Catastrophes and Rebirths on Our Planet

The famous American paleontologist Ward explained that life on Earth was made possible not by a static order, but by a dynamic history. In the future, inevitable catastrophic events will occur


The audience was packed, as usual, at the session on science led by the astrophysicist Marco Bersanelli of the University of Milan. Peter Ward was there, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of the world’s leading experts on catastrophes. He looked surprised, but warmly, at this strange “catastrophe” of an enthusiastic but also very attentive audience in front of him. The topic of the discussion with Peter Ward was “Catastrophes and Rebirths.” The American paleontologist explained that life on Earth is made possible by an order that is not static, but is a dynamic history, a path rife with risks and unforeseeable chances. “Just like man,” he said, “Earth too will die sooner or later, as the result of an ‘accident’ or of ‘old age.’” It may collide with a comet or an asteroid, or a supernova will explode near it; global warming or glaciation will make life impossible; or it may be the tumult caused by man that will bring its history to an end. Accidents of this sort, though, do not necessarily cause final disasters; in fact, in the past there have been a number of crises that were overcome–for example, the famous impact with a comet that 65 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, without which today we would not exist. “There are similar catastrophes in our future: in another 250 million years the continents will be united again,” Ward says, “which will certainly produce another mass extinction.” “Today we realize,” he continues, “not only that we are on a special planet, but also that we are living in a very special moment in time, which will not last forever.”

Mr Ward, is it really credible that an asteroid could strike the earth with disastrous effects?
These events are inevitable. The questions we can ask ourselves are only, “When will something like this occur? And how serious will the impact be?” Devastating collisions are very rare, but those with smaller objects coming from the cosmos are quite common. More or less every century we should expect the impact of a heavenly body big enough to liberate the energy of an atomic bomb. The last one was in June 1908, in Tunguska, Siberia. It is evident that continuous collisions with asteroids and comets, which could bring about the death of tens of thousands of people, are in our destiny.

We have a somewhat dangerous future in front of us…
The study of the past tells us very clearly that there will be other serious crises. It would be very naïve to think that the great mass extinctions will never come again. It falls to us human beings to try to understand what could reduce the danger or limit the number of dead. But perhaps the greatest problem today is that many scientists are convinced that we are already in a phase of mass extinction, brought about by us men.

Many people are convinced that the scientific knowledge we are developing may compromise man’s capacity to marvel at beauty, and also to place himself in a relationship with the Creator.
I don’t agree. I believe that science still offers a secret sense of wonder. The images sent back from space by the Hubble Telescope are the most fascinating ever made by man–much more advanced than any painting in terms of physical beauty, in my opinion. Who is not struck by observing the formation of the stars, which we are seeing now for the first time? What is more extraordinary than a birth? And how could we see a birth like this without science?