When Worlds Collide #1: Welcome to my new column!

Published in Ceylon Today newspaper, Sunday 5 February 2012

With or without our knowledge, worlds are colliding all around us, all the time. It happens in both physical and metaphorical realms.

The night sky might appear calm and serene to us, but the universe is a violent and constantly changing place. Astrophysicists are still unravelling the forces at work – they describe our Solar System as an ‘oasis of calm’ in comparison.

That’s relative, of course. Everything is always in motion – the Sun (our local star), planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets are all moving in their orbits, sometimes crossing paths of others. Luckily, space is big enough and empty enough to get by without crashing into each other.

Once in a while, however, near-misses or actual collisions are inevitable. Millions on Earth watched through telescopes a memorable recent event when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

More recently, in November 2011, Asteroid 2005 YU55 whisked past our planet at a distance of 324,600km — closer than the Moon comes at certain times. Yet the aircraft carrier-sized (400 metres wide) piece of cosmic debris posed no real threat to us. Now it’s gone.

Astronomers are tracking thousands of comets and asteroids – collectively called Near Earth Objects or NEOs – that can potentially collide with our Earth. The idea is to give as much advance warning as possible about such an event, so preventive action might be taken. We’ve got to trust the specialists in such matters.

For the media, though, a disaster missed or averted is just not dramatic enough. That’s why peddlers of doom and gloom always get more press than they deserve.

Back in 1950, a Russian-born American named Immanuel Velikovsky wrote a book named Worlds in Collision. He argued that 15 centuries before Christ (a brief moment in the cosmic time scale) planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object, and passed near our Earth.

He didn’t mention an actual collision, but said the close encounter changed the Earth’s orbit and axis, triggering catastrophes remembered in various mythologies and religions. He presented his book as historical research, not science fiction.

The scientific community ridiculed and rejected his claims outright, but the book became a best seller. Velikovsky, who made a career out of creating modern myths, must have laughed all the way to his bank. He inspired many others to profit from shocking the gullible public.

Fiction writers, on the other hand, are not bound by the demands of evidence, accuracy or balance. When Worlds Collide was the title of a 1933 science fiction novel co-written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. It described the mother of all disasters caused by a couple of ‘rogue planets’ entering the Solar System.

It influenced many stories and movies that followed. Celebrated movie director Cecil B DeMille considered turning When Worlds Collide into a movie, but it was George Pal who finally did that in 1951, winning an Oscar for special effects.

More than 60 years later, DreamWorks have just remade When Worlds Collide. Directed by Stephen Sommers and produced by Steven Spielberg, it is due for release during 2012. A welcome addition to this year’s doomsday frenzy…

Far less spectacularly, meanwhile, other worlds are also in collision. Beneath our feet, plate tectonics are still reshaping our restless planet. Earthquakes and tsunamis periodically deliver rude reminders of this geological reality.

Worlds of human construct – social, political, philosophical and even religious – are also colliding, some more visibly than others. Early euphoria of ‘the end of history’ has given way to fears of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Competing and contesting worldviews are jockeying for public acceptance on the cacophonous airwaves and online.

All this and more makes our times fascinating and exhilarating to watch. The island of Lanka has its own share of global, regional and local ‘collisions’: we are never short of ripples and undercurrents to report, analyse and reflect upon!

We have finally seen the end of our war, but the deeper forces of history, geography and ideology are locked in numerous slowly unfolding confrontations.

Some would like to take us to the feudal times of the past. Others want unbridled fast-tracking to an uncertain future. The Children of ’56 are in charge — but being increasingly challenged by the Children of ’77.

As a science writer, I always look for connections. To do this well, I read widely, reflect often, and hobnob with researchers and activists. I ask lots of questions, including thorny ones. I sit through mind-numbingly technical meetings. I browse the web trying to make sense of things.

I stand at the intersection of technology, development, popular culture and politics. From that vantage point, I can see endless possibilities, combinations and permutations. I pick up a few nuggets from these riches and speculate: How come? What if? What next? Why not?

I especially like to see what happens when different worlds intersect – for example, between science and development; or communications technologies and society; or technology and public policy. In my own profession, the old and new forms of media are colliding and collapsing with interesting results.

Like when ocean currents meet, this is where the action and ‘riches’ are! I want to you dispatches from where and when different worlds collide.

I don’t always find the answers. But I keep asking lots of questions. Stay tuned.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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