CCNet 43/2003 - 28 April 2003
"Those of a nervous disposition should look away now, and not just from the rolling news channels. They would also do well to avert their gaze from publication lists, where books forecasting doom and gloom are vying miserably for supremacy over those predicting Jihad, the apocalypse or the extinction of Homo sapiens. Indeed, with the Iraq conflict dominating the Middle East and a mystery pneumonia virus threatening south-east Asia, I wouldn't be surprised if an asteroid was found to be hurtling towards the western world."
--Anjana Ahuja, The Times, 23 April 2003
"Pessimism is good box office, and [Sir Martin] Rees's gloom stands in a long tradition of dyspeptic futurology. From Huxley's Brave New World and H. G. Wells to the modern environmental movement, almost everybody has painted the future as a dismal place, and almost everybody has - so far - been wrong. Steam engines, nuclear war, the population explosion, chemicals, social dislocation and genetically modified food have come and gone without leaving us worse off: in fact, the more technology we invent, the healthier, wealthier and wiser we become. So why should Jeremiah Rees be right where so many past prophets have been wrong?"
--Matt Ridley, The Sunday Telegraph, 27 April 2003
(1) ANOTHER EXCEPTIONALLY LARGE 1972 FIREBALL?
Gary W. Kronk <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(2) THEY SAW THE METEOR, THEN HEARD THE METEORITES
Toronto Star, 27 April 2003
(3) NEAR EARTH OBJECT INFORMATION CENTRE - ONE YEAR ON
NEOIC, 16 April 2003
(4) ON THE LOOKOUT FOR ASTEROIDS
The News Press, 25 April 2003
(5) 'BUNKER BUSTER' MISSILES AIM AT MOON
BBC News Online, 24 April 2003
(6) PROPHETS OF DOOM
The Times, 23 April 2003
(7) PROPHET OR PESSIMIST?
The Sunday Telegraph, 27 April 2003
(8) SLOAN DIGITAL SKY SURVEY MOVING OBJECT CATAOLOG
Zeljko Ivezic <IVEZIC@ASTRO.PRINCETON.EDU>
(9) RAS/BAA PROAM MEETING
Margaret Penston <email@example.com>
(10) MARS FLASHES
Duncan Lunan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(11) CLARK CHAPMAN'S OECD PAPER
Michael Paine <email@example.com>
(12) AND FINALLY: SCIENTISTS DISCOVER THAT FLIES CAN FLY!
Ananova, 24 April 2003
(1) ANOTHER EXCEPTIONALLY LARGE 1972 FIREBALL?
From Gary W. Kronk <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I receive a lot of e-mail from people every year asking questions about comets and meteors showers. Sometimes they ask questions about things they saw the night before and sometimes they ask about events they experienced years and even decades earlier.
On April 10 I received an e-mail giving what seemed to be a very interesting eyewitness account of the daylight fireball of August 10, 1972. I read it over several times and noted two significant problems with the account. First, it was made perhaps 10 or 11 hours after the appearance of the famous 1972 fireball. Second, the observation was made in Hawaii, far enough away to make an observation of the daylight fireball impossible even if the time had been correct.
I wondered whether this might be a similar, but independent event, and wrote to Duncan Steel to ask his opinion. He said it seemed genuine and thought it might be interesting to publish the details on an internet discussion list somewhere. Knowing the caliber of people reading your newsletters, I thought CCNet would be a great choice.
The observer was Gary Elliot and he was observing from Kauai. I wrote to him and said the object he saw could not be the famous 1972 fireball, but asked for more details. This morning I received a much longer, more complete description.
My question to him was as follows:
"I was wondering if there were any additional details you might be able to provide, such as direction and altitude, and maybe even a brightness estimation. For instance, you said the observation occurred at dusk. Does this mean the evening sky was still quite bright or were any stars visible? "
His response was as follows:
"I was standing on the bluff with four other friends after coming out of Kalalau Valley on Kauai. I mention this because three of them would be able to corroborate my account (one has died).
"We first noticed what appeared as a very bright meteor which we first noticed high in the Southern sky. It moved from south to north from very high and descended in altitude. I am not sure about how you measure magnitude, but it was as brilliant as a full moon, (not as
large) if not brighter. It was a very large meteor,as compared with an average shooting star. It did not appear to be as large as the photograph of the Wyoming meteor, maybe half that size. Of course there were no mountains nearby to gage it, but it was big.
"By dusk I mean that the very last, thin thread of daylight was on the horizon, (approx. 15 minutes after sunset) and the first stars would have already been visible, though I don't recall paying attention to the presence of stars.
