Mon, 31 Jan 2005 14:26 UTC
What you will find are the thoughts and feelings of an individual who passionately believes in what he is trying to achieve. This is a brave man carrying a message that no one wants to hear and he is prepared to take the brickbats and mocking that inevitably accompany such a message.
What other tribute could I possibly offer, aside from accusing him of also being a very warm, approachable human being, other than to say that I only wish he was my Lembit Opik MP...
Lembit is the leading voice in the UK on asteroids and the little matter of one of them smacking into us, probably sooner rather than later. And one of those bits of rock doesn't have to be particularly large in order to cause immense devastation and loss of life. Or rather, let me put it this way. If on Christmas day last year I had told you that a giant wave would sweep across south East Asia, hit land and cause the loss of 220,000 lives (so far), you would not have believed me. There's no argument - you wouldn't have believed me. The next day it happened.
We need to wake up rapidly and do something.
SM: You are very well known for your interest in near earth objects. How long has it been a subject of interest to you?
LO: 33 years.
SM: Is this as a result of your grandfather?
LO: I would say that I started taking a very significant interest in meteors, comets and so forth when I was about 6 because, as you said, directly as a result of the influence of my grandfather. So I was reading astronomy books when most people were reading "Janet and John". That was probably the very early 1970s and I actually converted that into a practical interest in the sense of doing something about it in 1998 when I first raised it in the Houses of Parliament.
SM: Was it that Horizon programme that triggered your interest?
LO: The practical trigger to action was a chance meeting with a man called J. Tate who is Director of Spacegaurd UK, at a meeting of the Shropshire Astronomical Society. He was making a presentation about Spacegaurd's work and was explaining that the odds were stacked in favour of an impact and he went on to describe the colossal damage that these objects would do.
He explained furthermore that there was something we could do to prevent them by tracking them and finding ways to divert or to prevent an impact from occurring if we had enough notice.
That was in 1998 and at that point I spoke with J and since the science was absolutely cast iron, we had the evidence to turn this into a political matter of investment by the Government and I got my adjournment debate in March 1999. But it was the meeting with J. Tate that finally kicked me into political action.
Then I really decided to carry on in the political sphere, as my grandfather had done in the astronomical sphere. He spoke about the threat and danger of impact long before it was fashionable to do so, even in the astronomical world in the 1950s for example.
The Horizon programme was about the Chicxulub impact which wiped out the dinosaurs, probably, and it was fortuitous timing because it came out at just about the time I was trying to get this issue on to the political map. I like to think there are some other programmes that have been prompted by the campaign that we have run because everyone now knows about asteroid impacts and I'm not so sure that would have happened had we not turned it into a political issue.
SM: I would imagine that you find the whole process of dealing with the UK government on this subject incredibly frustrating.
LO: It is, it's very difficult to get the British Government to act on it and I can understand why. On the face of it, this sounds like cranky science fiction. It sounds like a case of an Ed Wood 1950s B movie. That's because the idea of a catastrophic impact by a celestial body has not got any bearing on recent Human experience. There are maybe echoes of previous impacts in the cultural legends of the Human race but there hasn't been a catastrophic impact leading to a major loss of life in recent times.
So, since politics lives in the present and the future more than in the past, it's not surprising that politicians have said, "Well, this seems too small of a risk for us to take seriously."
SM: Do you think that one of the positive benefits, if one can use such a phrase in relation to the tsunami in south East Asia is that Mankind is vulnerable to major natural disasters and do you think there is a chance that this might actually wake some people up?
LO: Yes, I agree. I'm pretty sure that the tsunami has been something of a geological wake up call to World governments and until last Christmas, December 26th 2004, the word "tsunami" sounded like a foreign phrase. Now it sounds like a catastrophe. It's just reminded a lot of people about the power of nature and crucially, it's caused people to make the calculation about prevention versus cure. It's perfectly obvious that the benefit of prevention of loss of life would have far exceeded the cost of having an early warning system. Exactly the same applies to asteroids. What I worry about is this; do we have to have a significant impact before people think, "Oh, we need to have an early warning system after all" which is exactly what has happened with the tsunami.
