Date sent: Mon, 02 Jun 1997 12:14:03 -0400 (EDT)
From: Benny J Peiser <B.J.PEISER@livjm.ac.uk>
Subject: LOUIS FRANK'S MINI COMETS STIR DEBATE
LOUIS FRANK'S MINI COMETS STIR NEW CONTROVERSY
Last week's press release about Louis Frank's latest research
findings about watery and icy mini comets which are claimed to
impact our atmosphere at a rate of one every three seconds(!), has
provoked a new scientific controversy among astrophysicists. For
the non-astronomer, it remains extremely difficult to assess whether
or not Dr Frank's findings are based on valid interpretation of
observational data or whether the evidence is still too ambiguous
(as the skeptics have pointed out on this network).
Should Louis Frank's findings be corroborated, though, the
implications would not only affect the understanding of our cosmic
environment; it might also demonstrate - once again - the Kuhnian
suggestion that astronomers tend to apply 'biased' observational
technics which - in one way or another - simply mirror and
compliment their personal views about the solar system. What is
more, some dogmatic leaders in their field might even try to
suppress contradictory evidence. Or how should one explain the
reluctance of many astronomers to publish (never mind test) Dr
Frank's theory? Let's hope that something good will come out of
this debate - whatever its outcome - and that the great attention
will now generate the essential tests.
I have attached Robert Matthews' essay about this latest
controversy below. He not only describes the "unscientific
approach" by Frank's fellow astronomers to his theory but also
places this episode in its proper historical context within the
ongoing debates about neo-catastrophism. The article appeared in
yesterday's SUNDAY TELEGRAPH.
Benny J Peiser
THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, 1 June 1997
ICE CUBES FROM SPACE PROVE THE SCOFFERS WRONG
Many scientists are having to eat humble pie this weekend,
following the revelation that the Earth is constantly pelted by
cosmic snowballs the size of houses. And not before time either, as
these same scientists have spent a decade disparaging Dr Louis Frank
of Iowa University for his refusal to bow to orthodoxy and deny the
evidence of his own eyes.
That evidence first emerged in 1982, when a student of Dr Frank's
was analysing images of the Earth sent back by two Nasa satellites.
To the student's frustration, many of the images were spoiled by
tiny black dots. At first sight, they appeared to be faulty data,
but careful study revealed that they behaved far too regularly to
be dismissed as random flaws.
Instead, they appeared to be tiny comet-like objects that were
striking the atmosphere at a rate of one every three seconds, each
dumping tons of water on to the Earth.
For a few years, other researchers showed no more than polite
interest in Frank's claims when they were mentioned at conferences.
It was when he tried to get his research published in academic
journals that Frank discovered the fate that awaits those who make
radical claims in science.
The leading journal NATURE rejected his claims, saying that "a
representative poll" had been taken of experts in the field and
they had voted against publication. Frank's attempt to answer his
critics with fresh evidence by using major telescopes were met with
obstruction and foot-dragging, with astronomers insisting that the
enterprise was a waste of time.
When Frank did succeed in getting access to a telescope, it
revealed objects streaking across the atmosphere at 20,000mph - as
he had predicted. It made no difference: the findings were still
rejected for publication.
Now, after 10 years of obstruction and ridicule, it is Frank's turn
to laugh. Cameras he designed aboard Nasa's Polar spacecraft have
revealed the existence of the small comets beyond all doubt.
Spectacular images taken by cameras show the comets streaking into
the atmosphere before dumping their water. They arrive at the rate
of about one every three seconds - just as Frank had claimed.
Frank himself has always been surprisingly sanguine about the
controversy, apparently taking the view that the "truth will out"
(sic). But there is no getting around the fact that many scientists
have taken a woefully unscientific approach to the whole issue.
While extraordinary claims must demand extraordinary evidence, the
reluctance of many to consider Frank's evidence was matched only by
their keenness to block his attempts to gather more.
Frank's experience in this quintessentially Strange but True story
are far from unique. The whole issue of bombardment by cosmic
debris is one that has always been dogged by mule-like
intransigence dressed up as academic rigour.
Until the early 19th century, anyone claiming to have seen stones
falling out of the sky was regarded as having had a few beers too
many; the French Academy of Sciences even declared such claims to
be a scientific absurdity.
