Doomsday, Whenever: Massive Asteroid Impacts Probably Happen at Random

We always seem to be “overdue” a devastating asteroid impact, but how can we be overdue if asteroids don’t have an impact schedule?

asteroid-day-2015
Don Davis/NASA

Humans are naturally tuned to seek out patterns in seemingly random events. It’s an evolutionary trait that has helped us become the smart Homo sapiens we are today.

This ability to spot patterns and predict cyclical events continues to dominate our everyday lives. For example, geologists chart seismic activity in hopes of seeing a tell-tail earthquake signal before the “big one” happens; farmers track seasonal cycles in an attempt to predict periods of drought; Wall Street traders use complex numerical models to warn of the next financial crisis (or, indeed, profit from the downturn). Also, astronomers try to find patterns in cosmic occurrences that could pose an existential threat.

We are, of course, talking asteroid impacts — cataclysmic events that have shaped all of the planets in our solar system. Although Earth’s atmosphere is very good at eroding away ancient impact craters, evidence for asteroid impacts in the geological history of our planet is very common. Frankly, it’s perfectly natural to be hit by large asteroids and comets; that’s how planets accrete rocky material, collect water and accumulate organic chemistry for life (on Earth, at least).

But should we get hit by a massive asteroid in the near future, it could be curtains for our civilization. So it sure would be handy if we could somehow use the geologic record of our planet, see how often we get punched, spot a cycle or some kind of pattern, predict then the next impact is likely to happen and — hopefully — plan for the next marauding space rock to make an appearance in our skies! (Whether we’ll be able to do anything about it is an entirely different matter.)

Although seeking out cycles in asteroid and comet strikes is a doomsayer’s favorite hobby, scientists have had a challenging time at pinning down any kind of pattern in historic asteroid impacts and, as a new study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society dramatically concludes, there may be no pattern at all.

But what could drive periodic asteroid or comet impacts in the first place? One hypothesis claims that the solar system’s “wobble” through the galactic plane may destabilize comets in the Oort Cloud periodically, causing an uptick in massive planetary impacts. Also, the much hyped solar twin, Nemesis, could gravitationally jumble asteroids during its long orbit around the sun. But neither hypothesis stands up to scrutiny and the existence of an extremely dim solar partner is becoming increasingly unlikely.

Regardless, previous studies have suggested that extinction-level impacts (of the magnitude of the one that wiped out, or at least greatly contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs) occur roughly every 26 million years (the cause of which is open to debate), but researchers from ETH Zurich and Lund University in Sweden now refute this claim.

“We have determined … that asteroids don’t hit the Earth at periodic intervals,” Matthias Meier, of ETH Zurich’s Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology, said in a statement.

After studying precisely-dated impact craters around the world that were formed in the past 500 million years, Meier and Sanna Holm-Alwmark of Lund University dated some 22 craters with dates of impacts known to a precision of one percent.

Then, using a technique known as circular spectral analysis (CSA), they attempted to find the approximate-26 million year period in this set of craters. They found no such period.

Interestingly, Meier and Holm-Alwmark also found that some of the impact craters were of the same age, hinting at a common source. “Some of these craters could have been formed by the collision of an asteroid accompanied by a moon,” said Meier. “But in other cases, the impact sites are too far away from each other for this to be the explanation.”

One interesting example is the apparent close similarity in age of the famous 66 million-year-old, 110 mile-wide Chicxulub Crater in Mexico (that has been linked with the extinction of the dinosaurs) and the 15 mile-wide Boltysh Crater in the Ukraine. As pointed out by the researchers, although a definitive explanation for this coincidence isn’t immediately clear, the two impactors may have originated from a collision in the asteroid belt, sending fragments to Earth, hitting the planet within a very short period of one another.

And it’s these kinds of clustering impacts that the researchers have identified as being potential problems with previous statistical studies — they assumed each impact is distinct, when in fact, they happened at the same time, possibly skewing results and creating a pattern when, in fact, there wasn’t one.

“Our work has shown that just a few of these so-called impact clusters are enough to suggest a semblance of periodicity,” said Meier.

I have little doubt that these new findings will be disputed, spawning more studies pointing to other statistical techniques and a bigger impact crater data set, but it is interesting to think that, as far as extinction-level impact events go, there really may be no pattern to their occurrence.