"At a certain point, perhaps after 2-3 seconds of the meteor getting brighter and brighter white, It appeared to burst into a brilliant emerald green color. This was the most striking part of the event. The color was so intensely green. It plummeted, and then the green color diminished to an apparent fireball of orange-red with a vapor trail behind it. Pieces began to break apart. It was visible for a second or two, as what appeared to be a falling rock-like object. Then there was a "whoosh" sound in the distance followed by a brief roll of what sounded like distant thunder. From start to finish the event lasted 15-20 seconds.
"I can only tell you that it was such an intense experience that we were all pretty dumbstruck. When I told people on Kauai about what we had seen, some said that it was probably a missile launch or something from Barking Sands Missile Range on Kauai. I called and made several inquiries and no one could confirm that there was any testing that day. I grew up in California and am familiar with missile launches from Vandenberg. In my opinion this was not a missile launch because the trajectory was clearly entering not departing Earth's atmosphere.
"Some time after the sighting on Aug 10th (again, I remember the date because it is my Mom's birthday) I heard of the Wyoming sighting, and have sometimes wondered whether there could be any connection. Obviously the time difference would not allow it to be the same object, but it is interesting to note."
I am hoping that the publication of this observation might intrigue some readers to seek out additional observations of this object. Ultimately it would be nice to know if this object was somehow associated with the daylight fireball that occurred 10 to 11 hours earlier.
Gary W. Kronk
(2) THEY SAW THE METEOR, THEN HEARD THE METEORITES
From Toronto Star, 27 April 2003
A few minutes before midnight on March 26, a 20-tonne chunk of rock from the asteroid belt plunged into the Earth's atmosphere and broke apart with explosive force above the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, where those who didn't see the fiery visitor flash across the sky probably were awakened by the thunderous boom of the break-up detonation.
Soon after the blast, residents heard the bangs of falling pieces of rock as hundreds of bits of the exploded meteorite rained down on roofs, roads and cars. One softball-sized chunk crashed through a roof and kitchen floor before coming to rest on a table in the basement. Another roof-penetrating piece narrowly missed a sleeping teenager.
The original object, about the size of a car, fragmented into these small pieces because the denser layers of the atmosphere act like a solid wall to an object moving at several kilometres per second. The result: an explosive breakup.
"Meteoroids this size hit the Earth about half a dozen times per year, but rarely over thickly settled areas," says University of Western Ontario meteor expert Peter Brown.
He says they always break up the way this one did, but the pieces are rarely recovered because most fall over the ocean or unpopulated areas.
In fact, this was the first recorded occurrence of hundreds of meteorite fragments falling on a major urban area. Surprisingly, although several people have been conked by meteorites, no one in recorded history has been killed or seriously injured.
But the idea that rocks from deep space do indeed fall to Earth is enough to fire the imagination.
Whenever a meteorite is recovered, you are sure to see incorrect statements about it in the news media.
Much of the confusion stems from the vocabulary astronomers use in this field. For example, a meteor is the streak of light in the sky caused by the incineration of a meteoroid, which is the actual object in space. A bright meteor that appears to break up is called a bolide, but if any of it reaches the ground, it is called a meteorite.
A scientist who studies meteors and meteorites is usually called a meteor expert, not a meteorologist, who is a trained weather forecaster.
No wonder almost everyone apart from astronomers and professionals in the field of meteoritics gets confused.
A related point of confusion for the general public is the non-relationship between a meteor shower and the fall of a meteorite.
In a typical wire-service story, you will read something like this: "The baseball-sized rock from space that landed in the Pleasantville Supersize Mart parking lot yesterday may have been from the Perseid meteor shower that peaked last Tuesday."
The fact is (and just to confuse the issue further), meteors from predictable meteor showers, such as the Perseids and Leonids, consist of comet dust that incinerates in the atmosphere far above the Earth's surface. Comets have nothing to do with the asteroid belt, which is where rocky meteorites originate.
Got all that?
Copyright 2003, Toronto Star
(3) NEAR EARTH OBJECT INFORMATION CENTRE - ONE YEAR ON
From NEOIC, 16 April 2003
Twelve months ago saw the opening day with journalists and members of the NEO community descending on the Millennium Commission funded landmark attraction. The launch date of 20 April was chosen to coincide with the 126th anniversary of the Rowton meteorite fall, the UK's only iron meteorite. Among the guest speakers were Dr Colin Hicks, the Director General of the BNSC and Dr Harry Atkinson, chairman of the NEO Task Force.
