Walmart One


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s Sunday. I’m eating hummus. Things are good. And then I make the mistake of reading the news.

Two days ago an asteroid “the size of a Walmart” passed close by the Earth. What’s close? As regards asteroids and their physical approximation to Earth, “close” is anything closer than we are to the moon. This one was half our average distance to the moon. So, close.

Another alarming detail is that it was moving at 66,000 miles an hour. If it had not disintegrated in our atmosphere, a Walmart flying 66,000 miles an hour might have popped out of the sky and drilled (probably) Russia. I say Russia not with scientific proof, but partially because the two other asteroid strikes in the article both hit Russia, and partially out of better you than me wishful thinking. It’s the price you pay for covering more than an eighth of the planet.

According to the article, the asteroid, 2018 GE3, would have “caused regional, not global damage.” (Side note: call me old fashioned, but we should prioritize better naming things that almost killed us. We didn’t name the Black Widow ‘2901 SPIDHRGLS’ for a reason.) Anyway, I was slightly put at ease by the protection of our atmosphere and asteroids’ propensity to aim themselves at Russia.

But then I make the mistake of looking up more articles about asteroids. I read about their devastating effect on the environment and the fact that many scientists now recognize them as our number one threat for global disaster. Stephen Hawking (you’ve heard of him. pretty smart dude) says that any asteroid over 20 km in diameter that hits Earth will “bring an end to all complex life on Earth.” Any ease I have attained is now completely washed away.

I notice that I can’t stop looking at the sky now. It’s blue and perfect, Prague Castle is carved out in the distance against it. There is a little serenity in this, but then I imagine a Walmart hurting out of the sky at 66,000 miles an hour and hitting it, and serenity is gone. I hoist my binoculars and scan the horizon.

My gloom and anxiety develop into a full rolling boil, and I make the mistake of examining them. When hearing about random death – a stabbing, shooting, car accident – I have the very human tendency to try and separate myself from it in some way. I look for details in a car accident such as whether the person was wearing a seatbelt or if he was driving drunk. If he wasn’t or was, I calm myself because I always wear my seatbelt and never drink and drive. With my separation successfully attained, I can then go back to my little hovel of solitude and watch a sitcom.

When I can’t separate myself from the death, such as a completely random murder, I am far more disturbed. This death had nothing to do with the person himself, it would have happened to anyone at that place at that time. And, naturally, it could have been me innocently eating a cheeseburger when the car crashed through the window of that McDonald’s. An asteroid death would not only be almost literally the most random death, but the asteroid would not care who was in its path when it hit. And, as we have seen, the damage would be enormous.

Even if we recovered, everything would change here on Earth. And I wonder if maybe it’s that aspect of the situation that I am having trouble dealing with. I like things the way they are now. Sure, I’d like a few of the world’s politicians to tie themselves to a flying Walmart and Dr. Strangelove it into another planet, I could make a bit more money, and George Wendt doesn’t answer my fan mail, but otherwise, life ain’t bad. If a Walmart-sized rock hit the Earth, things that matter now would not matter tomorrow. I hoist my binoculars again.

I am also depressed because scientists are now defining the size of celestial bodies in terms of “Walmarts.” Well, this latest asteroid was a three Walmart asteroid, Doctor, so the devastation would have been total. Though I admit there’s metaphorical relevance in civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of a Walmart, is this really where we have gotten to as a society? What’s next? Are doctors going to start defining tumor size in relation to their mobile computing device (it’s about the size of a Galaxy Note 8, Mr. Jones. I’m sorry)?

With the day gone and nothing having come out of the sky, I decide for an evening beer to celebrate life. Well not life, but not death either. I make a note to write to NASA tomorrow proposing that we name the asteroid Walmart One, which is much better than 2018 GE3. I just named an asteroid, I guess that’s something.

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