We know that a doomsday asteroid is out there, and it will hit us, but it has a random impact date that is only known to our planet’s geological future.

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Shhhhh… Do You Hear That? That’s The Sound Of The World Not Ending

Perfect solstice sunrise by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK)
‘Perfect solstice sunrise’ by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK on Twitter)

Now, call your friends, grab a beer and celebrate the end of the Maya Long Count calendar’s 13th b’ak’tun and the winter solstice. (Sorry doomsayers, I will not be giving you a reference for your post-doomsday interview, you did a crappy job of the Apocalypse.)

Also, send your congratulations to my sister, Colette! IT’S HER 30TH BIRTHDAY! Congrats Sis!!

On a side note, a few of us appeared on the #TWISmageddon 21 hour marathon to talk about the end of the world (or lack thereof), science and the human propensity for believing the Mayan doomsday bunkum. Thanks to Kiki Sanford, Justin Jackson, Scott Lewis, Blair Bazdarich, Nicole Gugliucci and Andy Ihnatko for a terrific Google+ Hangout. Who knew doomsday would be so much fun! (We start at about 1hr 45mins into the Hangout.)

EDIT: Is John Cusack skiing? He’d better be — that’s what he told me during the premier of “2012” in 2009! More: “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.

“Skiing” he told me. Skiing.

Read more: No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide (Discovery News)

Who Cares if Ashton Kutcher is Preparing for Armageddon?

So, it’s 2011. A brand new year. Who knows what it holds? Actually, I know what it holds. Trolls. In fact, 2011 will henceforth be the Year of the Troll. (Not the Year of the Rabbit, sorry Bun-bun.)

I’ve noticed a rather crazy uptick in the number of anti-science diatribes and wet doomsday theories in recent months. Most are due to questionable reports written on quasi-news websites (as debunked in “2012 Alien Invasion? Um, No.”), and others are down to the trolls who surf the web dropping comments under otherwise benign science articles. Could it be that Fakemageddon is a year away? Or has the use of computers been granted in kindergarten? Could be both.

Although I joke about the misguided individuals inventing tales of doom to sell books, there is a rather serious undercurrent to my 2012 ramblings. People genuinely worry about this stuff. Sure, I’m totally numb to all this 2012 tomfoolery — it’s all crap, honest — but I’m still receiving messages from readers who are convinced something bad is going to happen on Dec. 21, 2012.

(The only person I know who’ll have a bad time is my little sister, who’ll be turning 30 on that day — don’t worry sis, I’ll be there administering the vodka, it numbs the chronological pain, trust me.)

So where does that leave us? What can we do to divert the nonsense and bring some real science to the table?

For one thing, I’m going to keep writing about the crackpots perpetrating these silly myths through 2011 and beyond. Although fellow debunkers and myself have been under attack recently for even mentioning the 2012 thing — something about a dead horse and a good beating — it’s important to inject common sense into the Internet whenever nonsense appears. If these doomsday theories go unchecked, for some, science and pseudoscience may become confused.

This is where the “Truth Squad” (as MSNBC science editor and Cosmic Log space maestro Alan Boyle has dubbed us) comes in, and I’m pretty sure all space science bloggers will be on the lookout for the doomsayers’ tall stories.

So, in conclusion, if you read something with an eerie 2012 flavor on the internet, be sure to check out my handy dandy “How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?” cheat sheet.

Also, don’t pay attention to celebrities who are obviously getting a little hyped up on the doomsday juice. No, I don’t think Ashton Kutcher really has anything to worry about in the near future, but if Armageddon works as a workout motivator… well, good for him (besides, I think he might have been taken out of context, so also look out for Huffington Post articles that try to make mountains out of molehills).

That is all.

Happy New Year!

PS. I hope to make Astroengine.com a little more productive through 2011. But in case you’re wondering what I’m up to, be sure to pop over to Discovery News, I’m always there.

Warning, Over-Hyped Title Alert: But It’s A Frackin’ SUPERNOVA!

"SuperNova" by Shadow-Trance (DeviantArt)
"SuperNova" by Shadow-Trance (DeviantArt)

I’m not kidding, last week was a huge mess of a supernova doomsday circus. It was like whispering “there’s a bomb under your chair” to the person next to you in a crowded theater and then watching the resulting flood of people slam into the fire escape. It was internet chaos. And there was no stopping it.

