Our Place In Space: The Implications Of Impact Catastrophes On Human Thought And Behaviour

Abstract of talk by Gerrit L. Verschuur

Physics Department, University of Memphis. e-mail: gverschr[at]msuvx1.memphis.edu
Presented at the SIS Conference: Natural Catastrophes during Bronze Age Civilisations (11th-13th July 1997)

Somewhere in the earth's future lurks a fiery cataclysm that will be triggered by impact with a large cosmic body. When this happens, it will be no more or less than another instance of mindless violence that has shaped our planet and created the context within which life emerged and evolved. Comet and asteroid collisions with earth are now seen as crucial to the origin and evolution of life, and, as many of us appreciate, the origin, evolution and destruction of civilizations. Today, we confront the stark fact that we live on a planet that has been shaped by violent and catastrophic events, catastrophic from the point of view of species and civilizations that might have been unfortunate to experience them, yet creative from the point of view of those that followed. This circumstance is still with us. Future cosmic visitations hold the key to our collective, long-term destiny. After a few rnillion of years of human evolution, which began after more than four billion years of life on earth, the mind of Homo Sapiens is becoming aware of its existence in a cosmic context. Some part of what we have learned about the ways of nature is truly terrifying, at least if we value our long-term survival as a species. The message carried by the discovery of the threat of comet or asteroid impact means is that we can no longer assume that civilization will go on forever. But once we become aware of this, what do we do next? Now that we appreciate that we are perpetually poised on the edge of extinction, what is our species going to do with this knowledge? And what does this awareness imply regarding our place in space?

GERRIT L. VERSCHUUR is Adjunct Professor in the Physics Department, University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee. After obtaining his Ph. D. at the University of Manchester, where he worked at Jodrell Bank, he emigrated to the USA. As a professional radio astronomer he pioneered the measurement of the interstellar magnetic field in the context of broader studies of hydrogen gas between the stars. He has published over 70 papers in scientific journals, has published a similar number of articles on popular astronomy and has written seven books and co-authored or edited three more. His latest book is IMPACT! THE THREAT OF COMETS AND ASTEROIDS (Oxford University Press, 1996) grew out of his continued interest in the fact that life on earth exists and evolves in the context of cosmic phenomena. He is currently engaged in a number of commercial ventures based on devices he has invented in recent months.