In addition to the physical centres at the Space Centre in Leicester, W5 Belfast, Royal Observatory Edinburgh and Natural History Museum London, the NEOIC also has a presence on the web at www.nearearthobjects.co.uk. The site includes a virtual exhibition and a variety of interactive elements, including Virtual Orbits and the NEO Movie. With over 130,000 hits since its launch, the website is proving very popular with those interested in NEO issues. "It is interesting to observe the site statistics soar whenever an NEO story is in the news," said Kevin Yates, Project Manager for the NEOIC. "It is encouraging that both the public and the media see us as a reliable source of information".
The first year of operation has also seen a significant amount of outreach activity, as NEOIC representatives have travelled around the country to present talks and workshops. Over 5,000 people have now experienced the 'Earth Under Threat' presentation. This involves seeing a comet nucleus being made with ingredients like water, carbon, and dry ice, and an opportunity to 'Touch a Space Rock' in the meteorite encounter. Young and old alike are amazed at being given the chance to actually hold one of these 4.5 billion year old leftovers from the formation of our Solar System.
As well as exciting people about the science behind NEO research, the centre aims to reassure the public by giving them access to the latest information in a none sensationalised way. "I'm always disturbed to hear young children telling me the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in 2019 or 2022," said Kevin Yates, "the children hear these reports and it sticks with them. It is nice to have the opportunity to put the record straight, and explain why the assessment of risk changes as astronomers are given time to make more observations."
Another major part of the project has been the opening of the NEO exhibition at the National Space Centre. The exhibition includes IT and physical interactives designed to make some of the complex issues understandable to a family audience. One of the exhibits, called 'Be a Meteorite Hunter' gives visitors the chance to identify a meteorite among a selection of terrestrial rocks. The Earth's cratering record, as well as the need to track NEOs after their discovery, are presented in the form of computer interactives.
Elements of the exhibition will be installed in the Belfast, London and Edinburgh centres before the autumn. Dan Hillier, Manager for the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre, said "I was really delighted when I first saw the quality of the NEOIC's 'Earth Under Threat' presentation. We are really looking forward to an exhibition of similar quality. We have been running NEO sessions for nearly six months now and they have become a very popular and effective part of our public events, outreach and teacher training sessions."
Over the Easter weekend (19-20 April 2003) the NEOIC will be hosting an egg-travaganza birthday weekend at the National Space Centre. The event includes free activities such as the brand new "Exploding Asteroid" demonstration, comet building, NEO family space missions, an Easter egg hunt, competitions, and lots of fun for all the family.
(4) ON THE LOOKOUT FOR ASTEROIDS
From The News Press, 25 April 2003
Professor tries to prevent objects from ending life
By KEVIN LOLLAR, email@example.com
Sounds distinctly scientific and not a little ominous: Potentially Hazardous Asteroids Supplemental Observation and Recovery, or PHASOR.
"Set your PHASORS on stun," says Michael Fauerbach, the man behind a local effort that could someday save the human race.
Sure, it's a long shot, but it is a very real possibility: Mankind just might be wiped out some day by an asteroid.
What Fauerbach, an assistant professor of physics at Florida Gulf Coast University, and his colleagues are doing at the Evelyn L. Egan Observatory to prevent such a cataclysm is gathering data on Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs.
A summary of the FGCU team's work will be on display Friday during the university's second annual Research Day.
Although the FGCU team is concentrating on asteroids, NEOs include comets. The defining factor is that the object must pass within 28 million miles of Earth.
Fauerbach photographs NEOs that have been discovered by others and sends the findings to the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute of Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. There, scientists compare the data to other observations, plot each NEO's orbit and determine which ones will slam like a celestial sledgehammer into the Earth.
"Always remember why we don't have any dinosaurs," Fauerbach said. "People forget that 65 million years ago, not far from here, in the Yucatan, an impact killed 75 percent of all living species.
"I don't want to panic people, but we do have to be concerned. Asteroids are natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, and we have to be dedicated to that."
NASA is dedicated enough that it has set up a program to discover 90 percent of NEOs that are
1 kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter by 2008.
"The reason they cut it off at 1 kilometer: anything larger, and we don't have to worry about the stock market anymore," Fauerbach said. "It would be the end of civilization as we know it."
Fauerbach and the Minor Planet Center people also are interested in smaller NEOs, particularly Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), which are at least 150 meters in diameter and whose closest approach to Earth is less than 4.6 million miles.
At this point, 506 PHAs have been discovered.
