WE HAVE missed the end of the world (again). This is how some of
the people of Chelyabinsk interpreted the arrival last month of a
huge meteorite - the largest such impact for more than a century.
The apocalyptic overtones led not one, but two, channels to choose
the Lord's Day to broadcast documentaries on the subject.
Meteor Strike: Fireball from space (Channel 4) was the
more sensational of the two, relying on local testimony to back up
the wealth of video evidence of the phenomenon. The Truth About
Meteors: A Horizon special (BBC2) was more measured and
magisterial, and provided a longer view and a deeper context.
The extensive damage to Chelyabinsk was caused not by the
meteorite's hitting the ground (a meteor, or shooting star, burns
up as it enters the earth's atmosphere: if any of it hits the
surface, it is reclassified as a meteorite), but by its breaking up
in the air.
We saw how millions of these objects, survivors from the
creation of the solar system, circle harmlessly in the asteroid
belt: but, if some force alters their trajectory, then they may
well stray into the earth's path. There are, each year, vast
numbers of such arrivals on our soil from deep space, but mostly in
the form of imperceptible dust.
The potential for damage was illustrated by Mexico's 177km- wide
Chicxulub crater, caused 65 million years ago by a 15km-wide
meteorite, widely accepted as wiping out most life on earth,
including the dinosaurs. There is great scientific interest in such
phenomena, and estimates are made of the likelihood of future such
visitations, and whether we could deflect them.
Every asteroid that is more than a kilometre wide is now
monitored - it is a relief to know that none of them is forecast to
hit the earth for at least 100 years. Once again, TV science gave
rise to speculation about the mysterious ways of God, and spiritual
examination about how prepared we are for our own extinction.
No apocalyptic visitation of divine wrath is expected as a
result of the subject of The Mormons Are Here! A Culture Show
Special (BBC2, Wednesday of last week). Alan Yentob's
documentary started out by promising an exploration of the
significance of the iconoclastic work of Trey Parker and Matt
Stone, who are about to hit the West End with their musical about
the Mormon faith.
Parker and Stone's work has always contained a large element of
religious material, mercilessly satirising Christianity (both Roman
Catholic and Evangelical), Judaism, and Islam. It is particularly
enjoyable to English viewers be- cause of the delight we derive
from feeling superior to Americans and seeing them made fun of.
There is a serious exploration to be made of the positive value of
causing offence, but this soft-edged programme did not make it.
Richard III: The unseen story (More4, Wednesday of last
week) gave more details of the recent identification of the late
monarch's remains. It all remains hardly believable: the first
grave in the first trench was proved to be that of the King
himself. Was this a case of Providence at work?