When astronomy…scares?

By Phil Plait | February 11, 2007 3:41 pm

Brilliant. Some teacher in the UK decided to tell 230 fourteen year old students that the Earth is about to be destroyed by an asteroid impact.

It was an effort to teach kids to carpe diem — seize the day. A fine sentiment, of course, but maybe he could have asked them to just pretend an asteroid was on its way instead of scaring the carpe out of them.

And besides the obvious stupidity of telling kids they’re about to die, we’re having a hard enough time getting people to take the threat of asteroids seriously. Maybe the school will tell him to carpe his belongings and find an asteroid of his own to go live on.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Time Sink

Comments (35)

  1. Still doesn’t beat most of New York believing that they really were facing the War of the Worlds. :)

  2. Not to mention Boston and the Aqua Teen Hunger Force ‘promotion’.

    I still wonder why the other eight or so cities didn’t have someone freak out.


  3. Amanda

    Wow… part of me is kind of sad that 14 year olds believed him (though, I can see how, depending on the delivery of the speech, it could be believable). Most of me, though, is disappointed in his poor judgement.

    I have a friend who still remembers, 20 years later, a teacher telling her that one day the sun would expand and engulf Earth. They never explained how incredibly looooong that would take, so her five year old self was left horrified that she was going to be gobbled up by the sun at any moment.

    She says she was scared of and angry at the sun for years. We teachers sometimes forget the impact our words can have on our students…

  4. John Phillips

    Well, considering it was an an RC (Roman Catholic) school perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that they mistakenly state a fiction as truth. After all they have been doing the exact same thing for the last 2000 years. Then again, perhaps he was simply demonstrating how easy it is to believe a lie when it is promulgated by an authority figure :)

  5. Mark Martin

    This sort of tactic is actually contrary to the spirit of carpe diem. The point is to sieze EACH day, not just the few in which you think you’re about to run out of time.

  6. buffalodavid

    Hey…. I can quess but I know better than to, what is a “head of year”?

  7. df


    The Head of Year is the guy who decides what events will happen that year – whether the DOW will rise or fall, etc. So it’s remarkable he didn’t just command an asteroid to hit thereby making the story true. Would have avoided the bad publicity. :-)

    In the UK secondary schools are organized according to year beyond age 11, so, for example, you might have four different forms – essentially a cohort of pupils – in the 5th year (these would be 16 year olds). So it’s kind of like a grade. Each class will have a teacher assigned and the head of year is over them and under the overall headmaster.

    Actually, I come from close to Manchester and doubt that when I was 12 many moons ag anyone in our class would have believed this story – we barely believed the teachers when they taught us 2+2 =4. How times have changed.

  8. JB of Brisbane

    In Year 8 in 1977, when I was thirteen, I can remember my teacher in (I think) a history class telling us that the moon had gone out of orbit and was on collision course with Earth, and that when it reached Roche’s Limit, it would be torn apart by the atmosphere, and much of the Earth, including Brisbane, would be buried under about one hundred feet of dust and rocks. Well, after a rather concerned buzz went around the classroom, the teacher at least told us it was only a hypothetical situation, and asked us to think about what sort of archeological evidence our civilisation would leave in the circumstances. At least he did not let this go on too long, but it was still a nasty thing to do at all.
    And yes, John Phillips, it was a Catholic boys college I attended, run by no less than the Christian Brothers at the time, although the history teacher was a layman, not a Brother. But I am not clear as to what you mean by “mistakenly state a fiction as truth”. To which fiction do you make reference?

  9. I notice that this story comes just a few posts after you mentioned the posssibility of a manned landing on an asteriod. Maybe we could usethis teacher for the feasability studies. We could start with the Jules Verne method of loading him into a canon and aiming at the nearest asteroid…

  10. Mark Martin

    This reminds me of an incident in Dade County, Florida, back in the late ’80s or early ’90s. A couple of school teachers instructed their young students that they, as Americans, were irreducibly superior to any & all other nationalities. It created a huge stink, and when asked why they’d teach such a bigoted thing, the answer was that they wanted to instill within the children a strong sense of self-esteem.

  11. Dave

    Bible schools scare kids regularly, telling them they’ll burn in hell forever. It makes a lifelong impression that’s tough to overcome. And no carpe diem either.

  12. Back in grade school they told us to hide under our desks because the Soviet Union might launch some thermonuclear bombs on ICBMs right on top of our school.

    What is REAL scary is the fact that this very well could of happened.

    A 14-old-student has more access to outside news than what was available in the early 1960s. Students now would laugh behind the back of that doomsayer.

  13. DavidHW

    Still, this is a big improvement upon being told that Jesus is going to return any moment and send you to Hell. At least with an asteroid, it isn’t personal. :-)

    /grew up fundie
    //still have PTSD

  14. DavidHW

    Whoops. Didn’t see Dave’s post above. Great minds with great names, yadda, yadda. :-)

  15. Quiet Desperation

    >>>At least with an asteroid, it isn’t personal.

    Depends on who targeted it.

