Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur C. Clarke on the Tsunami

on Wired. Arthur C. Clarke on the tsunami's aftermath and the roles of science fiction and technology in predicting future disasters.

Rama opens with an asteroid impact on Europe that obliterates northern Italy -- on the morning of 11 September 2077. (I am still spooked by randomly choosing this day, and claim no powers of prescience.) I cannot recall what turned my attention to the possible danger of asteroid impacts. It was quite an old idea in science fiction, and one that science now takes very seriously. Life-threatening impacts are more frequent than many people realize: There were three known major impacts during the 20th century alone (Siberia in 1908 and 1947, and Brazil in 1930) -- damage was minimal in all cases as, miraculously, they happened in uninhabited areas. It is only a matter of time before our luck runs out.

In Rama, I introduced a new concept. I argued that as soon as the technology permitted, we should set up powerful radar and optical search systems to detect Earth-threatening objects. The name I suggested was Spaceguard, which, together with Spacewatch, has been widely accepted. Today, astronomers in both hemispheres scan the skies looking for rogue asteroids and comets. The fact that these efforts are woefully underfunded -- and that some rely on private funding -- says how little the bean counters in governments appreciate the value of this work.

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