Could modern humans survive an asteroid impact, like what killed the dinosaurs?

If the bolide had hit just 30 seconds later, we’d be looking at a very different Earth.

The bolide colliding with the Earth.
Credit: Donald E. Davis NASA/JPL.

We know that an enormous meteorite hit the Gulf of Mexico some 66 million of years ago, shooting dangerous gases, dust, and debris into the upper atmosphere, blotting out the sun, and killing off most of the plant life on Earth. Large herbivores followed and eventually the carnivores that preyed upon them. Note however that one recent, exhaustive study found that many of the dinosaurs were already in decline, way before the bolide or meteorite’s impact.


Had the asteroid hit just 30 seconds later (or sooner), landing more in the Atlantic or Pacific, rather than just off the coast of Mexico, we may have had more, non-avian dinosaurs running around today. Instead, the bolide smashed into the Earth with a force equivalent to ten billion nuclear bombs.

Our ancient, tiny mammalian ancestors survived, their rodent-like bodies cowering as they witnessed one of the greatest mass extinction events ever to occur on our planet. Of course, they probably didn’t have brains developed enough to fully comprehend it. Besides the stench of death filling the air and the massive bodies piling up hither and yon, acid rain fell and volcanic eruptions shook the Earth, sullied the air, and scarred the landscape.

Smallness and requiring little food helped our ancient, shrew-like ancestors survive, which begs the question, could we modern humans make out okay if such an event happened today? Research surrounding another, similar incident suggests so, but it’s complicated. Around 790,000 years ago another asteroid about a kilometer (approx. 0.62 mi) long struck the Earth with such a force that it sent debris hurtling into the atmosphere, which ended up covering one tenth of the Earth’s surface. The crater has yet to be found. Scientists say it would be about 40–100 km (approx. 24-62 mi) in diameter.

The impact site of the meteorite that struck nearly 800,000 years ago hasn’t been found. Credit: By USGS/D. Roddy.

What’s been unearthed are these glassy rocks called tektites. Larger varieties can weigh up to 20 kilograms (44 lbs.).  Scientists recently analyzed these stones. Their findings were published in the journal Geology. This was the largest such event to occur during the time when humans were known to be on Earth and evolving (as they always are). Researchers say the event gives us clues as to whether modern humans could survive a dinosaur-size cataclysm today. The answer is yes, but it would be difficult.

So far, tektites have been found in Australia, Asia, and Antarctica. In this study, astrobiologist and geochemist Aaron Cavosie of Curtin University in Australia, along with colleagues, looked into the chemical makeup of three tektites found in Thailand. Researchers studied minute crystals of zircon, each about the width of a human hair, within the tektites.

These showed signs of the rare mineral reidite, which disappears seconds after being formed. “Reidite requires substantially higher shock pressures to form,” Cavosie said. High temperatures are needed as well. The orientation of the zircon in the tektites points to an impact occurring somewhere in Southeast Asia, probably near Thailand. Though these samples tell a lot, what’s missing is the exact location of the impact site. It’s mind-boggling that such a large crater has yet to be found.

Tektite found in the Libyan Desert. Credit: James St. John. Flickr.

“Our not-too-distant ancestors witnessed this impact,” Cavosie said. “They might have been dragging their knuckles, but an event like the formation of a 50- to 100-kilometer-diameter impact is sure to have gotten their attention.” Further studies examining tektites may yet reveal the crater’s location.

Even though this was a catastrophic event, our ancestors were able to survive and thrive, as the debris shot up into the atmosphere must've caused significant changes to the climate. How this influenced our ancestors and perhaps changed the course of human evolution is difficult to discern, though more clues may help us get a better understanding of that.

So what if a comet or a serious asteroid collided with the Earth? Most scientists say our planet is threatened by such an asteroid about every million years or so. We’re not due for one any time soon. Most of the asteroids out there lie between Mars and Jupiter and won’t threaten Earth ever.

There are thousands though which could potentially hit us. Most are the size of a compact car or smaller and burn up in the atmosphere. A few are a bit larger and could do great damage to say a house or even a city, depending on the size, but wouldn’t threaten all life on Earth or anything.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) tracks near-Earth objects (NEOs) of significant size with the potential to hit our planet. It’s a collaborative effort involving observatories and universities all over the world. The perennial question is whether or not an asteroid looks as if it’s inside the “keyhole,” meaning it has the potential to make impact with Earth.

If a serious meteorite were to hit the Earth, would we survive? Credit: Comfreak, Pixababy.

Besides a collision, a sizeable object passing close by the Earth could throw the planet’s orbit off. So far, deflection strategies haven’t been decided upon. Planting a nuclear bomb inside a potentially hazardous asteroid, or nudging it off course with rockets or a solar sail, are some other the methods that have been proposed.

Should we fail and a large asteroid once again crash into our world, causing a long-term impact winter, most of the plant life would die off within weeks. Large trees could last decades due to a buildup of sugar in their systems and a slow metabolism. Not much life would exist beyond that, save for microbes and small creatures.

Humans could survive if they went deep underground to take advantage of heat found there, or if we built isolated habitats inside domes. Of course, it’s best to safeguard our precious planet. And although attaching a solar sail to an asteroid may sound fantastical, most scientists believe it’s feasible, using technology that’s already available today.

To learn more about how NASA would handle a deadly asteroid, click here:

Fast superhighway through the Solar System discovered

Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.

Arches of chaos in space manifolds.

Courtesy: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
  • The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
  • The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

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How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Erdmann / Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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Culture & Religion

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

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