Friday, February 22, 2013

How To Keep From Being Hit By An Asteroid

2013: Asteroids, Meteors and Cataclysms
Without Any Astro-Physics

Amazingly, the entire world watched the rather startling videos of the meteor collision in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and immediately settled back into our famously durable, well tempered stoicism almost at once. One day later, the entire event was no longer urgent enough to elicit so much as a hopeless sigh around water coolers scattered all across the globe.

Naturally, MeanMesa was drawn to the story as eagerly as a horsefly tracks down a pig sty on a hot Kansas afternoon. Further, since all the "big boys with their telescopes and slide rules" had already exhausted all the cosmic mathematics and the dirty shirt preachers had, likewise, exploited and served up more than enough heady, Mosaic astronomical eschatology, there was very little left on the plate in which a high desert blog might "sink its teeth."

The result of this unfortunate circumstance is the following four part post.  Let's have some fun.

Part One: A Very Brief, 5,000 Year History
 of Past Meteor Collisions

On a very pleasant evening of June 29, 3123 BCE, a couple of Mesopotamian astronomers were busy scratching cuniform symbols on a mud disk. The effort was, almost undoubtedly, a part of a larger program financed at the time by some Sumerian king.  The ancient Sumerians were heavily invested in the religious advantages which could be garnered through the careful use of astronomy and, at the time, its quite well respected sister, astrology.

Naturally, these ancient astronomers has no way of arriving at a date such as a the "3123 BCE" because, as far as they were concerned, the world had simply not yet gotten the slightest hint that the current days and years were actually "before anything."  In fact, these early astronomers also didn't have so much as an ancient inkling that it was even June.

What we know about this evening's observations now is derived from an exact artifactual copy of the original astronomers' diary which was made in 700 BCE or so. An archaeologist dug this famous copy out of the ruins of castle in the ancient city of Nineveh, Iraq.

The diary of the astronomers. (image source)
These Sumerian astronomers observed and noted the over head transit of an unusually bright object on their planisphere.  It turns out that they had seen the arrival of what is now know as the Kofels Asteroid.

Once the thing had passed over the horizon it continued on until it hit the top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps near the modern city of Kofel.

Scientists now assume that the asteroid had been completely vaporized before the cataclysmic explosion in the atmosphere, but there was plenty of energy released which obliterated a sizeable chunk of the mountain top and launched those rocks high into the stratosphere.  The other geophysical consequence was a regional "impact winter" which lingered under the dust cloud for a decade or so.

The Kofel meteor is estimated to have been roughly twenty times larger than the 60m meteor which devastated Kungusta, Russia, in 1908.  Enough astrophysics. After all, MeanMesa promised.

From a more populist view, however, there were very few historical similarities between the Kofel impact and others which have occurred while anyone was watching.

Naturally, the Sumerian astronomers couldn't see any evidence of what happened thousands of miles away in the Alps.  In fact, although quite educated as Sumerians went, they had no idea that there were any Alps.

Right here, our story shifts entirely away from physical fact and enters into a fascinating "geo-conceptual" cloud which turns out to be remarkably more durable than the "impact winter" was.

By the day following the astronomers' night observation of the  meteor, a few hundred tons of the biggest, still red hot, Austrian rocks launched from that mountain in the distant Alps began to land on a couple of previously nondescript little towns thousands of miles to the East, Sodom and Gomorrah.

June 30, 3123 BCE turned out to be an absolutely horrible day for them.

Part Two: The 5,000 Year Story of the Story

Importantly for this part of the post, while this marked the end of the story for the asteroid, the mountain in the Alps and, predictably, for Sodom and Gomorrah, it also marked the beginning of an incredibly useful story carefully pieced together by the authority -- and allegory -- loving patriarchs of the local pre-Jewish goat herders in the near by regions.  Of course, various, sequentially modernized versions of the tale have gleefully served to "prove" all manner of convenient things for the contemporary inheritors of that Bronze Age patriarchy and their perpetually eager, "authority loving" congregations even up until today.

A quick review of the "3123 BCE" idea, by the way, also reveals that the world of mythological "discovery" was still stuck, waiting in line, for the next 25 centuries for the Persian prophet Zoroaster to repackage the evil Egyptian god Sett into the more manageable Ahriman, thus creating the modern devil or Satan.  The modern destination for the now completely rewritten Sodom and Gomorrah story would rely on the associated concepts of "sin" and "hell" to really flesh out the tale to its current, dramatic, Old Testament splendor.

