Scanning Retrospective, No. 17

Foresight Snippets – No. 17

[Originally published] October 2001
Special Issue: Wild Cards

  • Suddenly, the World Changes…
  • Britain Says It Is Taking Asteroid Impact Threat Seriously
  • Searching for ET at Home

Suddenly, the World Changes…

On Tuesday 11th September 2001, the Foresight and Planning Unit was running the second day of a scenario workshop with members of the Information Resources group in the Library. In that workshop we spent a fair bit of time talking about “Wild Cards” and how such events can literally change the world overnight — Wild Cards are usually defined as low-probability events which would have a very high impact if they occurred, such as a comet hitting the Earth, or contact with alien intelligence, etc. The workshop presentation slides dealing with Wild Cards are headed “Suddenly, the World Changes…” for this very reason. As part of this process, the various working groups are asked to pull a Wild Card from a set of possibilities, the idea being to assess the impact, large or small, of the Wild Card event on the scenario “worlds” they have constructed. The reason we do this is simple: If we accept that there will be Wild Cards in the near future, then the only effective defence is to begin systematically thinking about them now, and examining their implications ahead of time. And, as we now know all too well, that night (Melbourne time) the world suddenly did change.

See: The Arlington Institute web site

Britain Says It Is Taking Asteroid Impact Threat Seriously

Recent science fiction films such as Armageddon, and Deep Impact (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s book The Hammer of God), have dramatised and brought to wide public attention the threat of impacts from space by comets or asteroids (known generically as Near Earth Objects, or NEOs). These are Wild Cards of the highest order. A recent, very visible example of such an event was the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy with the planet Jupiter in 1994. The so-called “Tunguska event” of 1908, where something exploded above an unpopulated forest in Siberia, is considered to be a recent example of such an occurrence on Earth. The British Government is now sufficiently concerned about the possibility of a NEO impact that it has started a program to watch for and catalogue such potentially devastating objects, and to prepare emergency evacuation plans. But such an impact, of itself, is not the only possible threat to our survival — we ourselves could be an even greater one. The late astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that since such an impact would so strongly resemble a nuclear warhead detonation (absent the gamma radiation and fallout), it might trigger a nuclear war, especially in a time of high global tension — in the panic of the moment, a careful analysis of the explosion debris and cloud might not be carried out. He also remarked on a plausible (and ironic) scenario: following a fairly minor impact from space, our civilisation responds by promptly destroying itself.

Tunguska Event Home page
Excerpt from Carl Sagan’s book “Cosmos”

Searching for ET at Home

Carl Sagan was well known as a scientist and astronomer — his popular TV science series Cosmos is estimated to have been seen by more than 5% of the global population — but he is also known for his science fiction novel Contact, dealing with the consequences of receiving a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence (this was later made into the film starring Jodie Foster). The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has a long history. Recently, however, it has become possible for anyone owning a computer with Internet access to take part in this search. I joined the so-called “SETI@home” project two-and-a-half years ago. The way it works is amazingly simple: a screensaver program is installed on a PC; then in idle time, the program analyses data taken from a radio telescope for evidence of an intelligent signal. As the project team say “there is a small but enchanting possibility” of processing a work unit which finds a signal. This is an inspired use of massively parallel distributed computing (an idea which has since been copied, adapted and used for other applications), and an equally inspired and brilliant way for the general public to get involved in science. For me, though, the real issue behind this potential first-order Wild Card event is simply this (and it gives one pause to really consider it): What account would we give, to dispassionate alien observers, of our stewardship of the Planet Earth?

Sources: SETI@home web site at University of California, Berkeley
NASA History Office

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2001 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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