The Godfather: Peter Corris on science fiction, astronomy and the next Big Bang
Few subjects interest me less than astronomy and space travel. I can’t be bothered with what’s happening light years away, the Big Bang or dark matter. I watched the moon landing with some interest but, with the Vietnam war raging, I saw it mainly just as another piece of American triumphalism. When Reagan dreamed up his mad ‘Star Wars’ proposition I wasn’t in the least surprised.
I never watched Dr Who or Star Wars and the only science fiction film I ever enjoyed was Alien and that was because I admired Sigourney Weaver in a tank top. I fell asleep during 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of science fiction books I’ve read. Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) and a collection of his stories. Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber (1970), and that’s about it. This intermittent flicker of interest didn’t last.
Back when there was a market in the magazines for short stories, just to see if I could, I wrote a science fiction story that was published in the Bulletin. It was about space travel, but I forget the details. My friend Damien Broderick, a renowned science-fiction writer, told me what I’d written had all been done before and I’d better stick to crime, history and espionage
I have tried to read Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick and others but can’t get far. It’s a classic case of an inability to suspend disbelief, which, especially in the case of science fiction, is crippling.
I listen regularly to Robyn Williams’s Science Show on Radio National but switch off when I hear about the Hubble Telescope or one that can photograph things happening (or have they already happened or are they yet to happen?) in galaxies beyond our own. Was there once life on Mars? I simply don’t care.
So I was very surprised to find myself listening intently to a segment in a Radio National Drive program that was an interview with astronomer John Bochanski. An American, one of his interests is the study of asteroids, particularly those that have hit the earth or might do so. Now here I could feel the relevance.
He spoke about an asteroid approximately the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs (I was always intrigued by that – as a matter of palaeontology, rather than astronomy) which has a measurable chance of hitting the earth. The asteroid is made of rock and iron and that would be a big bang indeed.
The interviewer asked what strategies are in place to avert disasters like this and the reply was interesting. The astronomer said that it would be possible to destroy the asteroid with a nuclear device à la certain Hollywood movies, but that would result in radioactive fragments arriving on earth with possible unfortunate effects easily imagined.
Another trick would be to send up a metal satellite to orbit beside the asteroid and allow its magnetic pull to deflect the asteroid from its Earth-bound trajectory. Also, speculatively, astronauts could be sent up to paint part of the dark mass a light colour and the effect of the sun could alter the pathway. ‘Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck,’ Bochanski suggested could do the job. I hadn’t realised that Ben Affleck had attained this status but I can see it.
All good stuff and, happily, the collision, if it were to happen, won’t be until much later in the millennium. I won’t have to worry and that’s plenty of time to prepare and for the guys with the right stuff to suit up.