As this useful story journeyed from "oral tradition" to Canonized Biblical "fact,"  not only the original "news report" had to be embellished in persuasive ways, but the imaginary nature of the two vaporized villages also had to mature.  Although it may be somewhat difficult for a modern urbanite to even comprehend what those old towns might have looked like on the 28th of June, we can extract a clue from a picture of the likely site as it appears today.

50 Centuries later, the old magic of the place has dimmed. (image source)
As this relentless Holy embellishment proceeded, a "nip" here and a "nip" there, until, say, the 19th Century, artists dutifully stepped up to the plate to contribute their own effort at "keeping the old tale alive."  Sunday school children would be made far more obedient by the image below than by the image above.

Sodom and Gomorrah of the 19th Century tourist brochure. (image source)
As time wore on even further, this durable story was discovered to also present an even  more sanguine profit opportunity, one even beyond its already well proven capacity to terrify superstitious Dark Age farm boys.  In no time, as it bumbled its way through the magic of Hollywood, the story of the old villages had become an alluring, narcotic, x-rated mix of every modern fantasy which could be transported behind the private safety of locked bath room doors by a 20th Century urban teen age boy.

Sodom and Gomorrah in the sexy, Holy, Hollywood Version (image source)

Painfully returning to the title of this post, if any of this 5,000 years of nonsense offers up a suggestion about how to "avoid being hit by a meteor," -- even though it has been great fun -- MeanMesa has no idea what that might be.

Part Three: How to Keep
 From Getting Hit by a Meteor

For this third part, we'll have to indulge ourselves with a short vignette from MeanMesa's Future History Series.  We find ourselves listening in on a shiveringly cold night somewhere in what used to be Idaho. It's the spring of 2051.  An elderly, wizened gentleman is speaking with his young grandson.

"Go ahead and throw another log on the fire, Jim.  We can get warmed up good before we go to bed -- and if the fire's just a little brighter, we can save this candle your Mom made."  The old man settled into his chair by the fire.

"Do you think that they're all right?" Jim asked.

"Oh sure.  Your Dad packed plenty of warm blankets, and they can stay out of the snow in the back of the wagon, under the cover.  They'll be fine.  He planned to be at your aunt's in Moscow by tomorrow night.  Thirty five miles might seem like a long way, but this time of the year, the road's pretty good and there's plenty of grazing for the ox.

See, it's getting warmer in here already.  Before the Big One, we heated this place with natural gas, burned in it in that old furnace downstairs. With that going on, it'd stay warm in here all night." He reassured his grandson.

"Grandpa, you know Mom doesn't like it when you tell me about technology before the Big One." Jim stated righteously.

"That's right, but I think you still need to know at least a little about how things used to be.  Let's see.  You're eight now which means that you were born about five years after it happened.

Now that things are beginning to get better again, you know, now that the sun's started shining again, and the winter doesn't last all year long, life is sort of coming back to normal.  Why, your Dad even grew some fresh vegetables outside last year.  Those were extra yummy, weren't they?"  The old man smiled.

"Man, they sure were!  This year I'm old enough to help Dad grow even more stuff!"  The boy gazed into the darkness for a moment.  "Mrs. Simpson said that the Big One was God's punishment.  She said that it caught all the sinners by surprise."

"Heh, heh.  No, it sure wasn't any surprise.  We knew it was coming for a couple of years or more.  And, it was an asteroid.  That idea that it was God punishing the world is crazy.  Lots of people thought things like that before the Big One, but hardly anyone thinks so any more.  It didn't just 'drop in' from outer space unannounced.  It was a couple of days earlier than the scientists thought, but they were pretty close.

See, there used to be around seven billion people living here -- all over the world.  At least that was the way it was the day before the 12th of August, 2037.  On the 13th, there were about two hundred million.

The Big One came in low, grazing over the North Atlantic, and it was so hot that it created a huge rain cloud as it evaporated the ocean.  It finally hit in Eastern Poland.  Even though that was a long ways away, everyone everywhere could feel it.