  16. The time stamp on that story is 19 November, 2004, so how did Phil come across this.

    I remember one incident in the UK where the police wanted to catch those who were illegally tuning into police wavebands, so they concocted a story of a crashed UFO, and all those who turned up at the location to see it were arrested.

  17. Steve

    Sticks asks “The time stamp on that story is 19 November, 2004, so how did Phil come across this.”

    Obviously its all part of that Christian/republican war on science.

    Seriously though this does raise a serious point about the paucity of critical thinking being taught in schools. It is sad that those kids were so ignorant to actually believe that.

  18. Michael

    Hmm, that’s strange. I just heard about this as new news on a car club website, and nobody there had heard about it yet (well, nobody who posted).

  19. The Dread Polack

    I’ll admit I’m still a little bitter about my education. It’s an interesting paradox that they want you to act like an adult, but if you actually show the slightest bit of independent thought, you’re just a trouble-making kid. It doesn’t surprise me that they believed him. You learn to get by in school, and questioning isn’t a good way to get by.

    If I could go back, I’d worry a lot less about my grades and worry a lot more about getting in trouble more often.


  20. Gary Ansorge

    Now you know why old Tim Leary stressed QUESTION AUTHORITY.

    Of course they don’t teach kids to think. That could destabilze the hierarchical structure and bring civilzation crashing down. It’s bad enough scientists are always trying to think and question. At least scientists don’t run for public office. How could kings and presidents ever run the planet if people keep saying, “Yoh, dude, that doesn’ t add up.”

    Ah, I’m just a crusty old curmudgeon who’s been questioning authority since the fifth grade. In retrospect I wonder what took me so long to get started,,,

    Hah, launch him via a Jules Verne cannon. THAT would make a splash,,,

    Gary 7

  21. DennyMo

    “Still doesn’t beat most of New York believing that they really were facing the War of the Worlds.”

    You mean “most of the US”, don’t you? I remember reading newspaper accounts from across the country on the aftershocks from that radio broadcast. It was kinda like a precursor to the Y2K frenzy…

    This story is just another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The likelihood of the unintended consequences is inversely proportional to the amount of time one spends thinking about “what if?” before acting on a decision…

  22. Quiet_Desperation

    >>>but if you actually show the slightest bit of independent thought, you’re
    >>>just a trouble-making kid.

    Does this stereotype actually exist? I went to a American public schools, and when I showed independent thought, they put me in the accelerated program.

    Of course there were some kids who would engage in what they called “questioning authority” when what they were actually doing, from an objective viewpoint, was better known as “jackassery.”

    >>> Now you know why old Tim Leary stressed QUESTION AUTHORITY.

    Was that when he was in or out of Pepperland?

  23. The Dread Polack

    War of the Worlds: I heard that this story has been overblown, and it probably has. To what extent, I don’t know. The panic happened, but I expect it didn’t last as long and wasn’t as widespread as some people like to think.

    Questioning Authority in School: My parents always treated me with a lot of respect and independence, so maybe it was my personal experience, but the few times I really stood up to my teachers and administration, I was shot down pretty hard. Maybe because they have difficult jobs, but they really don’t like it when you suggest that you made a mistake when they gave you a night of detention for something that nobody remembers happening 8 months ago during the previous school year. Yeah, I’m still bitter about that one. When I asked them to try proving that I was late to class, they stiffened up pretty fast and reminded me that as a minor, I don’t have legal rights, and I would have to go to detention because they said so. Arg.

    When I realized that in my Fantasy class (English), we only read one actual fantasy novel and 5 non-fantasy novels (by the teacher’s own devinition), she didn’t like that either.

    Anyway, it was my own experience. If I stood up more to this sort of thing, I would’ve spent more time in detention, and my grades might have suffered, but I think I’d be a happier and more confident person now. At least I’m not religious.


  24. hale_bopp

    I admit I have no specific memory of this incident. However, it was one of my mom’s favorite stories about my childhood.

    When I was really little (pre-kindergarten) I was sometimes left at day care at the nearby Catholic Church. There were two rooms, one where you got to play and the room where they did religious instruction.

    One day, one of the workers tried to get me into the room where they do religious instruction and I didn’t want to go. She told me something like, “Your mommy said you were here to learn about Jesus.” Apparentally, I didn’t believe her and shot back, “Who’s my mom?” When she didn’t know, the story goes that I started running around yelling, “Liar, Liar, pants of fire!” uncontrollably.

    She told the story many times and always ended up laughing hysterically by the end. My mom also told another amusing story (again that I don’t remember from my childhood) about how I smoked them out that they were Santa Claus.


  25. frogmarch

    “carpe diem “? isn’t that for mawkish teachers who want to make you squeeze(bowel movement like) every moment of each day?

  26. CR

    Having gone to American public schools, I can vouch for the way they USED TO BE… kids with drive & intelligence were put into accelerated or “advanced” programs. Also, there was the “gifted & talented” program for those types of kids at the elementary level. Further, when I was there, there were actually courses in critical thinking, or at least parts of courses that stressed critical thinking skills to solve problems. I LOVED IT!