"Some of these things are only the size of football fields, but if one hit, we wouldn't have to worry about Miami anymore," Fauerbach said. "It would take out smaller areas, unless it hit water and caused a tsunami. Think what such a wave could do to Florida."
Egan Observatory is an important part of the international NEO search because, at 26.5 degrees north latitude, it houses the southernmost state-of-the-art telescope in the continental United States. It can, therefore, search parts of the sky that other U.S. and European telescopes can't see.
To do their part in protecting mankind from asteroids, the FGCU team uses what Fauerbach calls "the sexiest telescope you'll ever see" - a $40,000 16-inch Ritchey-Chretien (the same design as the Hubble Space Telescope, only smaller) on a computerized mount that can be run from the comfort of the observatory's office.
"This is an experience you couldn't get anywhere else," said Stephan Schonberg, graduate student and part-time observatory staffer. "Working on potentially hazardous asteroids with this kind of equipment and getting results is awesome."
So, what if astronomers determine that an asteroid is on a sledgehammer course Earth-ward?
"If we have 10 years' notice, we'll be able to defend Earth," Fauerbach said. "If it's short notice, no way.
"Asteroids come in different flavors. Some are big rocks, and if you nuke them, they'll break up, and, instead of one, you have many hitting us. Some are piles of rubble, barely held together. It would be like hitting a sand bag: It would deform and still hit us. All you really need to do is nudge an asteroid slightly and it will miss us by millions of miles."
Asteroid and comet impacts are inevitable. Scientists expect a 1-kilometer object to strike Earth every few million years; for a 100-meter object, the expectation is about once a century - the last such impact occurred in 1908 when a 75-meter object exploded over Tunguska in Siberia and flattened 800 square miles of forest.
"Yes, an impact is a natural disaster, probably one of the few natural disasters we can do something about," Fauerbach said. "The question is how much money do we want to spend?"
Copyright 2003, The News Press
(5) 'BUNKER BUSTER' MISSILES AIM AT MOON
From BBC News Online, 24 April 2003
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
Tests have been carried out on ground penetrating missiles using 'bunker buster' technology that could be fired into the depths of dark lunar craters to look for ice.
The proposed mission is called Polar Night, a lunar orbiter that would fire instrumented missiles towards the surface of the Moon.
Tests performed recently in New Mexico have shown that scientific equipment could survive the rapid deceleration of striking the ground and being buried a few metres beneath the surface of the Moon.
The researchers hope that Nasa will approve their mission early next year for a 2007 launch.
The impetus behind these tests is that for many decades scientists have speculated about the possibility of ice at the lunar poles having accumulated there over geologically long periods of time.
Into the plywood
The ice would be from impacting comets. If some of the ice from the comets found its way into dark lunar polar craters where the Sun never reaches, it could be trapped for billions of years.
The lunar polar ice hypothesis was finally confirmed by observations made by the Lunar Prospector spacecraft in 1998.
Technically, the Lunar Prospector data is compelling evidence for the presence of hydrogen. However, most scientists are convinced a small amount of water ice is present at the lunar poles, though other hypotheses exist.
Because of the scientific attraction of lunar polar exploration the University of Hawaii, with engineers and scientists from the US Naval Research Laboratory, Utah State University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory are proposing an adventurous mission called Polar Night.
"Polar Night would conduct a highly detailed remote sensing survey of the poles to refine our understanding of the temperatures and distribution of hydrogen, then directly sample the polar ice with three hard-landing probes," Professor Paul Lucey of the University of Hawaii told BBC News Online.
"The probes are based on bunker-buster penetrators, but instead of explosives, would carry sophisticated scientific instruments hardened against the shock of striking the lunar surface."
"The instruments were recently shock tested in the New Mexico desert by firing them at high speed into 2 metres (6 feet) of plywood, where they experienced 1200 G's of shock and worked perfectly afterwards."
According to Professor Lucey the existence of lunar polar ice raises a new set of questions.
What is the nature of the deposit?
What is the source of the water?
Are other ices besides water ice present?
Is the hydrogen actually in the form of water ice, or is it hydrogen from the solar wind?
He told BBC News Online, "The lunar poles are a potential science bonanza, possibly having recorded the volatile history of the solar system for 2 billion years."
"That potential has an analogy with the poles of the Earth, where meteorites are routinely preserved by the Antarctic icecap and collected by scientists. There is a nice symmetry here: on the Earth, the ice of the poles collects rocks from space, while on the Moon, the rocks of the poles collect ices from space."