To the British Government's credit, they did take my advice and commissioned a Near Earth Object task group to look into the danger and to report back. The task group, not surprisingly, confirmed everything I'd been claiming. For example, the statistic which has chilled many people is that you are 750 times more likely to die as a result of an asteroid impact than you are to win the National Lottery. Suddenly the statistics have come into the grasp of the general public. Some people do win the National Lottery! To use the National Lottery phrase, "It could happen to you".
So we're winning the public debate but the government, having commissioned a report and having received a list of 14 recommendations for action, have only actually acted on a tiny number of them. I think there's maybe one that's been completed, a couple are work in progress and some haven't been touched at all.
SM: Obviously the 14 recommendations involve expenditure. Is there this feeling that the government aren't bothered because NASA has supposedly got it covered?
LO: To an extent I think the British would like to leave it to the Americans but I think there's a bigger problem here, and it's this. The government subconsciously make their calculation that even if their own task group recommends 14 action steps, they themselves don't need to carry them out because somehow, psychologically, they still feel far away from the danger and the problem.
But I also think there's a political fear here in that if they invest money on a tracking programme they will get criticised by opposition parties for wasting tax payer's money on a Mickey Mouse - Flash Gordon project.
SM: So there's still a problem about being taken seriously?
LO: I think there is because there are contradictions in how the government approaches risk. They're willing to impose all kinds of incredibly strict regulations on farming to try and eliminate miniscule health dangers but they stand by doing very little about a potentially Armageddon type impact which in actuarial terms stands to kill far more people than CJD, BSE, food poisoning and phosphates put together. Therefore it's not joined up thinking about risk management, which is causing the problem.
SM: Do you attach any responsibility or blame if I can use that word to Lord Sainsbury for this?
LO: I don't actually in the sense that Lord Sainsbury has been more pro-active than just about anybody else in government. He took the risk of commissioning the report, admittedly on my advice but he was the guy in the front line. He also has met on a number of occasions with me and others to consider the issue. And in fairness, he has caused the release of significant amounts of money to the British National Space Centre to provide an information service to the general public about this issue.
So, while I would like Lord Sainsbury to pro-actively lobby the Prime Minister to raise this as part of the next G8 agenda, I don't hold him responsible for inaction because had it not been for his willingness to take a risk personally, we wouldn't have got this far.
So actually I think he's one of the heroes of the piece. I think a fear of falling is the greatest culprit. There's a mixed up risk management strategy by this government. They are willing to commit us to a questionable war in Iraq but they're resistant to making a small investment with the other G8 countries on a dead certified Earth threatening risk.
SM: It's weird logic.
LO: It is. We're off to fight a war in Iraq on the basis of imaginary weapons of mass destruction. They're willing to do nothing in the face of a guaranteed weapon of mass destruction which already has Earth's name written all over it and which we haven't yet identified.
SM: Is there any consensus at the moment about the best way of dealing with an asteroid that's hurtling towards us?
LO: No. There are various options from a nuclear detonation to using a rocket as a tug, to encasing the object in a big cosmic bin bag and towing it out of harms way. There are two problems. We don't know for sure what these things are made of and Deep Impact will help us a lot in our understanding of what comets are like and whether they are one single, solid object or whether they are like an ashtray held together by very week gravity. We need to know the answer to that before we can be sure what to do.
Secondly, there hasn't been enough work done on deflection processes but ironically, one of the best lines of approach of investigation is the American Star Wars programme, from which Deep Impact itself was spawned.
SM: That's a very weird programme. There are all sorts of theories that have been spawned about that.
LO: The principle is the same because in both cases one is trying to intercept a small very fast moving object from a great distance and one needs a very high degree of reliability in achieving that kind of contact. Interestingly, although there are many flaws in the "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" films, at the very, very most basic level the general idea was right. You have to intercept and divert these objects.
SM: How deeply involved are you with Spaceguard?
LO: You're probably best to ask Spaceguard that but I feel closely connected to the key players and I feel they have helped me in this campaign more than I can say in words. Had it not been for J. Tate, I would probably not have raised it in Parliament and furthermore, had it not been for J. Tate's continuing, ceaseless efforts to keep this on the political map, together with the likes of Mark Bailey from Armagh Observatory, Bill Napier from there and a number of other people from around the country, then this subject would go off the radar. It's thanks to them it's on the radar and in many ways I regard myself as their political servant to raise it in those circles when I can, when they feel it's appropriate for me to do so or when the opportunities arise.
