Why Asteroid Panic Is On the Rise | Asteroid 2012 DA14 & 2011 AG5

Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 08 March 2012 Time: 09:17 AM ET

Artist’s impression of an asteroid slamming into Earth CREDIT: NASA

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is making headlines this week, despite the fact that the “incoming” space rock, as it has been described, definitely won’t hit Earth.

The 150-foot-wide space rock will pass within 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) of us next February. That’s nearer than the orbits of some geosynchronous satellites, and the closest shave of a mid-size asteroid ever predicted before the actual flyby has occurred. But even so, NASA assures the world that there is no chance of asteroid 2012 DA14 hitting Earth next year. Zero, zip, zilch.

Why, then, all the terror about this unthreatening space rock? And why the recent doom and gloom about another space rock, the big asteroid 2011 AG5, a football-field-size rock that NASA says will almost certainly not collide with the planet in 2040? Don Yeomans, head of the Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, blames the upsurge in asteroid panic on two main factors.

“One problem is that the Internet is wide open to anyone to say anything,” Yeomans told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to SPACE.com. In the past, claims about asteroids were written up by scientists and submitted to peer-reviewed journals, a critical process that “would filter out nonsense,” he said. “If something was published, it was reliable.”

But today, hundreds of scary blurbs about the latest asteroid get written and posted to blogs and tabloid-like sites before NASA scientists can vet the claim and publish their official, less-terrifying statement regarding the asteroid’s trajectory.

“In the case of this asteroid, you get hundreds of hits on the Internet, and in the case of the 2012 [Mayan calendar] business, millions of hits suggesting disaster. And you get a few folks in the media and at NASA who put out the truth. But people go online and see millions about disasters and a few saying ‘no disaster’ and they think, well, the majority of these say I should be worried,” Yeomans said.

[Killer Asteroids: We’re WISE to You Now!]

The other half of the problem is that many people do not know how to judge the validity of the pseudo-scientific information they read. “There are millions of people out there who have not been trained in the scientific method, and don’t understand that evidence is critical for supporting any new idea — especially any dramatic departure from the current state,” he said.

In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who lack knowledge in a given area, such as science, are unable to accurately assess their own abilities in that area, and so they aren’t aware that they are coming to blatantly false conclusions.

David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University who first characterized the phenomenon, recently explained, “Many people don’t have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don’t realize how off their evaluations might be.”

There is no obvious remedy for the one-two punch of widespread misinformation and a lack of mental tools for evaluating it, but Yeomans said scientists need to do a better job engaging with the public. He and his group regularly address people’s fears regarding near-Earth asteroids by making statements and issuing news releases.

“The hope is that people will understand that we are the more trusted sources of information,” Yeomans said.

In this oblique view, the path of near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 is seen passing close to Earth on Feb. 15, 2013. CREDIT: NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office

And in the case of 2012 DA14, the information is this: There is zero chance of the asteroid hitting Earth next year. The chance of a collision is slightly higher — 1 in 80,000 — when it swings past in 2020, but radar and optical observations of the space rock during next year’s flyby will help the scientists nail down its trajectory, which will in all likelihood reduce the 2020 risk estimate to zero.

There are better things to worry about even than the absolute worst-case scenario. If observations next year show that current estimates are way off and the asteroid and Earth are on track to collide in 2020, then NASA would try to deflect it by bumping it with a space probe sometime before then — a move Yeomans says is doable.

Even if that failed, any Earthbound asteroid has a 70 percent chance of plunging into the ocean, and a much higher chance still of impacting only an ocean or an unoccupied land region.

An asteroid this size strikes Earth every 700 years or so, Yeomans said. Humanity has survived innumerable such events.

This story was provided by Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to SPACE.com. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover and Life’s Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Why Asteroid Panic Is On the Rise | Asteroid 2012 DA14 & 2011 AG5 | Space.com.


Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012

By MARK STEVENSON | AP – Thu, Nov 24, 2011

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s archaeology institute downplays theories that the ancient Mayas predicted some sort of apocalypse would occur in 2012, but on Thursday it acknowledged that a second reference to the date exists on a carved fragment found at a southern Mexico ruin site.

Most experts had cited only one surviving reference to the date in Mayan glyphs, a stone tablet from the Tortuguero site in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.

But the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement that there is in fact another apparent reference to the date at the nearby Comalcalco ruin. The inscription is on the carved or molded face of a brick. Comalcalco is unusual among Mayan temples in that it was constructed of bricks.

Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.

The "Comalcalco Brick," as the second fragment is known, has been discussed by experts in some online forums. Many still doubt that it is a definite reference to Dec. 21, 2012 or Dec. 23, 2012, the dates cited by proponents of the theory as the possible end of the world.

“Some have proposed it as another reference to 2012, but I remain rather unconvinced,” David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a message to The Associated Press.

Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick “‘is a Calendar Round,’ a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years.”

The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.

But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.

“There’s no reason it couldn’t be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, “he/she/it arrives.”

“There’s no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical that prophetic,” Stuart wrote.

Both inscriptions — the Tortuguero tablet and the Comalcalco brick — were probably carved about 1,300 years ago and both are cryptic in some ways.
The Tortuguero inscription describes something that is supposed to occur in 2012 involving Bolon Yokte, a mysterious Mayan god associated with both war and creation.

However, erosion and a crack in the stone make the end of the passage almost illegible, though some read the last eroded glyphs as perhaps saying, “He will descend from the sky.”

The Comalcalco brick is also odd in that the molded or inscribed faces of the bricks were probably laid facing inward or covered with stucco, suggesting they were not meant to be seen.

The Institute of Anthropology and History has long said rumors of a world-ending or world-changing event in late December 2012 are a Westernized misinterpretation of Mayan calendars.

The institute repeated Thursday that “western messianic thought has twisted the cosmovision of ancient civilizations like the Maya.”

The institute’s experts say the Mayas saw time as a series of cycles that began and ended with regularity, but with nothing apocalyptic at the end of a given cycle.

Given the strength of Internet rumors about impending disaster in 2012, the institute is organizing a special round table of 60 Mayan experts next week at the archaeological site of Palenque, in southern Mexico, to “dispel some of the doubts about the end of one era and the beginning of another, in the Mayan Long Count calendar.”

via Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012 – Yahoo! News.