When hundreds of stones were reported to have smashed on to the
French village of L'Aigle in 1803, the Academy dispatched a young
astronomer to debunk the story. He returned with bad news: the
reports were correct. Everyone now accepts the existence of
meteorites but the confirmation came too late to save hundreds of
specimens from being unceremoniously thrown out of museums as
The now widely-accepted theory that a hugh meteor struck the Earth
65 million years ago, pushing the dinosaurs into extinction, also
came in for a least as much abuse as the idea of micro-comets when
it was originally proposed.
When the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez and his
team first published their evidence for the giant impact in 1980,
one authority described it as "a nutty theory of pseudoscientists
posing as paleontologists". Today it is the nutters who argue
There is one aspect of the Earth bombardment issue that remains a
source of incredulity among many scientists: the idea that humanity
is under serious threat from meteor impacts. The sceptics are still
demanding hard evidence for this threat. We can only hope that the
"hard evidence" doesn't come in form of a billion-tonne meteor any
Date sent: Mon, 2 Jun 1997 14:58:53 +0100 (BST)
From: email@example.com (Ian Tresman)
Subject: Re: COMMENTS ON INTERPLANETARY SNOWBALLS
The following post appeared on another mailing list.
Date: Mon, 2 Jun 1997 21:29:31 +1000
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (wal thornhill)
Subject: Re: COMMENTS ON INTERPLANETARY SNOWBALLS
Wal Thornhill comments:
I agree with Morrison and Harris that it is highly unlikely that Louis
Frank has discovered an influx of icy comets.
I have not had time to refer to the many papers published by Dr. Frank but
I would like to propose a novel idea which occurred to me on reading the
Some months ago I repeated part of an article I wrote in 1993 about red
sprites and blue jets associated with powerful electrical storms:
"Low light cameras have captured discharges originating 14km above the
Earth over storm clouds, rising like fountains another 20km into the
stratosphere. Our Earth-centred view is exemplified by the researcher's
comment that it is one way for the storm to dissipate energy into the
magnotosphere. Instead, it would seem reasonable to suggest that storm
clouds which span great heights offer a convenient path to ground for
charge originating in the ionosphere. As further evidence of this
phenomenon, in April 1990 the space shuttle photographed on the horizon:
a lightning bolt extending an estimated 31 kilometres into clear air above
an isolated thunderstorm. At least 15 pilots have reported seeing such
lightning at some time in their flying careers.
In the summer of 1992, two pilots flying at midnight at 41,000 feet, six
miles from a storm cell, reported they:
were startled [to say the least] by a massive single stroke of vertical
lightning coming straight out of the cell. Massive describes not only its
'thickness' bul the altitude above us to which it seemed to penetrate. It
seems reasonable to guess this thing went 20,000-30,000 [feetl above us,
perfectly straight, no 'branches' and no 'flickering'.
.....All of these phenomena, collectively, seem to be an analogue of the
electrical activity seen on the 'surface' of the sun. That is, the blue
jets are equivalent to spicules on the sun, which spew ions into the
chromosphere to add charge carriers to the plasma in order to carry the
electrical discharge load."
Now, one of the little known characteristics of an electrical discharge, as
noted by Eric Crew in the case of earthly lightning, is that it compresses
and accelerates ions from regions of high pressure to regions of lower
pressure. The holes being punched in the ionosphere and showing evidence of
ions associated with water would be expected on the model I proposed, where
the blue jets would spew atmospheric ions, including water ions from much
lower levels in the atmosphere, into the ionosphere.
I am suggesting that the water is not being dumped into the ionosphere from
space, but from the Earth itself. It would be of great interest to see if
the two phenomena can be correlated.
Date sent: Mon, 02 Jun 1997 09:03:32 -0400 (EDT)
From: Benny J Peiser <B.J.PEISER@livjm.ac.uk>
Subject: NEO News (5/31/97)
from David Morrison <email@example.com>:
Dear friends and students of NEOs:
The interest is certainly high in my earlier message dealing with
the purported mini-comets. The consensus among the NEO astronomers
I have heard from is that there cannot be such a number of comets
in near-earth space or we would have seen them. Also, in striking
the Moon they would either saturate the mare surface with small
craters and/or erode the surface dramatically. My friends in earth
science also say that the purported amount of water added to the
stratosphere is orders of magnitude outside the bounds set by
observations. Here are two more notes with with additional
From Dick Kerr, Science Magazine:
You might want to direct your readers to my story in Science on
Frank's small comets. It takes a far more critical slant than the
rest of the coverage I've seen. It is in today's issue--Science, 30
May 1997, p. 1333-1334--being mailed today. Those who have paid
their extra $12 per year can see it at www.sciencemag.org right
now. A shortened version is available at our ScienceNOW site free
Al Harris makes some good points, but Lou Frank has long ago
covered the tracks of his small comets, although most people would
say he's appealing to some pretty strange physics to do so. He
still has trouble hiding that much water and kinetic energy, though
it isn't as bad as Al calculates. Frank now invokes an
electrostatic interaction with near-Earth plasma to break up small
comets high above the atmosphere. I don't know how much sense it
makes, but he no longer requires tidal forces. Small comets' albedo
is inferred to be 0.02 to 0.005. By my calculation, using his
earlier 20 hits per minute, Earth would have accumulated only 0.02%
of its mass and sea level would be rising only one-thousandth of a
millimeter per year.
