LOGAN -- The famous T.S. Eliot quote ponders the way the world will end, "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
Phil Plait, aka Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomer, is betting on the former, not the latter.
Plait, a scientist and pop culture hero among fans of logic and scientific thought, will speak tonight at Utah State University about themes from his book, "Death from the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World."
"There are lots of ways to wipe out life on earth, but the talk is focused on asteroids," said Plait, adding that one talk was not enough time to fully explain how the earth could be consumed in a solar flair or sucked into a black hole.
"For me, asteroids are the most likely way the universe would kill us, and there are ways we could prevent it. It's something we could do something about," he said.
What we could do, Plait said, is send rockets to bump distant asteroids discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Such a project would take years of planning and precise calculations. Secondary probes would need to be sent with the rockets, to determine whether the asteroids' revised orbits would clear the earth or possibly lead to an additional threat in the more distant future.
"Amazingly, all the technology exists, even some of the stuff that sounds far-fetched and ridiculous," Plait said. "There are fancy-shmancy advanced rocket drives that would be critical for this."
The vast majority of asteroids of the billions of asteroids that come close to earth pose no threat, Plait said.
"There are just a few thousand we need to find, and determine the danger," he said. "And if they hit us tomorrow, oh well. But if they are headed our way in 2040, we need to have a plan in place, and time to test it. We don't want to wait until there's 100 percent certainty of impact to start planning."
Scientists need to identify asteroids that will cross the earth's path, and determine the size and trajectory. A house-sized asteroid would not do global damage, but an asteroid the size of a football stadium could, Plait said. Blowing up such a rock would not solve the problem.
"That would be a huge mistake," he said. "It would turn one problem into a thousand."
Scientists have identified a large asteroid that will pass close in 2023, Plait said, and it's possible earth's gravitational pull could alter the asteroid's path enough that it would hit us in 2040.
"It's big, so it could take several years to push it out of the way," he said. "We don't know of any asteroid that is going to hit us anytime soon, but it doesn't mean we won't find one tomorrow.
"The point is they're out there, and we need to find them. We don't need to lie awake at night in a hard sweat, worrying, but we need to find something we can do about them, since we can."