Thursday, December 31, 2009

Playing God?

Here's a fun story from the Telegraph:

    Russia plans to stop asteroid crashing to Earth

    Russia wants to send a spacecraft to knock the large Apophis asteroid off a possible collision course with Earth.

    The ambitious plan envisages the co-operation of Nasa, the European and Chinese space agencies to pull off a mission with echoes of a Hollywood blockbuster.

    Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's space agency, said it would assess the difficulties of knocking the asteroid Apophis out of harm's way.

    The 885-foot-wide asteroid was first discovered in 2004. Astronomers estimated the chances of it smashing into Earth in its first flyby in 2029 were as high as 1-in-37, but have since lowered their estimate.

The rest of it is here.

Now, setting aside for the moment the fact that I already saw this movie, I am left with the same question I have whenever I read about this sort of thing, viz., do we know for a fact that it would be a good idea to stop an 885-foot-wide asteroid from crashing into the Earth?

Sure, it sounds like the sort of thing we should take on. But here's the thing: My chums on the right-wingnut fringe of society keep insisting that stuff like stem-cell research, cloning, genetics research, unplugging a dead person's respirator, etc., etc., is wrong because it's "playing God." And they always say that as if it's a bad thing, playing God, although, I dunno, I can certainly think of worse examples to imitate.

But let's go along with the idea that "playing God" is a bad thing. And let's skip over my usual question, namely, "Don't we 'play God' much if not most of the time?", say, every evening when I take my cholesterol medication without the slightest thought given to whether God wants my HDL to go down and my LDL to go up, or whatever's supposed to be happening. We'll leave all that for another day.

But back to the asteroid Apophis: How do we know that God hasn't sent it hurtling toward Mother Earth because that's how he plans to end the world? To my knowledge, most religions preach some kind of end-of-days scenario, however vague or specific they prefer to make it. Maybe Apophis is it!

Maybe this is supposed to happen!

And maybe our attempt to prevent it from happening is, well, "playing God." Which, we previously agreed, is a bad thing.

At this point you might say, "Well, you know, if God wants this to happen then it will happen. Nothing we can do to thwart God, after all."

To which I say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, buckaroo! How come you're not so sanguine about, say, genetics research? Or cloning? I mean, if God doesn't want us monkeying around with those things, either, then can we not safely assume that all the effort will simply come to naught and we have nothing to worry about?"

One might--might!--almost form the opinion that it's only "playing God" if it's something of which we disapprove. Otherwise it is both hunky and dory.

So, first thing we need to do is get Bruce Willis. He knows how to handle asteroids.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Not So Fast!

Here are several of the headline articles in today's edition of Salon's e-mail newsletter, "Today in Salon":
      * Andrew O'Hehir on the best movies of the decade
      * Directors of the decade: No. 3: The Coen brothers
      * Stephanie Zacharek on the best movies of the decade
      * Films of the decade: "Spirited Away"
      * Films of the decade: "Up the Yangtze"

Add to this the hideous number of ads--print and e-mail--TV commentators' (I can hardly bring myself to call more than a couple of them "reporters") pronouncements, and other odds and ends, and one might be excused for thinking that the decade is drawing to a close.

Well, it is. In about a year.

It's not difficult, nor is it tricky. Whenever we reach this point in a decade, someone tries to argue that it has to do with the Julian calendar, or the Jewish calendar or which year Jesus of Nazareth might have been born, or sunspots, or whatever. In fact, none of those has anything to do with when a decade begins and ends.

A decade is a span of ten years--presumably we can all agree on that.

No matter where you start counting, you don't have a "zeroth" year. You start with Year One. So the first decade -- Mayan calendar, Chinese calendar, insurance company calendar -- is Year One through Year Ten.

And there's our pattern: Decades begin in years that end in 1 and end in years that end in 0.

Like 2010, for instance.

So in the commonly used Gregorian incarnation of the Anno Domini or Christian Era calendar, the current decade began on the first day of 2001 and will conclude on the last day of 2010. Because we count them from 1 through 10, not from 0 through 9.

I don't make the rules; I merely enforce them.