Hard to live it up with death around the cosmic corner


January 01, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

There comes a time in a man's life when he begins to tire of waking up on New Year's Day in somebody's bathtub, clad only in underwear and cowboy boots, a half-smoked Marlboro dangling from his lips and clumps of confetti and Ritz cracker in his hair.

Therefore, I spent last night pretty much as I've spent many nights recently, rocking to and fro in one corner of the darkened living room and adjusting the shawl around my shoulders from time to time.

Aside from speed-dialing the neighbors every 10 minutes and asking in a withering voice if they could please keep the noise down, as the sound of all that laughter was depressing, there was very little social interaction.

I did watch the ball come down in Times Square.

But when they started interviewing the hookers and crack dealers (" . . . and you say your name is Ice? How much does a nTC vial this size go for, Ice?") I turned off the TV and called it a night.

Besides, it's hard to be in a celebratory mood when there is an asteroid bearing down on you at 185,000 mph, a huge chunk of black rock that could slam into this planet and incinerate at least part of it -- probably at the exact moment that an elementary school teacher from Schenectady, N.Y., says to Alex Trebek: "Natural disasters for $400, please."

If you aren't up to snuff on this asteroid business, here is the whole gloom-and-doom update.

A few weeks ago, the newspapers began carrying stories of an asteroid speeding through space on a course that would bring it dangerously close to Earth.

The asteroid was thought to be 1 to 2 miles wide. Scientists said if it hit this planet, the results would be catastrophic: flying debris would blot out the sunlight, plants would die, many 7-Elevens would close.

As the asteroid drew closer, these scientists held a series of news conferences, during which they would stare at their shoes and clear their throats nervously and say things like: "Well, if I had to guess, I'd say it probably won't hit us . . ."

I don't know . . . there wasn't a whole lot of reassurance in all these statements.

I kept waiting for one of these scientists to stand up, fish some money out of his pocket and say: "Look, I got 200 bucks right here that says this asteroid won't hit us."

Then I would have felt much better. When people are willing to back up their opinions with cold, hard cash, I'm always impressed. Plus I tend to give greater credence to whatever it is they're saying, no matter how off-the-wall.

Anyway, with each passing day, I grew more and more nervous about this asteroid bearing down on us, to the point where I actually held off doing my Christmas shopping.

What is the sense of picking up that nice gold bracelet for your wife or those Isotoner gloves for Uncle Dan when the planet is about to be vaporized by a massive, dense chunk of matter the size of Manhattan?

Then one day I picked up the paper and noticed a little blurb buried on page 15, next to a tire ad or something.

The headline said simply: "Asteroid misses Earth."

And the story, all two paragraphs of it, went on to say that the asteroid, named Toutatis, had missed slamming into us by 2.2 million miles, which is considered a paper-thin margin of safety in the asteroid-tracking game.

Well. I thought two paragraphs showed a rather cavalier treatment of a major potential disaster.

Me, I thought the story deserved to be at the top of Page 1, accompanied by the kind of headlines that blared: "JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR!"

You hate to tell someone how to do his or her job. But if I were the headline writer, I would have gone with something along the lines of: "ASTEROID MISSES CHARRING EARTH -- THIS TIME."

Which, unfortunately, is the whole point. Toutatis is on an orbit that will carry it across the Earth's orbit every four years. Astronomers say that in 1996 and 2000, it should miss the Earth by a wide margin. But in 2004, it could be white-knuckle time again, as the asteroid could pass within a million miles of us.

And if that isn't cheery enough, some astronomers say there are lots of other "alien planetoids" that could conceivably hit us and cause major damage.

So we shouldn't break out the champagne and party hats just yet, is what I'm saying.

Not that I would partake in that kind of activity, anyway.

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