Poland was a country on the Eastern side of an old continent we called Europe.

By the next day, everything in Russia, India and China was on fire.  That afternoon the wave got back here to where we were living.  Our old country was called the United States, but it was a lot bigger then.  There were states stretched way out to the East, but the wave came in as far at the Rockies and pretty much wiped out that part.  

The mountains out there are the Rockies.  We were lucky to be on this side." The old man gestured off to his left.

"It must have been really scary." The boy mused, wide eyed.

"If we had known more about what was going on, it would have been.  But, it was over so fast that no one really understood what had happened."  The old man replied.  "Afterwards, things got worse and worse for a long time.  Now, finally, things are beginning to get a little better again."

"Mrs. Simpson said that it was God's will, and that nothing could be done to make it turn out otherwise."  Jim offered.

"Well, that's the part that sort of gets up my nose.  See, if we'd had our act together, we could probably stopped it, avoided the whole thing."  These words just seemed to drift from the old man's mouth.

"WE WHAT??!!"  The youngster was clearly flabbergasted.  "We could have stopped it??!!  Why didn't we stop it??!!"

"Well, yes.  In those days we had the kind of science and technology that we would have needed to stop it.  Of course, all that's gone now, but back then, sure, there were all sorts of plans to stop it.

The people who were in charge of the world back then thought that it would be better if they got all the money that it would have cost to go ahead and stop it.  Even though she didn't know what she was doing, well, they convinced people like Mrs. Simpson that it was too expensive, too.  So, no one did anything.  In fact, we didn't even try.  I assume that all those people died rich.  Of course, that old kind of money wasn't worth anything after the Big One hit us."  The grandfather sighed.

Part Four: How to REALLY Keep
 From Getting Hit by a Meteor

If a hysterical effort to perfect the previously proposed "sin free" life to avoid God's wrath isn't a convincing alternative, what, exactly, is left?

Happily, the answer is plenty.

It would be foolish to think that instituting a rational response to this reality needed to include any cooperation by all the "Mrs. Simpsons" of the world.  Of course we will save them as we save ourselves, but we can hardly expect them to be interested in helping.  We should also not anticipate that the folks these "Mrs. Simpson" types keep electing will be much help either.

At least this one made the commercial "news."

Chelyabinsk Meteor (image source)

Now, in terms of "not getting hit by a meteor," the next step is hardly brain surgery.  We have plenty of money, plenty of scientists, plenty of physicists, plenty of astronomers, satellite makers, orbital calculation experts and no shortage of forward thinking NASA program managers.

If we wanted to avoid that troubling conversation with little Jimmy, we would be paying really close attention to voting, candidates, politics, platforms and generally running our government.  We would want the very brightest, innovative folks we could find formulating plans, detecting threats and making decisions about applying all the advantages mentioned above to bring our national -- and global -- assets to bear on the problem which could effortlessly wipe us out in twenty four hours.

Naturally, one of the first places we would look to see this quality of leadership in action would be the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee.  The Chairman of that powerful Committee might, in fact, be one of the smartest and most talented people in the entire government.

We'd all feel so much more secure, knowing that we had done our best to protect little Jimmy's future.

Congressman Lamar Smith, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman

Meet Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science Committee.  His WIKI bio includes:

Lamar Seeligson Smith is the U.S. Representative for Texas's 21st congressional district, serving since 1987. The district includes most of the wealthier sections of San Antonio and Austin, as well as some of the Texas Hill Country.

We can add a few other "illuminating facts" here.  Mr. Smith is a Christian-Scientist, a fact which sounds consistent with his House Committee Responsibilities, but actually, of course, isn't.   Mr. Smith is a vocal global climate change denier with the predictable affinity for the interests of the Texas oil oligarch class.

There's more.

Mr. Smith is an energetic, unrepentant tea bagger who has made all manner of embarrassing Old Testament proclamations about political issues.  Although there were voices -- including Republicans growing nervous about the heavily soiled shambles of the Party's image -- urging House Speaker Boehner not to appoint him to the Chairmanship of the Science Committee, MeanMesa has to assume that the "runners up" for that appointment were even more embarrassing.

Finally, someone told Mr. Smith that a meteor had hit Russia.  He's decided to hold a Committee hearing.

You get the idea.


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