Irrational Fear-Slaying

One of my students raised the issue of the Apophis asteroid in class yesterday.

For those of you who don’t know, the Apophis Asteroid is the only object in the solar system ever to be rated above 3 on the Torino Scale.  If you don’t know what the Torino Scale is, you should.  It rates the likelihood that an astrophysical object will — upon likely collision with our planet — wipe out a region, or a civilization, or all life on Earth.

I regard it as one of my jobs as a teacher is to be informed about the likelihood of various disasters that may befall the planet.  So when a student tells me that astronomers have found an asteroid that will collide with the Earth IN OUR LIFETIMES, and WIPE OUT ALL LIFE ON EARTH, I take that very seriously.  Very seriously indeed.

Because I want to stamp out issues which are not of concern to sixth graders, and help them focus on things they really ought to understand, like how the Constitution works, and whether there’s such things as Peak Oil or Climate Change, and where Byzantium is and why it’s also called Constantinople and Istanbul.  Because understanding the world as it is, is a lot more important than whether a particular disaster imperils them without any solution to stop it for them at all.  Foreboding dread of an unstoppable ruin from above is so Cold War, and they don’t need to live with that fear.

So, I abandoned what seemed like a really important lesson on the aforesaid Byzantium to help students understand the Torino Scale, the Apophis Asteroid, and what astrophysicists were concerned about back in 2004.  And finally, we decided this was nothing to worry about, we all heaved a great big sigh of relief, and moved on.

The bell for the end of class rang (or would have if my school had bells).  They got up to go.

Another student said, “I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about the 2029 thing any more.  Now all I have to worry about is the calendar ending in 2012.”

I said, “We’ll actually be discussing that in the spring: why the Maya calendar is also not worth fearing…”  Truth is, I hadn’t planned on having that in my curriculum.  BUT IT IS NOW.

Are there other, serious, macrocosmic worries your students face? What are they, and how do you deal with them?

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  1. How about the danger of global warming releasing seabed methane, initiating a cycle of positive feedback that will lead to a billion-year thermal maximum and destroy much of the biosphere?

    Or a supervolcano like the magma dome under Yellowstone causing a multi-year “nuclear winter”?

    Or a monster solar flare frying all electronics on the planet?

    • So, you get it.

      We’re asking children to think about these problems in irrational ways. “Ooooh you should be scared. You’re dooomed. Doooooooomed!” But they’re told that these problems exist, while not being given the psychological, emotional, scientific or spiritual tools to deal with these massive challenges.

      They’re also not instructed about these problems in honest ways. A kid told me about the magma dome under Yellowstone yesterday; he’d heard about the other class, and was relieved about the asteroid not hitting us, really he was. But instead, his real concern was that super-volcano. What’s he going to do about it, as a 12-year-old kid? It’s not really his problem, unless he chooses to make it his problem.

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