with Bernie Madoff or in MF Global Holdings.

We have to trust that they are more attuned to reality than those who even now still suggest that once-in-a-hundred-year financial catastrophes occur every 100 years even though we could well be on the verge of our second such event in 3 years any minute now.

No, surely these underpaid socially-ostracized geeks whose word we are taking at face-value about the future of civilization must be better than all those Armani-suited, Harvard-educated millionaires who collect supermodels like the rest of us collect lint in our navels. Or the highly touted geniuses who regulate financial markets or the glamorous billionaire publishing magnate politicians who tell us not to worry they will return Italy to its former glory. Or the air traffic controllers who manage to keep the near-misses to a bare minimum. Or the highly-trained NFL or FIFA referees who never get one wrong. Or the doctors who never make a wrong diagnosis.

No, these are experts. We have nothing to worry about. Having said that, I have two final points for you. One, the next time you see a nerdy little kid who has taught himself elfin and can recite verbatim all the dialogue from the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, hug him. He needs love. He needs to feel like he and the rest of civilization have at least something in common. And while you’re at it, buy him an extra battery or two for his calculator. And two, having thought about how well the best experts are doing for us protecting us from global financial calamity and ensuring safe outcomes in other expert-dependent government systems from healthcare to transportation, I’m writing this from a secure corner of my basement. While wearing a snorkel.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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