I am of course talking about the first, great doomsday scare of 2010: T Pyxidis.

Luckily for me, the first headline I saw was in the UK’s Telegraph that read “Earth ‘to be wiped out’ by supernova explosion.” Uh oh, that title sounds rather definite. Immediately, the bullshit sensor in my brain was tripped so I stopped flicking through the embarrassing excuse for a UK newspaper and had a read.

According to the article, some star (that I can’t pronounce) was “set to self-destruct” (as a big hairy supernova), a little over 3,000 light years away. Global chaos will therefore ensue. The ozone layer will be stripped away… and the Earth will be “wiped out.” (I still can’t work out how the Earth will be “wiped out.”)

I’m only picking on the Telegraph.co.uk as my skepticism knives were already sharpened after a series of idiotic woo-fueled articles (here, here and here) the website has played host to in recent months, but they weren’t the only news outlet to go batshit crazy with the “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE” angle.

But who was really to blame for this mess? After all, the media was just the messenger, they must have gotten their lead from somewhere. Ah yes, the scientists… what did those guys really say?

You can find out how I got to the bottom of the science behind the hype in my Discovery News article “Will Earth ‘Be Wiped Out’ by a Supernova?” but cutting to the chase, it turns out that the scientists may have been a little hasty in their attempt to make international headlines.

As my mate Phil Plait mentions in his excellent write up (about my write up) of the T Pyxidis debacle on Bad Astronomy, this isn’t just a simple case of media hype, a lot of the blame should lay with Edward Sion et al. from Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Sure, some of the numbers didn’t add up (mistakes happen), but issuing a press release with a huge wad of inaccurate doom wrapped inside is pretty irresponsible. Have a read for yourself:

An interesting, if a bit scary, speculative sidelight is that if a Type Ia supernova explosion occurs within [that distance] of Earth, then the gamma radiation emitted by the supernova would fry the Earth, dumping as much gamma radiation (~100,000 erg/square centimeter) into our planet [sic], which is equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously. –Excerpt from the Villanova press release, “THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPERNOVA?”

“…fry the Earth”? Come on, that’s not even an accurate scientific term about what would happen if we were hit by a surge of gamma-rays. What’s wrong with saying “…the Earth would be at the receiving end of a Death Ray”? If you’re going to do the job of the tabloid press, hyping up your own research before the tabloid press has even read the release, you may as well be accurate.

And speaking of accuracy, my colleague Ray Villard was at the AAS and confirmed that Sion’s numbers were out by a factor of 10. “A supernova would have to be 10 times closer [to Earth] to do the damage described,” Ray said.

Although I was tough on the Telegraph in my Discovery News article (let’s face it, with an inaccurate and inflammatory title like that, they had it coming), in this case I think the main issue lies with Sion and co.

Why over-hype your research to get attention, when the research was interesting enough without declaring doomsday? By me even writing about the subject again, I think I just answered my own question.

But on a plus point, at least everyone knows what T Pyxidis is now…

A Bevvy of Doom

On the red carpet: John Cusack tells me what he'll be doing on Dec. 21st, 2012. Skiing (credit: Debra O'Neill/Discovery News)
On the red carpet: John Cusack tells me what he'll be doing on Dec. 21st, 2012. Skiing (credit: Debra O'Neill/Discovery News)

Currently sitting in the departure lounge in LAX before I fly out to Washington D.C. to meet up with the Discovery News crew ahead of the launch of our brand new site (keep an eye on Discovery Space, it will soon be integrated into the Discovery News redesign — the beta version looks awesome).

Before I fly, I just wanted to post the news that the Discovery Channel will be airing the documentary I was interviewed for by KPI Productions in August. According to my DVR, the show “Surviving 2012” will be showing on Sunday (Nov. 8th). I’m not certain when it will be showing internationally, but in the US it will be on at 9pm PDT — so check your local listings for any slight changes in schedule. I think it’s going to be a great show as science is the focus, not the hype (unlike the idiotic History Channel-esque Nostradamus nonsense). However, I think fellow interviewee Dr. Alex Young and myself arrived at a very interesting conclusion as to the realities of being hit by an aggressive solar storm. Although our conclusions are far from the rip-roaring, solar blowtorch popular in sci-fi, we do point out that solar physics research is horribly underfunded considering our dependence on vulnerable power and communications systems.