In terms of my own commitment, I want to see this to a conclusion. I define success as whenever I get the British Government to agree an accord with the other seven G8 countries to invest perhaps a million pounds a year each in a tracking programme, which should track nine tenths of the objects that could potentially threaten the Earth.
As the campaign began, Spaceguard, by coincidence, moved to a location about 12 miles from my constituency. They're based at the observatory at Knighton.
SM: Have you ever been laughed at or mocked for your views?
LO: Oh yes. When I first started, an unusually large number of people turned up for the original debate because they thought I was writing a cosmic suicide note on my political career. And there was sniggering and laughing, and I made it worse by starting with the phrase, "Mr. Deputy Speaker, I've got a problem with asteroids". Of course, every Smart Alec in Britain decided to send me some kind of ointment.
By the end of the speech, when I'd explained that the dinosaurs were probably wiped out by an asteroid and that the earth had suffered cataclysmic events many times in its past, that the Earth had indeed been created by a series of bombardments from space in the early days of the solar system and that the moon itself was the result of an earth sterilising and melting event about 3,900 million years ago, when I told them about the fact that the Earth is continually hit by fifty thousand tons of space debris every year and that the most recent time an object large enough to incinerate London hit the Earth on 30th June 1908, they weren't laughing at the end of it.
I went into this knowing that it would be a hard sell and that people would laugh, but so sure have I been of the science that I knew that the facts would run out in the end, and that is exactly what has come to pass.
SM: Given that the British government is dragging its feet on this at the moment, what advice would you give to members of the public who are concerned about this subject in terms of what they can do?
LO: My request is always the same, and it's this; please, please, please write to your member of parliament and ask them in your own words to get the government to take action on this, and request a reply to your letter. Sometimes they will ask me about it, MPs from all parties come and ask me about it and that's fine because I can provide them with the kind of information they need to see that this is science fact, not science fiction.
But more than anything, if MPs are getting letters from their constituents, then they'll understand this is an issue on the political radar. And the more letters they get, the more likely it is that they will act. That's all I ask. It would just help me so much, that people who are concerned about this put pen to paper and send their letters of concern to their MPs. I can do the rest then.
I'm absolutely sure there is going to be a significant impact at some point in the next few years. There just is.
SM: One frustrating thing is that NASA scientists are constantly being criticised for crying wolf.
LO: That's true but I must be honest and say that it's in our interests to have these claims that objects are coming close because it raises the ante. Sometimes these objects are leaving the Earth's environment before we even spot them. There was one 300 metre object that actually travelled between the moon and the Earth. Now had that hit us that would have incinerated Asia or Europe. And that's the problem. We're living in a ten pin bowling alley where these things are the balls and we're one of the pins.
So I don't mind a little bit of sensationalism because frankly, no measure of media sensationalism would really prepare people for the calamity of an impact. J. Tate isn't so keen on that, he thinks the sensationalism isn't so good but, from a political point of view, it helps because it keeps the subject in front of the public. The politics of fear sent men to the moon. It's a sad thing. I'd love there to be a positive dynamic here but frankly if it's fear we have too use, so be it.
Comment: Did you notice the politician's surprise that an asteroid "actually travelled between the moon and the Earth" early in the last decade?
That has happened multiple times since then. Just three weeks ago a rock came as close to Earth as it could have done being pulled into our atmosphere; the planet's gravity instead changed the rock's direction by nearly 90 degrees.
It is highly unlikely that world leaders at the highest level are not aware of the threat of a meteorite impact. We have been suggesting that they ARE aware, and have been for a very long time. The reader might wish to peruse Laura Knight-Jadczyk's Comets and Catastrophe series. They are also aware that they cannot do anything to prevent impacts such as those described in the above article. And so, they marginalize the subject and feign disinterest all the while they are making their own preparations to survive.
There is much evidence to strongly suggest that much of the landmass of Western Europe was destroyed in an meteorite impact around 540 AD, ushering in what is known today as "the dark ages". Further evidence from the study of fossilised tree rings and ice core samples, not to mention historical records, suggests that this most recent event was but one of many events that have happened in a cyclical pattern throughout the course of human history.
As far as we know, no human has ever got out of this place "alive". Perhaps now that the Universe, by posing a clear and present danger to our very existence, is drawing attention to that existence, we might all begin, even at this late hour, to ponder just what the real meaning of our lives, individually and collectively, really is.