The Chelyabinsk event

It turns out the sky can fall. Just ask the Russians who were traumatised last Friday by an unexpected meteor shower over the Ural Mountains near the town of Chelyabinsk that reportedly injured over a thousand people and damaged several buildings. Coming as it did in a week that saw lightning strike, literally, at St Peter's Basilica the day the pope resigned and in which an asteroid, 2012 DA14, came very close, in cosmic terms, to hitting Earth, suddenly the Mayan doomsday prophecy doesn't seem all that ridiculous — only off by a few months. After all, as anyone with even a cursory pop culture education on the apocalypse knows, the signs come in threes.

One of the dominant dinosaur-extinction theories is that the planet kept getting hit by comets and asteroids, which ultimately killed off all the T-Rexes and Velociraptors (until Steven Spielberg had his say, of course). Scientists who have warned about the possibility of such a catastrophe devastating the planet, and called attention to the lack of monitoring capability to detect such threats, have been dismissed by sceptics as Chicken Littles. But the panic following the meteor shower could mean they are now en vogue.

Hollywood, with its fondness for placing the survival of the species in constant and deadly peril, does, of course, offer pointers on how to deal with such an event. Asteroid paranoia reached the zenith of its blockbuster potential in 1998, with two big-budget films mining the dramatic possibilities of the threat of extinction. Deep Impact had Morgan Freeman essaying the role of US president and an impressive tidal wave that drowns the Statue of Liberty. Armageddon had Aerosmith, Ben Affleck and a sacrificial Bruce Willis. Life imitates art sometimes, but it is at its scariest when taking a leaf out of the science fiction playbook.

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