In other news, on Tuesday night I attended the 2012 premier red carpet event in Downtown Los Angeles. I met some bloke named John and another called Roland. Apparently they’re quite famous, but what would I know. For more on my A-list adventures, have a read of “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.” and check out some of the photos from the event via my Facebook account.

Want a Little Doom for Supper?

It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.
It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.

Tonight, our screens are being hijacked by Armageddon for two minutes between 10:45-11pm EDT, 9:45-10pm CDT, 8:45-9pm MDT and 10:45-11pm PDT.

No, Jon & Kate aren’t going to be screaming at each other (why do people find that pair interesting anyway?), the 2012 movie teaser campaign will go up a notch after Sony decided it would be awesome if they throw even more money at this over-hyped End Of The World advertising campaign. 2012 will, quite literally, be spewing its CGI glory across the majority of TV stations.

Although it’s probably pretty obvious by now that 2012 is a marketing opportunity rather than anything that might really happen, even after 18 months since my original No Doomsday in 2012 article, I still receive countless emails about the subject. Some emails are angry (how dare I give scientific reasons why Planet X is bunk!), others are weird, but the majority are from people who have a genuine concern that they (and their family) might not live past Dec. 21st, 2012.

So for those of you who think there might be an ounce of truth in the doomsday claims you see on the ‘net, or the ones depicted in tonight’s 2012 trailer, to borrow the advice from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log:

DON’T PANIC!

And why shouldn’t you panic? The simplest reason not to panic is that ancient civilizations (like the Maya) have never, ever predicted anything with any degree of accuracy (and no, just because they apparently had good astronomy skills does not mean they did a good Nostradamus impression). Quite simply, time is a one-way street, you can never foretell anything before it happens. It is a physical impossibility.

If you still don’t believe me and think that the cosmos has marked us for death on Dec. 21st 2012, check out my other articles on the subject: Could Planet X make an appearance? No, nope, no way, nah. What about a solar-fried Earth? Balls, bullshitgrapefruit? Geomagnetic shift? Don’t even go there!

Still in doubt? Please, just read through EVERYTHING listed on Astroengine.com and the Universe Today about the topic.

Still buying doomsday crackpot literature? Well, I give up, you obviously want to see the world end. In this case, you might need professional help.

So, in short, ignore the 2012 viral campaign, but enjoy the movie for what it is, a disaster movie (and nothing more sinister). Will I be watching the movie? Hell yes, I want to be one of the first to review it!

Thanks to @_Kaden_ for the heads-up about tonight’s trailer…

Survive 2012 for the Crazy Price of $49.95 (and I mean Crazy)

bullet_earth2

I’ve often wondered how doomsayers can monetize their theories of the end of the world. It’s one thing to scare someone, but it’s quite another to get them to willingly hand over a wad of cash. It’s the classic door-step salesman problem: How do you get a homeowner to sign a contract after spending 30 minutes boring him/her to death with the reasons why they really should trust them — sweating in a badly-fitting suit — although they’ve only just met?

As far as I can work out, it seems the best way to profit from this doomsday tripe is to write a book. Apparently, publishers have little concern about what’s printed on the pages. If the cover art looks scary enough, and the numbers 2, 0, 1 and 2 are in bold type, the publication will sell itself. If that doesn’t work, hobble together a YouTube video with depictions of the Earth in flames… and Planet X (because Nibiru is so planet-killin’ cool). Oh, and add narration of some idiot with a superiority complex.

If this amazing marketing ploy isn’t upsetting enough people, build a website. Besides, if you fill that site with enough text, you’re bound to hit all the doom keywords and have a flood of Google search traffic. Hell, if this is the case, you can supplement the future royalties of your best-selling novel with some juicy advertising revenue. Yeah, that will work.

Oh yes, and sell fridge magnets (really).

However, all these ploys (including the awfully flawed “How to Survive 2012” YouTube clips) aren’t a patch on what I’ve just seen: a “I Will Save Your Life In 2012 If You Buy My Book” website.

A screenshot of the "2012 Official Countdown" website.
A screenshot of the 2012 Official Countdown website.