Easily collectable ice at the lunar poles could also transform the economics of space exploration.
"For resources for future space travel the chemical form and concentration are clearly relevant to the economic value of these deposits, regardless of our current ignorance of the economics of the future," says Professor Lucey.
The scientists hope the mission will be funded by Nasa's Discovery program of moderate cost planetary science missions.
Lunar Prospector was a mission in this series, and the current missions in flight are Genesis, returning a sample of the solar wind, and Stardust to return cometary and interstellar dust.
The proposals for the next round of the Discovery Missions Program are due later this year with the selection of the 3-5 finalists taking place a few months later.
If Polar Night survives the proposal process, the first impacts would occur in 2007.
Copyright 2003, BBC
(6) PROPHETS OF DOOM
From The Times, 23 April 2003
The new scientific guides to the end of the world make grim reading, but don't scare Anjana Ahuja
Those of a nervous disposition should look away now, and not just from the rolling news channels. They would also do well to avert their gaze from publication lists, where books forecasting doom and gloom are vying miserably for supremacy over those predicting Jihad, the apocalypse or the extinction of Homo sapiens.
Indeed, with the Iraq conflict dominating the Middle East and a mystery pneumonia virus threatening south-east Asia, I wouldn't be surprised if an asteroid was found to be hurtling towards the western world. Hello, what's this in my inbox? Why, it's a media missive from the Royal Astronomical Society informing me that since its formation over four billion years ago, "planet Earth has resembled a giant bulls-eye in space, a target for asteroids and comets of all shapes and sizes", and would I like to attend a conference discussing this cheery proposition? It's a good job I'm a glass-half-full kinda gal.
Scientists have the edge when it comes to discussing the bumping off of humanity, for good reason. They have the expertise to hasten it (nuclear bombs) and stop it (vaccines). But I am still somewhat alarmed to see Professor Sir Martin Rees, the calm and reasonable Cambridge University cosmologist, muttering apocalyptically in his latest book, Our Final Century (Heinemann, Pounds 17.99; offer, Pounds 14.39).
The book is subtitled with fence-sitting aplomb: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? Even though he's keeping his options open, Rees has still bet a thousand dollars that by the year 2020, one biological disaster will have claimed at least a million lives. The former Astronomer Royal also believes we should colonise at least one other planet to "safeguard against the worst possible disaster -the foreclosure of intelligent life's future through the extinction of all humankind".
This slim but grim homage to pessimism rather cleverly appeals to different strands of the bookbuying public. Conventional science book aficionados will buy it because Rees, while outside his specialism, is a name. For science virgins desperate not to remain so, it is a useful round-up of the latest technology and science in which global danger could possibly lurk (global disease pandemics, environmental change).
And, of course, it will attract the End is Nigh brigade. Their outdated sandwich boards no longer look in danger of congealing -plenty of heavyweights have come round to their depressing way of thinking. This month also saw the paperback publication of A Guide to the End of the World, by Bill McGuire, a professor of "geophysical hazards" at University College, London (Oxford University Press, Pounds 11.99; offer, Pounds 9.59). McGuire focuses on natural perils, such as asteroid impacts, deadly volcanic eruptions and killer tsunamis, which suggest to him that planet Earth is "an extraordinarily fragile place that is fraught with danger".
As Rees puts it, with cutting politeness: "Although he (McGuire) might make it sound scary, the threat of natural disasters doesn't keep us awake at night any more than it did our ancestors. In my view the most serious ones are human induced threats, which are getting worse." And so Rees carries on a fine publishing tradition of scaring the reader witless, which started with such books as Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague (Penguin, Pounds 13.99; offer, Pounds 11.19) and Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (Corgi, Pounds 5.99; offer, Pounds 5.09), which both explored biological threats. More recent offerings include Russian-defector-turned-grass Ken Alibek's Biohazard (Arrow, Pounds 6.99; offer, Pounds 5.94), the creepy tale of his former country's covert weapons programme, and Dorothy Crawford's The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses (Oxford University Press, Pounds 8.99; offer, Pounds 7.64), a rather more scholarly portrait of gloom.
Rees puts our odds of surviving to the end of this century at only fifty fifty.
"You'd have to be a real optimist to put our chances at better than that," Rees tells me brightly. "Twenty or thirty years ago, a prudent person would have said there was a 30 per cent chance of 500 million people being killed by nuclear weapons. It didn't happen, but the odds were better than even that we'd survive.
"That threat may have diminished but it hasn't gone away. And now we have a greater variety of threats. We just have to accept that we're going to be more vulnerable. Individuals have more power and the world is more interconnected."
