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SALT LAKE CITY — Threats from the skies are real, and they could could push the human race to extinction, according to a prominent astronomer who spoke Friday in Logan. But he's quick to denounce a popular "end of the world" notion making the rounds this year.
The fearful — or playful — fad now is the supposed 2012 doomsday prophecy of the Mayan calendar. A prominent astronomer says it's all nonsense. But even he is raising the alarm about "death from the skies."
And astronomer-blogger Phil Plait enjoys talking about the scary, but improbable events that could snuff us out in a twinkling of the cosmic eye. He wrote a book on all the ways the human race could come to an end.
"Astroid impacts, big solar storm, nearby supernova, there's a super-violent event called a gamma-ray burst. And this can wipe out life across the galaxy," he said.
He's visiting Utah State's College of Science to deliver a message that is slightly unsettling.
"Space is fairly dangerous," he said. "I like to say that the universe is trying to kill us."
This is a guy who puts no stock in the Mayan Calendar 2012 end of the world frenzy, but he gets asked for advice about it all the time.
"I shouldn't have to do this," he said. "It's just totally made up, out of whole cloth. It's just nonsense. But it is literally scaring people and having an impact on what they're doing."
Space is fairly dangerous. I like to say that the universe is trying to kill us.
He worries about real threats to Earth, verified by science. There's not much we can do about extremely improbable threats like black holes, exploding stars and gamma-ray bursts, Plait said. But the most likely threat is from asteroids, which most scientists now accept as the instrument of doom for the dinosaurs. Every shooting star is a warning sign.
"Asteroid impacts are rare; they don't happen that much," Plait said. "But we just had something about the size of an SUV explode over California."
If we sit around and do nothing long enough, a big asteroid hit is almost certain, Plait said, so let's do something.
"We have to find these asteroids," he said. "We have to find out, if we see one, how do we do this? Do we blow it up? Do we slam it? Do we tow it?"
But the key, he said, is using science as a tool, instead of ignorance and phony mythology.
"It's so easy to fool human beings," he said. "And science circumvents that as long as you use it correctly."