    Nowdays, though, I personally know that some school districts are cancelling the “gifted & talented” programs, and few, if any teach critical thinking as a course nor as part of a curriculum. So-called “superfluous” programs, like art & music, are often considered unecessary & first in line for budget cuts. Sadly, other courses, including sciences, are also under the gun. Early childhood & special needs have even gotten cut back, and in the school district I used to live in, there’s talk of school closings. (“Redistricting,” sending more kids to district schools, rather than each community having its own schools. As though huge student-to-teacher ratios will be an improvement in kids’ education…)
    Yes, I know education costs money, and it’s hard for schools to come up with money. On the other hand, can any nation afford NOT to educate its own children, and to educate them well? Whether or not I or anyone has children of their own, shouldn’t the nation’s future be important enough to warrant a decent education system that doesn’t teach children to just “get by until the next quiz”?

    (climbs down off of soapbox and goes back to reading about space stuff…)

  27. John Phillips

    JB from Brisbane: take your pick from just about anything to do with xtianity.

  28. Troy

    That seems like a very good inducement to try premarital sex. Catholic schools aren’t that bad, just beware of the penguin! They meant it for a lesson in carpe diam but probably ended up in a lesson in caveat emptor! (Not to mention crying wolf!)

  29. icemith

    I distinctly remember when I was about 6 or 7, I had awoken from sleep and noticed that apart from still being in yesterday’s clothes – I must have been left as I was, not having been woken for dinner, let alone been in a bath, – when I couldn’t understand why it was getting darker all the while. My Dad said something about it being the ‘End of the World’. It was a quite dry statement but I believed it, at least until it got really dark, when I realised that it was still the day before!

    I had just fallen asleep, and on awakening, I was encouraged to believe something terrible was happening, and I bought it. It was of course a big joke, and the fact that I have this event indelibly etched in my memory, but fortunately not on my phyche, is why I mention it now.

    I do not think it was a lesson I had to learn, or that someone was out to destroy me, it was more likely an opportunaty for a bit of fun. My Dad was a quiet man, but there must have been a bit of ‘devil’ in him. I appreciate that he must have judged that I could (eventually) work it out for myself, and he would not deliberately mislead me for too long.

    I do recall that it was strange, with that sinking feeling that it would be the End, though I still noticed that everything otherwise seemed to be going as usual, Mum busy in the kitchen, my younger brother, an infant, not being prepared for such a catyclismic event, nor Dad doing anything urgent either. I probably deduced from that as well that I had been duped.

    It probably did teach me about Life, and I, in retrospect, appreciate that insight into my own handling of what could have be something awful to face up to.

    And I never harbored any resentment for the joke. I’m not sure that my children would say the same of some jokes I’ve played on them.


  30. Dunc

    >>>but if you actually show the slightest bit of independent thought, you’re
    >>>just a trouble-making kid.

    Does this stereotype actually exist? I went to a American public schools, and when I showed independent thought, they put me in the accelerated program.

    I once got hell for insisting, contrary to the opinions of my geography teacher, than gravity is not caused by air pressure. Your mileage may vary.

  31. Mark Martin

    I like the air pressure story. It’s fallacious in a way that similar to the “heavy boots” story. If gravity is due to air pressure, then what makes the air itself heavy enough to press upon objects? If Apollo astronauts were held to the ground due to their heavy boots, then what made the boots themselves heavy?

  32. I had a thought about what to do with this teacher that involved a Deep Impact type mission and a large farm animal, but I guess the Jules Verne/cannon thing will suffice.

  33. sirjonsnow

    “In the UK secondary schools are organized according to year beyond age 11, so, for example, you might have four different forms – essentially a cohort of pupils – in the 5th year (these would be 16 year olds).”

    That doesn’t add up, since these 14 year-olds are in year 9. However, it does work if year 1 = 1st grade, year 2 = 2nd grade, etc.

  34. JB of Brisbane

    For all the information, true or otherwise, that my Catholic boys’ college taught me during my formative years, here are a few ideas that they did NOT try to get us to believe:
    – that creationism is just as valid a theory as evolution, or that evolution is just plain wrong;
    – that the earth is only six thousand years old, or that it is the centre of the universe;
    – that there are stars and other bodies in the sky that appear older than this because God made them look that way.
    Rather, my school’s science program taught what was accepted by scientists all over the world, especially in terms of astronomy and biology. And all this before 1992, when the church “officially” recognised the Copernican view. Does that make my old school a heretic, I wonder?

  35. StevoR

    Well heretics plural perhaps … 😉

    Did they teach that a senile, doddering old man with no life experiences, esp. no sexual life at all (at least in theory) was rightfully the _Infallible_ Judge and jury over what women could and couldn’t do with their own bodies & that any person who disobeyed His* dictates will spend eternity in agony and torment? All by order of a “merciful and forgiving” Diety?

    Isn’t that a nasty enough lie?

    Hmnn … I’d rather hear an asteroid was about to hit the Earth and be quickly disabused of that notion myself ..
    * His = Popes
    Jesuses’s – as interpreted by them
    or perhaps
    Gods assuming : a) S/he exists
    b) (s)He’s anything like what that particular brand- o’mumbo-jumbo claims.
    c) you don’t immediately kow-tow & do & think exactly what they say, when they say it as much as they say it …


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