Former intelligence official Richard A. Clarke says that Earth is virtually defenseless against incoming asteroids, and that an asteroid large enough to level a city could strike with almost no warning.
“We do not have a plan for dealing with that,” Clarke says in Episode 334 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We don’t have a rocket or a missile we can fire up right now, certainly not on 48 hours alert, but not even on six months alert.”
Clarke explores asteroid impact and other future threats in his recent book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Many of the scenarios he covers have appeared in Hollywood movies, and that can be a problem when it comes to raising awareness about an issue.
“Hollywood will make a movie about it, and that’s the first time most people hear about the subject, whether it’s killer robots, asteroids hitting the Earth, or giant plagues wiping everybody out,” he says. “And because people learn about this phenomenon from a movie, which is obviously over-the-top and science fiction-y, then no one takes it seriously.”
He wishes more disaster movies would approach their subject matter with the intelligence and realism of a good science fiction novel. “I don’t think it’s the science fiction writers’ fault,” he says. “I think Hollywood takes things that are reasonable books—books that spend a fair amount of time talking about the science or the engineering—and then they make them over-the-top when they make the movie.”
“That did have an effect on congressmen, oddly enough, and the congressmen reached out to the people in NASA who cared about it,” Clarke says. “[Which led to] funding—first of all—the sky survey, and now funding the Office of Planetary Defense.”
Listen to the complete interview with Richard A. Clarke in Episode 334 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Richard A. Clarke on The President Is Missing:
“Neither James Patterson nor President Clinton are really experts on IT and cyber, and that’s a big element in the novel. So they called me and said, ‘Can we brainstorm with you? Because we’ve got this plot,’ and I said, ‘OK, what’s the plot?’ And the president said, ‘Well, to begin with the president goes missing.’ And I said, ‘Oh come on. When you were president you could never have gone missing for a moment, for a nanosecond.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well it’s fiction.’ But then he bounced this idea off me, and it involved a hacker gang, and he said, ‘What could a hacker gang do that would really threaten the economy?’ And I said, ‘Well, all right, I’ve got a few ideas,’ and he took them. So blame me if you don’t find that credible.”
Richard A. Clarke on code names:
“What happens with these code names, usually, is that an American IT security company will notice an activity, and they won’t be sure that it’s North Korean intelligence or Iranian intelligence, and so they’ll give them a name. Some companies go with numbers, so they’ll name a group ‘Advanced Persistent Threat Group 28’—APT28. And that same group will be called ‘Magic Kitten’ by another American company. … ‘Magic Kitten,’ it turns out, is a name some American company gave to Iranian intelligence. When you name somebody Magic Kitten, they sound sort of nice and soft and cuddly, and I think that’s unfortunate, because they’re not. They’re Iranian intelligence, they go around killing people.”
Richard A. Clarke on book tours:
“When I first started writing, my publishers always wanted me to fly around the country and go to bookstores. Well let’s say you fly into Denver and you go to The Tattered Cover in Denver, which is a great bookstore. If it’s a really good night you might get 300 people to come to a book talk there, and of that 300 people you might get 10 percent of them to buy your book. So you’ve flown to Denver and you’ve sold 30 books that way. It’s kind of not worth your time. Whereas if you go on podcasts, if you go on FM radio—particularly NPR stations—you’re more likely to hit thousands, or tens of thousands, of people. And they are readers, just like the people who come to bookstores. I think it’s a much better way to use your time.”
Richard A. Clarke on Cyber War:
“A number of universities put it on their required reading list, war colleges. And then one day I was at a conference in Germany, and a very tall man walked up to me and said, ‘I think you should pay me royalties for all of the copies of Cyber War that I’ve sold.’ I had no idea who he was, and I said, ‘Well, how many did you sell?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I think hundreds.’ And I said, ‘Really? Why? How?’ and he said, ‘Well, I began by making everyone in my cabinet read it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you had a cabinet? What’s your job?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m the president of Estonia.’ So when presidents of countries come up to you and say, ‘Your book was so important I made everybody read it,’ it might have had some effect.”