Thanks to the internet, scientific knowledge travels around the globe quickly, and it can occasionally stray into the wrong hands (interestingly, science journals are currently debating whether the cherished norm of completely open publication should continue to apply to sensitive research). Imagine, Rees says, a demented individual who could design and unleash a deadly, infective biological organism into the community. Rees writes: "An organised network of al-Qaeda-type terrorists would not be required; just a fanatic or social misfit with the mindset of those who now design computer viruses. There are people with such propensities in every country -very few, to be sure, but bio-and cyber-technologies will become so powerful that even one could be well too many."
It matters not whether a calamitous event is perpetrated by error or terror. In a world characterised by increasing technical know-how but with growing disenfranchisement, Rees says, both risks are swollen. However, pinning down which dangers will be the greatest, Rees says, is impossible, because scientific progress is so fast. That makes predictions for a hundred years hence "absurd".
Rees says: "We know how unpredictable the past 20 years have been, so I wouldn't want to guess." He believes in making the disenchanted less so, but appreciates this is a political problem. He also adds, quite rightly, that the revolution in genetics means we will soon be able to alter ourselves, which moves the goalposts yet again. Who knows what species we will become in a century, or how self-destructive we will have grown? Much as I admire the eloquence of Rees' glum reckoning, I'm a little circumspect myself. First, I believe scientists are not as gung-ho as Rees implies, and do not gloss over the moral issues and hazards of their work. Second, whether or not by the skin of our teeth, we did survive the nuclear age. Viruses may evolve but so does our medical knowledge. We have conquered smallpox and, I reassure myself, the awesome combined might of the top ten public health laboratories in the world will soon contain Sars, the pneumonia virus terrorising Asia. The Millennium bug was supposed to do us in, but we pulled through. The human race is incredibly smart -we have developed education, medicine, sanitation and technology. Throughout history, our species has generally trodden the route towards self-preservation. I don't have any reason to believe we have suddenly changed, even though we are more scientifically and technologically empowered than ever before.
But, as I said, I'm a glass-half-full kinda gal. If you don't share my optimism, Ladbroke's is offering odds of a million to one on the world ending within a century. That's better, then, than the Lotto, although how you claim the winnings beats me.
Copyright 2003. Times Newspapers Ltd
(7) PROPHET OR PESSIMIST?
From The Sunday Telegraph, 27 April 2003
This assessment of humankind's survival chances is over-gloomy, says Matt Ridley
Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty First Century? by Martin Rees Heinemann, pounds 17.99, 228 pp pounds 15.99 ( pounds 1.99 p&p) 0870 155 7222
SIR MARTIN REES, the Astronomer Royal, is a worried man. He fears that our species cannot survive the present century, so great are the legions of things that might go wrong. He imagines an extraterrestrial watching our solar system for aeons and witnessing a sudden spasm of activity as humanity begins to emit radio waves and send vessels into space. "If they continue to watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next 100 years? Will a final squeal be followed by silence?"
Pessimism is good box office, and Rees's gloom stands in a long tradition of dyspeptic futurology. From Huxley's Brave New World and H. G. Wells to the modern environmental movement, almost everybody has painted the future as a dismal place, and almost everybody has - so far - been wrong. Steam engines, nuclear war, the population explosion, chemicals, social dislocation and genetically modified food have come and gone without leaving us worse off: in fact, the more technology we invent, the healthier, wealthier and wiser we become. So why should Jeremiah Rees be right where so many past prophets have been wrong?
He begins by arguing that we survived nuclear annihilation by a much slimmer margin than we realised. He goes on to suggest that the latest technologies threaten Armageddon rather than just misery. The most fashionable of these is nanotechnology, which the Green movement has identified, with a little help from Michael Crichton, as their new milch cow. The nanotech fear is that a miniature robot designed to replicate itself will take over the world as if it were a virus and leave us with nothing to eat but a sort of grey goo. This is of course conceivable, just as it is conceivable that the chemical industry will tomorrow invent a kind of ice that turns all water into itself, or the nuclear industry will invent a bomb hot enough to ignite the atmosphere's nitrogen.
But all sorts of things are conceivable without being plausible or even possible. It was conceivable that the invention of fire by Stone Age man would lead to disaster for our species. The grey-goo scenario has difficulty in explaining why mother Nature, with a massive research budget and four billion years of practice, has not yet come up with a self-replicating technology to oust her original one - life. The answer, presumably, is that self-replicating systems are inefficient and vulnerable in their early aeons, so only one survives.