It’s one of those classic “I can show you how to earn $5000/hour” set-ups. One long page, filled with text that takes a whole evening to read. This particular site is called the “2012 Official Countdown” and the URL is http://www.2012officialcountdown.com (I won’t link to it). A screenshot of the top of the page can be seen to the right.

So how do I know this is a scam? You mean apart from the transparent desperation to tell you that the government is lying to the world? The insane statements that “well-meaning experts” have got it all wrong (those silly scientists)? Or is it the the complete overuse of bold type, red type, yellow highlights and claims that they are the only ones that know the “truth”?

Actually, I can look past all that crap, and skip to one key detail that suggests to me that the author has an even looser grasp on reality than all the other crackpots I’ve encountered (thank you Greg for pointing this peach out):

Mr. Sayer is a respected Internet scholar with a concentration on the topics of history, spirituality and exposing untruths.

So Mr Sayer is, in fact, a guy that spends all his time on the Internet? You mean he’s a graduate of Google University? Poor guy, he must be a little warped. Oh, no, actually he’s more than a little warped:

There is one thing that remains completely undisputed by anyone who is truly informed…

“Every Major Religion… Minor Religions You’ve Never Heard Of… Non-Religious Spiritualists… And Even Atheists And Agnostics Agree…”

In 2012… something will happen.

What?

Aaaah… that’s the issue in dispute. That’s the issue that is causing all the debate.

And that’s where you’re having the most trouble deciding what is fact… and what is pure Hollywood fiction.

Hi. My name is J. Michael Sayer. And… I have the answer.

Unfortunately, the superiority complex is strong in this one. Mr Sayer is a self-professed “Internet scholar” who “has the answer.” The answer to what? Well, something bad is going to happen in 2012! No, really? Really. What’s more, he presents his material like a true soothsayer on a mission. People are pleading for his help! He has the answer! He helps people by telling them the answer! (After clicking on the PayPal button.)

I’ll be honest, I felt a legion of braincells die as I read through the story that ensues. For some reason “James” decides to chronicle the events of Hurricane Katrina and how we can prepare for a similar catastrophe in 2012 if we read his book. But the book is just a re-hash of all the old theories that have come before (as I outlined in No Doomsday in 2012) — ancient civilizations/prophets predict doomsday in 2012 etc. Even though the Mayans never predicted doom when their Long Count calendar ran out, and Nostradamus never accurately predicted what he was going to have for dinner, let alone the events that would happen hundreds of years after his death. In short, it’s all total rubbish.

Plus, there’s Planet X. Only this time, the planet killer is hiding behind the Sun, waiting to strike! Isn’t the Planet X theory dead and buried already?

The one thing that really ticks me off however, are questions like, “How much is it worth to you to have the peace of mind you need for your family?” Apparently, the package James is offering is “worth” (it seems you can put a price on bullshit these days) $7,850. Why? That’s because he’s put 157 hours of “research” into this package (so it looks like he charges $50/hour for his Internet surfing expertise). But wait! He doesn’t want to sell it for $7,850.

We both agree a mere $1,000.00 to change everything about your life and the future lives of your family members. That’s a bargain.

But he’s not even selling it for $1,000! What a guy. A hero.

You won’t pay $99… $89… or even $79. This price cutting is getting crazy.

Oh James, you’re making me cry. You’re such a crazy, crazy guy!

After some more nonsense about throwing in an mp3, another book, and a little piece of his soul, James is flogging this whole kit for $49.95. Amazing, right?

What is amazing is that I actually read that entire page and I’m not dribbling. This is 100% pure-home-grown bullshit, a scam. And I can call it a scam because absolutely none of what he is promoting is provable, and every theory presented can be debunked with real science. Unfortunately, this is the most brazen attempt yet to screw people out of their money. Although I’m fairly sure most people will see the page and know it’s a con, some will see it as a lifeline, unfortunately.

Another very unfortunate thing is that I found this page via a Google Ad on Astroengine.com. It’s now blocked, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more of these websites pop up the closer we get to December 21st, 2012.

For more detail about the science behind the pseudo-science of the 2012 doomsday theories, read the whole No Doomsday in 2012 series

“Knowing” How Solar Flares Don’t Work

 

knowing-flaming-earth

My wife turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, “Can you sue a production company for inaccurate science in a movie?

