Against all odds, man killed by meteorite

Risk assessment: how does the chance of being hit by a meteorite compare with other events?

When a man died in a strange blast, officials blamed a meteorite – a first in recorded history. Should we believe them? More importantly: the next time we leave the house, should we look up?

One second, Mr Kamaraj was washing his face by a water tank in south India. The next, he lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground, next to a crater three feet deep. Soon after, he was dead.

In the confusion that followed, bystanders recovered a small rock from the crater. To the government, this was the key to Mr Kamaraj’s mysterious demise. The following day, the state’s chief minister announced that he had been struck dead by a meteorite.

The minister’s verdict seemed to tally with the details at the scene. The crater, the lack of explosives, the loud crashing sound reported by witnesses: what else could it be? Astrophysicists are examining the rock fragment to make sure, but the world’s media have taken the minister at his word. This freak ‘meteorite death’ has caused a global sensation.

Some, however, are unconvinced. The sheer unlikeliness of the event has got them talking of foul play. The odds of dying because of a meteorite have been calculated at 1 in 700,000 – but they lengthen to 1 in 250,000,000 when it comes to being killed by a direct hit, as Mr Kamaraj supposedly was. If this is indeed what happened, his death will go down in history as the first of its kind.

Those are eye-catching statistics. But what do they mean to us? In this day and age, probabilities are assigned to everything, from electoral success of Donald Trump to winning the Euromillions jackpot. Yet we keep playing the lottery, ignoring warnings that we are wasting our money. And we let our imaginations run wild with the possibility of a meteorite-related catastrophe, despite those long odds. All in all, we do not seem to take probabilities too seriously.

Is this wise? The bizarre case of Mr Kamaraj is not yet closed, but it has alarmed the world. Should we take comfort in those stats about meteorite deaths?

Odds and ends

Knowing probabilities is essential, say some. Otherwise, how would we ever take decisions? If you are choosing between two modes of transport to get somewhere, it goes without saying that you want to know which carries a higher chance of accident. Although we need to take risks once in a while, ignoring odds altogether is stupid. Death by meteorite may sound awful, but you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

That’s all very well, reply others, but humans aren’t rational creatures. In fact, if we paid attention to every statistic, we would be paralysed with fear: of getting run over, bitten by a dog, struck by lightning. We’d never leave our bedrooms (thus increasing our susceptibility to obesity, Vitamin D deficiency and gas leaks). Odds can be useful at times, but we mustn’t let them govern our lives – or else we won’t have any lives left to live.

You Decide

  1. Is playing the lottery a waste of money?
  2. Do we leave too much in life up to chance?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are interviewing a world expert in asteroids and meteorites. Write down three questions that you would ask.
  2. When was the last time you knowingly took a risk? Give a short speech about it, explaining why you acted as you did.

Some People Say...

“The biggest risk is not taking any risk.”

Mark Zuckerberg

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s the use in knowing the odds of being killed by a meteorite? If it happens, I can’t do anything about it anyway.
Quite. However, we aren’t powerless against meteorites. We have the technology to deflect most asteroids heading for Earth – as long as we spot them well in advance. The tools for that , however, are still imperfect.
Are we changing that?
Governments and their space agencies (such as NASA) have been slow to invest in this area. Private ventures are more promising: for example, the Sentinel project. (See Become An Expert)
Where do odds come into all this?
The higher the odds of a meteorite-related disaster, the more urgently we feel we need the technology to prevent one, and the more funding such ventures get. Scientists and investors work with probabilities all the time.

Word Watch

Meteorite
An asteroid is a rocky mass that orbits around the sun. It is known as a meteorite if Earth gets in its way and the two collide. If it burns up in the atmosphere before hitting the planet, it is a meteor.
Foul play
There have been suggestions that local gardeners accidentally set off explosives used in the college’s construction, or that workers on a nearby industrial site tossed gelignite on the bonfire, and that the government is trying to cover up the mistake.
1 in 700,000
This figure was calculated by astronomer Alan Harris on the basis of the number of asteroids that could hit Earth, and the damage they could cause. As well as suffering a direct hit, one could die from the heat, the blast wave, a collapsed building…
First of its kind
There have been reports of human deaths by meteorite, but they are unconfirmed. Animals have been less fortunate: in Venezuela, for example, a meteorite decapitated a cow in 1972. A local farmer ate the cow, and kept the meteorite as a doorstop.
Vitamin D
Drawn from sunlight, as well as fish products. A lack of Vitamin D can weaken bones.

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