Rees then raises a fresh fear, that particle accelerators might make something called a "strangelet", which in the right conditions could "transform the entire planet Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 metres across". Fortunately the risk of this happening seems to be zero, but the impact would be so great that it seems worth being cautious. As Rees puts it, "How should society guard against being unknowingly exposed to a not-quite-zero risk of an event with an almost infinite downside?" Rees is at his most learned and fluent when discussing these risk calculations.
He writes with rare clarity and conciseness: his discussion of the Carter-Gott calculations, for instance, is a model of incisive logic. Their argument goes that we are unlikely to encounter a phenomenon right at the beginning or end of a long existence, but roughly half way through. Most West-End plays playing at any particular date are either roughly half way through a very long run measured in years, or half way through a very short run measured in days.
The phenomenon of human superabundance - which began just a few centuries ago - is therefore unlikely to last for many tens of thousands of years, but will probably last only a few centuries. Rees finds the logic hard to swallow, but harder still to refute, and it seems to give a mathematical turn to his pessimism. He is, as a consequence, eloquently frightening that the end is nigh. Yet I did not find myself in sympathy with his caution about science, because he seems to me to omit the greatest risk of all: the risk of doing nothing.
There is undoubtedly a risk in innovation but there is also risk in a lack of innovation, and stopping all invention at any point in our previous history would have resulted in humanitarian and ecological catastrophes on a vast scale. Consider what would have happened, for instance, if we had somehow waved a magic wand and prevented the invention of agriculture. Evidence suggests that increasingly efficient hunter-gatherers would have continued their extinction of prey species - they had already devastated the fauna of Australia, the Americas and many islands - stopping only when the last tree in the last rain forest was felled.
Rees admits in passing that "the most dramatic engines of current economic growth - miniaturisation and information technology - are environmentally benign", but then fails to follow this thought. Our Final Century is an enjoyable read, but I prophesy that it will prove poor prophecy. If I am wrong, Rees will not be there to say, nor will I be there to hear, "I told you so."
Matt Ridley's `Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human' is published by Fourth Estate.
Copyright 2003, The Sunday Telegraph
(8) SLOAN DIGITAL SKY SURVEY MOVING OBJECT CATAOLOG
From Zeljko Ivezic <IVEZIC@ASTRO.PRINCETON.EDU>
please would you be so kind to post the following announcement to the CCNet?
Thank you very much in advance,
The 2nd Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Moving Object Catalog
We announce the second public release of the SDSS Moving Object Catalog, with SDSS observations for 134,335 asteroids. The catalog lists astrometric and multi-color photometric data for moving objects observed prior to March 11, 2003, and also includes orbital elements for 26,847 previously known objects. The catalog is available at
as "SDSS Moving Object Catalog".
Zeljko Ivezic, Mario Juric, Robert H. Lupton (Princeton University)
for the SDSS Collaboration
(9) RAS/BAA PRO-AM MEETING
From Margaret Penston <firstname.lastname@example.org>
REMINDER - RAS/BAA ProAm meeting on Comets, Meteors and Meteorites
Saturday May 10, 10.30-17.30
Berrill Lecture Theatre, Open University, Milton Keynes
The organisers are getting concerned that not many people have said they will attend. Although there is no registration fee we need to give approximate numbers to the caterers, so please email Jonathan Shanklin <email@example.com> or Margaret Penston <firstname.lastname@example.org> if you plan to come to the meeting.
See the website http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/~jds/proam.htm for programme details. This includes the George Alcock Memorial Lecture to be given by Brian Marsden (SAO) on "Comets near the Sun".
Dr Margaret Penston Tel: 01223-766655 (with voice-mail)
Institute of Astronomy Fax: 01223-337501
Cambridge CB3 0HA
* LETTERS TO THE MODERATOR *
(10) MARS FLASHES
From Duncan Lunan <email@example.com>
Saheki's 1951 observation of a flash on Mars was discussed by Patrick Moore in "Guide to Mars" (Muller, 1956). He quotes Saheki in slightly different words and with some more information: "'When I first looked at Mars some minutes before 21 hours 0 minutes, I saw Tithonius Lacus just inside the east limb. Very soon afterwards, a very small and extremely brilliant spot became visible at the east end of this marking. At first I could not believe my eyes, because the appearance was so completely unexpected... More careful examination revealed that it was not an illusion, but was a true phenomenon on Mars.' (T. Saheki, 'Some Recent Curious Phenomena on Mars', The Strolling Astronomer, Vol. 6, 1952, page 48). Subsequently it became brighter than the north polar cap, and then increased in size and faded, finally vanishing completely in less than an hour.