Hmmm… good point!” I said. “Unfortunately, though, I think it’s just called ‘being creative.’

But that got me thinking.

Knowing not very much

We’d just sat through the Nicholas Cage disaster movie Knowing after heavily criticising the last hour of magical solar flares, prophecies, silly religious undertones and complete disregard for a little thing called “science.” Oh, and there were aliens. Who would have guessed?!

I would say that apart from these things, it was actually a pretty good film… but I’d be lying. Well, a little. I was actually quite impressed by the assorted disaster CGI and the acting (I’m glad Rose Byrne is getting some big roles, as I think she rocked in Damages), but generally, I was disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the director Alex Proyas didn’t have such a contempt for asking a science advisor for… I dunno… “advice.”

In fact, I’m not even going to bother researching whether there was a science advisor in the production crew or not, because either a) the rest of the crew didn’t listen to him/her, b) the science advisor was lying about his/her credentials or, c) the science advisor was stoned/drunk while on the set. Therefore, in my mind, there wasn’t a science advisor involved in the making of this film.

Putting the stupid plot, aliens (double-facepalm), Byrne’s character’s death and no science advisor to one side, I still cannot understand how they got solar flares so wrong.

Kaboom! Whoooshhh! Fizzzzz….

I’m not being funny, it’s as if Proyas didn’t bother to Google “solar flare,” just to check to see how solar flares really do work. Hell, go to the self-explanatory HowStuffWorks.com and do a search for “Sun.” If either one of these things were done during pre-production, the science may actually have been plausable.

In a totally forgettable scene, right toward the end of the movie, the uber-scary solar flare waits to be blasted at Earth. Cage gets on the phone to his Dad saying something like, “You know it’s been pretty hot lately? Well, it’s about to get hotter!” That’s an epic solar fail already. For some reason, the world had gotten hotter and everyone just shrugged it off as a warm October? I’m thinking the Sun would need to be whacking out a huge increase in energy, and in which case, those bumbling solar physicists or the N.O.A.A. (or “EN-Oh-Ay-Ay” as the cast painstakingly spells out) might have noticed?

I’m a stickler for realism in movies — so this is just a personal gripe — but why weren’t real images of the Sun from SOHO, TRACE, Yohkoh, Hinode or STEREO (let alone the countless ground-based solar observatories) used at all through the entire film? Instead, we see a strange blob of CGI graphic, shimmering like a corporate logo on computer screens, being referred to as “our Sun.” I’m pretty sure NASA would have happily provided some real pictures of “our Sun” if they were asked.

Solar flares or cosmic death rays?

But the best part of the entire movie is when we get hit by the super flare. Oh dear lord. If you weren’t terrified of the Sun before, you will be now. That thing can incinerate cities! It’s radiation can penetrate the Earth a mile deep! Holy cow, it is like a trillion-billion atomic bombs all going off at the same time!!!

Ah, I stand corrected. The production crew obviously did Google “solar flare,” but only read the bit where it says “…an energy of 100 million Hiroshima bombs is released…” That’s big right? Yep, Earth is toast!

Unfortunately, they didn’t read the bit which points out that this huge explosion occurs deep in the solar corona, 100 million miles away (that’s a long way away).

Also, they didn’t realize that even the biggest solar flares and coronal mass ejections (the latter wasn’t mentioned once for the whole movie) are deflected by our planet’s magnetosphere and thick atmosphere.

The only science that was mentioned was that the “flare” would hit our atmosphere, destroying our ozone, thereby killing everything on the planet. In actuality, if you watched the “flare” hit Earth, I’m not sure what the ozone had to do with anything! That “flare” was like a cosmic ray gun, ripping through the atmosphere and the Empire State Building (oh yes, there was a lot of “famous landmark shredding”) as if it was a hot knife slicing butter. I don’t think we need to worry about excessive UV exposure due to lack of ozone when Earth is on fire.

There’s a list of things that annoyed me about this movie, and I don’t have the patience to mock all points, but after my wife wondered about suing a movie for bad science, I got to thinking what damage movies do to the perception of science. Oh yes, I know it’s sci-fi, I know it’s “just a movie,” I really do know that it’s not real, but wouldn’t it be fun to have a disaster flick that uses some real science for a change?

