Saturday, March 26, 2011
Willows and Asteroids
In the interest of lowering my hypertension below its customary pressure-cooker level, I took a long stroll today along a neighborhood bicycle path. I saw hints of spring. Some of the bushes are starting to bud out. One tall willow (above) had striking yellow-green branches that looked almost luminescent.
The stroll was so restful that I decided to extend it to pay a visit to Apophis, the killer asteroid. I found him hurtling through the vast empyrean beyond the sun. As a rule, Apophis disdains talking with carbon-based life forms, but I persuaded him to make an exception for me.
Wagman: "So, the NASA scientists are calculating that you'll pass close to the Earth during 2029 and then pass by again in 2036."
Apophis: "Let the scientists calculate if it makes them happy. It's too early to tell. There's a lot of stuff pushing and pulling me out here: overlapping gravity wells from The Big Guy himself and all his major planets, attraction by other asteroids that are wiggling around in complicated trajectories, and solar wind. Call it a hunch, but I'm betting on a 2029 impact myself."
Wagman: "This astonishes me! Yet you say this so calmly. Don't you feel anything when you think about a possible impact with the Earth?"
Apophis: "Feel? It's all just astrophysics; I don't take any of this personally. Although, to be honest with you, as I get older I begin to see the benefits of giving up my solitary wandering to settle down with a nice plump planet."
Wagman: "The collision would be devastating."
Apophis: "Only to the Earth's surface."
Wagman: "That surface is home to all of humanity. And I have a townhouse and an old Volvo there."
Apophis: "Pity. But like I said, it's astrophysics. What can I do about it?"
Wagman: "Well, I notice that you have some asymmetrical craters."
Apophis: "You're no beauty yourself, but I don't point out your wrinkles and blotches."
Wagman: "No, you misunderstand me. I'm referring to drag. Just like a golf ball's dimples affect drag, you could rotate your craters to adjust your drag going through the solar wind. Generate the right amount of spin, and you could hook or slice your way clear of the Earth.
Apophis: "No thanks. Too much risk of losing control and spending the coming eons madly tumbling head over heels."
Wagman: "Head over heels?"
Apophis: "A figure of speech that I picked up from the radio waves that Earth has been blaring into the solar system for the last eighty years. Hey, I'm making the effort to speak to you in your own vernacular, buster. Spare me the sarcasm.
Apophis: "Anyway, no more time to chat. But I'll see you later."
Wagman: "For a second chat, you mean? I have many questions to ask you."
Apophis: "No, no second chat."
Wagman: "Oh, you mean in 2029."