"It was suggested that the flare was due to the eruption of a Martian volcano. Less likely theories were put forward in the daily Press as soon as the report reached Europe - one famous London daily telephoned me to ask my views about 'the atomic bomb that had gone off on Mars', and the landing of a giant meteor was also suggested. Before long the Flying Saucerers seized hold of the report, and it was referred to by D. Keyhoe in one of the 'little men from Mars' books published during 1954! However, it seems that even the volcano theory is dubious, while the rest are arrant nonsense. In all probability the spot was due to nothing more vital than an unusual cloud."
However, it seems to have been a lot brighter than apparent cloud sightings reported by Camille Flammarion in "Dreams of an Astronomer" (trans. E.E. Fournier D'Albe, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1923). "One of the most curious observations which have been made on this neighbouring planet, or rather which have, apart from the canals, attracted the greatest attention, is that of the luminous flashes. It has been said that these flashes are all seen at the edge of the disc, or beyond it. This is not correct; they show themselves on the line which separates the hemisphere illuminated by the Sun from the dark hemisphere - the line called the "terminator". They are only seen when the globe of Mars offers a sensible phase, and only along the line of that terminator.
"The phenomenon is a slight projection, swelling, or puffing-up of the terminator. It is not a more extraordinary observation than that of the irregularities in the lunar diameter at certain phases: the Sun illuminates, either before its rising or before its setting, the summits of mountains whose bases are still in darkness, and such summits sometimes appear on the Moon as luminous points detached from the disc. Some fertile imaginations have interpreted these flashes as forests on fire or as signals sent out by the Martians. This is going too far. But the possibility of the population of Mars by a human species more intelligent than ours is quite a natural conclusion from the observations. One may also guess without scientific heresy that the canals of Mars are rivers straightened with a deliberate intention of distributing water which has become a rarity over that planet. The astronomers who deny these possibilities show a very poor spirit. But, on the other hand, there is no reason to see nothing on that world but human activity. Among several explanations of observed phenomena one must always prefer the simplest. In the case of luminous flashes on the terminator, the illumination of mountain-tops or clouds by the Sun suffices to account for them.
"Doubts were raised concerning this explanation by the height of 260,000 feet found by an astronomer for the elevation of these mountains. I went over the calculation and found only 15,000 feet. These mountains would not therefore be higher than Mont Blanc, and perhaps less. We should also remember that these luminous projections appear every time that the planet returns to the same condition of illumination with regard to the Earth. They were observed in 1890, 1892, 1894, 1899, 1907, 1909, 1911, 1913, etc. The regions where they appear are a sort of island called Noachis, another called Hesperia, and a third called Tempe. According to all appearances, we have to do with high mountains covered with snow and with still higher clouds."
There are in fact no mountains at those locations, though as we know there are much higher ones elsewhere on Mars. But if Flammarion's 'flashes' were clouds, then Saheki's would seem to have been rather different.
(11) CLARK CHAPMAN'S OECD PAPER
From Michael Paine <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It seems that the link to the OECD website that I provided earlier no longer works. Clark has made DOC and PPT versions available on his website:
http://www.boulder.swri.edu/clark/oecdjans.doc (short version)
http://www.boulder.swri.edu/clark/oecdjanf.doc (full version)
http://www.boulder.swri.edu/clark/OECD03.ppt (PowerPoint presentation)
Also I have put a PDF copy on my website: http://www4.tpg.com.au/users/horsts/chapman4oecd.pdf
It is recommended reading for all CCNet subscribers.
PS I am back from an Easter break and will update my NEO news items at http://www4.tpg.com.au/users/horsts/spacegd.html later today.
(12) AND FINALLY: SCIENTISTS DISCOVER THAT FLIES CAN FLY!
From Ananova, 24 April 2003
Scientists in Switzerland have finally confirmed that flies can actually fly.
Previously scientists thought that their light weight allowed flies to technically "swim" in the air.
But a study conducted in Zurich shows that friction, assumed to let flies swim in air, isn't a factor.
Instead, inertia is the main physical influence in keeping them up in the air.
For the study, drosophila flies were filmed using three cameras at 5,000 pictures per second.
An analysis of the recordings showed that instead of swimming on air, flies actively use their wings in a series of steering and countersteering movements.
The study was conducted at Zurich University's institute of neuro-informatics.
Copyright 2003, Ananova
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