“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid” – Mark Twain
These days, we’re very concerned about being hit by an asteroid. I mean, it didn’t work out so well for the dinosaurs so we figure it would also cause us some apocalyptic headaches. Even though the planet gets peppered with about 100 tons of pebble-sized space debris a day, your odds of dying as the result of an asteroid impact are around 1 in 700,000 (roughly the same odds of dying in a fireworks accident or flood). While extinction level events are rare except on the timescale of tens of millions of years, there is 100% chance that given enough time some big, honking space mountain will eventually bum us out at the planetary level, assuming we’re around to see it. Hopefully we’ll have a few colonies on other planets by then, so the species will endure. For now, we don’t even have a moonbase. NASA and the University of Hawaii recently spent five million dollars on the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), a proof of concept astronomical survey that in theory can give us up to a week’s notice of imminent collision for an object bigger than 150 feet, which won’t usher in Armageddon, but can really ruin somebody’s day.
We really don’t want to be hit by an asteroid. Of course, the problem is finding them. That’s why there are numerous efforts afoot at keeping track of near earth objects including the Kitt Peak Observatory Spacewatch, Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT), Lowell Observatory Near-Earth-Object Search (LONEOS), Catalina Sky Survey, Campo Imperatore Near-Earth Object Survey (CINEOS), Japanese Spaceguard Association, Asiago-DLR Asteroid Survey, and the European Union’s NEOShield. Obviously there is a lot of debate about what we should do in terms of collision avoidance should we actually find anything looming on the horizon, mostly involving scenarios for destruction or deflection, assuming we can get our act together quick enough or Bruce Willis is available. Just in case, we might want to consider some tried and true low-tech strategies that have been employed historically. Obviously, I’m thinking of the Morial’s Den rooster-based planetary defense system employed in Cromarty, Scotland during the 17th Century, tested efficaciously at the end of the reign of Charles I (1600-1649 A.D.).
A shipmaster who had moored his vessel near Morial’s Den, amused himself by watching the lights of the scattered farmhouses. After all the rest had gone out one light lingered for some time. When that light too had disappeared, the shipmaster beheld a large meteor, which, with a hissing noise, moved towards the cottage. A dog howled, an owl whooped; but when the fire-ball had almost reached the roof, a cock crew from within the cottage, and the meteor rose again. Thrice this was repeated, the meteor at the third cock-crow ascending among the stars (Conway, 1879, p20).
Now, our hardy shipmaster considered this a tad odd, and could have written it off as an aberrant vision seen at a distance. However, at the same hour the next night, the same scene was repeated in all its circumstances, the meteor descended, the dog howled, the owl whooped, the cock crew. Our forward thinking shipmaster decided not only to investigate, but to conduct an unfortunate experiment.
On the following morning the ship-master visited the cottage, and, curious to ascertain how it would fare when the cock was away, he purchased the bird; and sailing from the bay before nightfall, did not return until about a month after. On his voyage inwards he had no sooner doubled an intervening headland, than he stepped forward to the bows to take a peep at the cottage: it had vanished. As he approached the anchoring ground, he could discern a heap of blackened stones occupying the place where it had stood; and he was informed, on going ashore, that it had been burnt to the ground, no one knew how, on the very night he had quitted the bay. He had it rebuilt and furnished, says the story, deeming himself, what one of the old schoolmen would have perhaps termed, the occasional cause of the disaster (Miller, 1853, p71-73).
Sucks for the folks who lived there, but hey it was in the name of science. I’m assuming the shipmaster got out of town pretty quickly after that. Later excavations at the site unearthed a puzzling scene. “About ﬁfteen years ago there was dug up, near the site of the cottage, a human skeleton, with the skull and the bones of the feet lying together, as if the body had been huddled up twofold into a hole” (Miller, 1853, 74). Personally, I’m tempted to go out and buy a rooster posthaste. Folklorists have pointed out that a white rooster is pretty handy to have around in all sorts of preternatural circumstances, of which the Cromarty meteor deflection was but one notable example.
The pure white cock as a potent factor in rebutting the appearance of Satan is one of the features of British folklore. He is not only the ornament, but the efficient protector of the premises to which he is attached…A sailing-ship awaiting cargo was once lying off the Fifeshire coast, directly opposite a large farm on a headland. Those keeping watch twice saw at midnight a meteor falling towards the farmer’s stacks. On both occasions the meteor was deflected ad swept away into space when the white cock crowed. The sailors persuaded the farmer to sell them the cock, and on the following night the meteor came again and, falling on the now unprotected stackyard, burnt it to ashes (Brown, 1958, p262).
I’m not saying we should abandon our scientific and technological efforts at avoiding an apocalyptic pummeling, just that we might want to cover our bases and deploy a network of white roosters. We could call it the “Near Earth Object Early-warning Gallus gallus”. NeoEgg for short.
Brown, P.W.F. “Collectanea: White Cocks and British Folklore”. Folklore v69:4. Routledge, 1958.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. Demonology and Devil-lore. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1879.
Miller, Hugh, 1802-1856. Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland: Or, The Traditional History of Cromarty. 3d ed. Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter; [etc., etc.], 1853.