Real science is sexy too

As I was discussing with solar physicist Alex Young in last week’s filming of the Discovery Channel 2012 documentary, the real threat of a massive solar flare is actually pretty daunting. Granted, the Sun isn’t about to fire a cosmic death ray at us (and let’s face it, the Sun isn’t going to do anything any time soon), setting the planet on fire, but the real physics would be awesome if used in a disaster movie.

Just imagine if we had a disaster movie that depicted a solar flare erupting on the surface of the Sun, just above a highly active region of clustered sunspots and stressed coronal loops. We could see real movies of intense magnetic activity, and then suddenly the blinding burst of electromagnetic radiation. This flare could be the biggest the Earth has seen in modern times. The X-rays from this event knock out solar observatories, stunning the delicate light-collecting CCDs in their cameras. These X-rays immediately slam into our ionosphere, causing a massive surge of electrons, blocking global communications. This may have the knock-on effect of causing our atmosphere to heat up and swell, increasing the drag on our orbiting satellites.

In the first moment when we see the flare, already we see global problems. But this would only be a precursor to something a lot worse…

I can imagine the scene in the perfect movie: Our brave, and smart solar physicists are looking at live data streaming from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a multi-instrument telescope sitting between the Earth and the Sun. They see an expanding bubble growing well beyond the disk of the Sun. An alert is sent out to the authorities; a CME is coming… and it’s headed straight for us… it will hit in a few hours. Cue the countdown to CME impact (the suspense will be tangible, you won’t be moving from your seat). But wait! Communications are patchy, the ionosphere just blocked the satellite link to the US President… time is running out! Bruce Willis, our hero heliospheric expert, steps in and volunteers to notify the president himself (with a gun in his pocket, as there’s bound to be an assassin or terrorist out there to shoot at).

Planetary mayhem

But the fun would really begin when the CME slams into our magnetosphere. The magnetic field of the CME and that of the Earth’s hit in such a way that they reconnect, flooding the magnetosphere with high energy particles. The Earth’s Van Allen belts become supercharged like radioactive reservoirs. Satellites are overcome by high-energy particle impacts. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) go offline. Communication satellites suffer drag and literally start to drop out of the sky.

And it gets worse!

The solar particles are deflected toward the poles, but the solar storm is so intense, particles penetrate deeper, generating vast aurorae at low latitudes. Even equatorial regions would see vast light shows as the particles flood in from space. Although amazingly beautiful, this has yet another side-effect, our atmosphere just became a huge conductor, where vast currents flow as electrojets. These electrojets generate massive magnetic fields, in turn overloading our national grids.

We now have no power and no means to communicate. We’re blind and unable to function. Governments are overwhelmed. Imagine Katrina-scale events all over the USA… all over the world. Who can help? Suddenly the $2 trillion damage estimate made by NASA seems too small… after all, we’d be plunged back into the dark ages, how can you count costs in dollars when a financial system no longer exists?

Conclusion

I don’t expect movies to be totally scientifically accurate. However, if you are basing an entire storyline on one harbinger of doom, at least get that right.

A solar flare will hit Earth in the future, there’s even a very good chance that we’ll get hit by a “big one” that could cause some collateral damage. In fact, if we are very unlucky, a large solar storm could be considered “civilization ending.” Yes, asteroids pose a clear and present danger to life on Earth, but don’t forget the Sun, it has a history of getting angry when the Earth is in the orbital firing line.

If that isn’t a great plot for a disaster movie, I don’t know what is.

Deconstructing Doomsday

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.
Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

The funny thing about being involved in a doomsday documentary is trying to find a suitable balance between entertainment and science. This is the conclusion I reached after the interview I did for KPI productions in New York for the upcoming 2012 documentary on the Discovery Channel last week (just in case you were wondering why Astroengine.com was being a little quiet these last few days).

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.
Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Naturally, the production team was angling for what it might be like to be hit by a “killer” solar flare, what kinds of terror and destruction a brown dwarf could do to Earth and what would happen if our planet’s magnetic poles decided to do a 180°. It’s always fun to speculate after all. However, I wasn’t there to promote half-baked theories of 2012 doom, I was there to bring some reality to the nonsensical doomsday claims. But with real science comes some unexpected concerns for the safety of our planet — not in 2012, but sometime in the future.

