Sometimes our biggest fear is not knowing what to fear most. Fortunately, the weird science of risk analysis can teach us to judge better and fear smarter

1. Imagine, for instance, that New York´s Central Park was in the crosshairs. The asteroid strike would release the force of a 1,660-megaton bomb, triggering a magnitude-6.8 earthquake, blasting a two-and-a-half-mile-wide crater and hurling trailer-size rocks deep into Long Island and New Jersey. The tri-state area would be toast.

2. The world´s first known insurance policies were issued 5,000 years ago to Mesopotamian
caravan operators.

3. “You dumbass!” was the assessment of Harvard´s David Ropeik.
4. One example of risk homeo-stasis cited by Wilde is that of a German taxi fleet that was upgraded with antilock brakes. Afterward, drivers felt safer and drove more aggressively, and the rate of accidents went up, not down.

5. This is the rate for Great Britain, where the government tracks deaths per billion passenger-
kilometers. Data from 1991â€2000 showed the following rates: airplane, 0.02; boat, 0.4; bus, 0.4; rail, 0.49; car, 3.1; bicycle, 42; foot, 59; and motorcycle, 106.

6. As a supplement to total-death figures, some experts employ the bleak measure of life-years lost. For example, the drowning death of a three-year-old results in 74 life-years lost (current U.S. life expectancy is 77), making that fatality worse than the cancer death of a 75-year-old, which results in only two life-years lost. The top five killers in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease and accidents. Ranked by life-years lost, though, accidents (including car crashes, which account for 43 percent of the total) are number one.

7. In 1997 the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk
Management named indoor air pollution as a substantial national health threat.

8. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon probably causes 20,000 deaths a year, primarily among smokers.

9. Buying a soda, meanwhile, is not without its own risks. By one estimate, half of all bills and coins carry infectious germs; more than 10,000 people a year go to the emergency room for money-related injuries. Five people a year are killed by falling vending machines.

10. Darn Y chromosome. Men between the ages of 25 and 34 are more than three times as likely as women to die in accidents, according to the National Safety Council.

11. Cookout char was joined by a chemical used in moth repellant and toilet bowl deodorant.

12. Or listening, for that matter. A functional MRI study done at Carnegie Mellon University indicated that when you listen to a sentence, visual-processing activity in your brain declines by 29 percent. “Engaging in a demanding conversation could jeopardize judgment and reaction time if an atypical or unusual driving situation arose,” the researchers stated.

13. A four-year review of admissions to the Provincial Hospital in Papua New Guinea, published in 1984 in the Journal of Trauma, showed that 2.5 percent of all head, back and shoulder injuries were from falling coconuts, which can strike with a force of more than
a ton and cause death.

14. The death rate for experienced whitewater paddlers, for instance, is nearly four times as high as it is for inexperienced ones.

15. In 2000 the [U.K.] Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects released an evaluation of the average interval between strikes, ranging from once every 1,000 years for a 75-meter-diameter asteroid that could take out a city, to once every 10 million years for a seven-kilometer rock that would probably lead to mass extinction.

16. At least I think he does. Risk experts, not surprisingly, have a somewhat morbid sense of humor. “The ultimate risk is life,” their joke goes, “which has a 100 percent chance of leading to death.”