Whatever the right numbers, people are generally outraged at the
implications of small comets, even if the observations of some new
phenomenon high in Earth's atmosphere are now believable. The most
direct and readily accessible test of the hypothesis is a
telescopic search exactly like that done by the late Clayne Yeates.
Frank thinks Yeates found them, so a negative search with current
technology should be definitive. If anybody has such results or is
planning them, I'd like to hear about them.
From Jeff Bell, U. Hawaii:
For those new to the controversy over Lou Frank's mini-comet
hypothesis, I suggest the following review articles:
Dessler A. J. (1991) Reviews of Geophysics 29, 355-382
Frank L. A. & Sigwarth J. B. (1993) Reviews of Geophysics 31, 1-28
For a more frank version of Frank's views, see his popular book
THE BIG SPLASH (Birch Lane Press, 1990)
Here are some more references for the truly dedicated:
Geophysical Research Letters
14, 573-580 (correction on p. 784)
Reviews of Geophysics 26, 249-283
Planetary and Space Science 37, 1185-1196
Astronomy and Astrophysics 238, 522-530
Science 240, 1403-1404
Science 241, 532
Science 243, 170-171
Australian Physicist 26, 19-34
Date sent: Mon, 02 Jun 1997 08:59:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: Benny J Peiser <B.J.PEISER@livjm.ac.uk>
Subject: NEO News (5/30/97)
from David Morrison [Director of Space, NASA Ames Research Centre]
COMMENTS ON INTERPLANETARY SNOWBALLS
It should be remembered that Lou Frank has not detected mini-comets
directly, and at issue should be his interpretation of the
spacecraft data. This has been missed in most of the press reports
I have seen, which assume that his mini-comet hypothesis of 1986 is
now verified. But we must remember that the impact rate proposed
by Lou Frank for 5-m comets is about a million times greater than
that given by a power-law size distribution, which is well anchored
by observations of objects just an order of magnitude higher than
the sizes that Frank suggests are so abundant. Is it physically
possible for the numbers of NEOs to increase by six orders of
magnitude in the one order of magnitude size range from 50 m to 5 m
diameter? I think we should all be skeptical. I look forward to
seeing a refereed, published paper on these results and their
interpretation. And we should all ask if these objects could have
been missed by other detection techniques, including our eyeballs
looking up at the night sky. After all, he is talking about roughly
Hiroshima size flashes happening at a rate of 10 per minute, rather
than the accepted rate of once every few months. How could these
have been missed?
Following are some additional comments from Al Harris (JPL):
1. If they are there we should see them. We know within a factor
of a few what the flux of ~5m sized objects is. We may arguably
not know if they are ice or rock or metal, or their density, or
their albedos, but within reasonable limits we certainly know the
numbers to better than an order of magnitude, and Frank's numbers
are a million or so too high. If there really were that many 5 m
objects out there, even at albedo 0.05, you should be able to see
several in an evening scanning the sky with binoculars: about one
per 400 sq. deg. at magnitude 8.5, and moving at about the speed of
a slow earth satellite.
2. Nothing breaks up at "600 to 15,000 miles above the Earth."
Not even icy fluff balls, certainly not a 5 meter object which
weighs 30 tons. Anything so weak as to come apart in that
environment wouldn't stay intact even in heliocentric orbit.
3. The mass he proposes (~10/minute impacts of ~30 tons) adds up
to a fair fraction of the Earth's mass (~10-20%) in the age of the
solar system. That's about 1 cm of water a decade, which is
measurable. The oceans aren't rising that fast, and certainly
haven't for a geologically significant length of time.
CCCMENU CCC for 1997