An added bonus to my NYC trip was meeting the awesome Alex Young, a solar physicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alex was asked to New York for the same reasons I was, but he has a current and comprehensive understanding of solar dynamics (whereas my solar physics research is so 2006). He actually works with SOHO data, a mission I have massive respect for.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.
Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

My interview was carried out on Wednesday morning, and Alex’s was in the afternoon. The KPI guys were great, a joy to be involved in such a professional project. The documentary producer, Jonathan, asked me the questions in a great location, a huge Brooklyn building that was undergoing renovation. Very dusty with a post-apocalyptic twist. If I was going to shoot a movie about the end of the world, this building would be it.

The KPI documentary will certainly be very different from the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode I was involved with, but it was just as much fun, if not more so (it was like a day-long science fest).

Of particular note was Alex’s sobering words about the woeful lack of funds in solar physics (i.e. Earth-damaging solar flares and CMEs). I hope his closing statement about NOAA space weather prediction funding makes the final cut; it was nothing less than chilling.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.
Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Although we both hammered home the point that the fabled Earth-killing solar flare wont happen in 2012 (let’s face it, our Sun is still going through an epic depression, why should solar maximum be anything spectacular?), it is probably the one theory that holds the most scientific merit. In fact, as both Alex and I agreed, for a civilization that depends on sensitive technology in space and on the ground, we really need to prepare for and understand solar storms far better than we do at present.

I won’t go into any more details, but the documentary will be on the Discovery Channel in November, so I’ll give plenty of warning to fire up those DVRs.

Thank you Sarah, Jonathan and the rest of the crew from KPI for making the New York visit so memorable…

2012 Has Become the Tweed Jacket of Doomsday Scenarios

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

In a little over three years time, December 21st 2012 will be upon us. For every reason under the Sun, 2012 will be a normal year, with its fair share of trials, tribulations, disasters, deaths, political unrest and pretty much every other setback we’ve been facing this year, last year and all the other years we’ve lived through. Some years are better than others, some are downright bleak, but we can never predict what the year 2012 is going to be like. And no, the Mayans, astrologers, secret government conspirators or tea leaves don’t have a clue either.

No vague doomsday prophesy predicted since the dawn of time has happened, and that’s not going to change.

It’s a little thing called causality. No future event can be seen before it happens, otherwise the whole cause-and-effect thing gets completely screwed up. It’s the way time works, no amount of believing otherwise will change that…

*yawn* Sorry, I fell asleep. Is it me, or is this 2012 bunkum already getting out-dated? Has it become the doomsday equivalent of the tweed jacket of fashion?

I bring this up as the doomsday hype is leaking into every facet of reporting, and today I read an Examiner post that is trying desperately hard to get attention. This time, it’s not about crop circles predicting killer solar flares, it’s the LA Science and Tech News Examiner who couldn’t resist dropping in a mention for the Mayan calendar when reporting about the recent Large Hadron Collider (LHC) woes.

The report goes into some detail about recent LHC problems, pointing out that the particle accelerator probably won’t be operating at full energy until… wait for it[cue doomsday alert!] …2012.

This triggers another doomsday ‘tweed jacket,’ the nonsensical LHC-induced Earth-eating-black-hole pseudo-science theory popularized by Walter “I need some attention” Wagner after he tried (and failed) to sue CERN for endangering the planet with its scary physics.

I’d understand if the report was commenting about real science behind the various silly doomsday scenarios that are being thrown around like confetti, but it isn’t. Fred Gober decided that the LHC wasn’t interesting enough to stand on its own merits and threw in some doom to jazz it up a bit.

It’s true that Gober was just airing opinions, which is perfectly fine, but at least poke fun at the 2012 doomsday hype rather than using it as a reason to try to add some fear to LHC science (although I suspect he might be trying to be funny, didn’t work). Gober also finds it necessary to link to a ridiculous ‘2012 believer’ site (apparently Mel Gibson ‘believes’, shocker).

I also understand that many readers won’t pay much attention to the doomsday reference, but as we found out in the run-up to last year’s first attempt to get the particle accelerator started, some people take this kind of reporting seriously, occasionally with tragic (and bizarre) consequences.

Unfortunately, 2012 will continue to be overused for the next 40 months, so expect more science-based articles like this Examiner post that decide to add some doom to their reporting.