CCNet DIGEST, 7 July 1999



     'God does not play dice', hoped Einstein.
     But substantial rocks abound, or lumps of ice
     called comets. If they make a good show as they pass
     then crowds applaud. Astronomers are the stewards
     of this race-track, watching for violations,
     timing the laps. Sometimes there's a crash -
     these things are fast! - but Jupiter's gravity barrier
     catches most. A wreck that ploughed
     into the crowd like the Mercedes and left some dead
     would lead to protests from the public. So what to do?
     Ask the experts, make them give us the odds,
     and if they're less than one in every million, well, who cares!
     But here's the rub, those speeding specks are hard to see
     and now they're telling us their calculations aren't exact;
     they might collide the next time round, or maybe next but three,
     and they can't even tell us when or where!
     Most gamblers like to know the odds,
     to understand the game and all its rules, whether skill
     comes into it, and whether one can cheat,
     but this begins to look like pure chance.
     Are these astronomer people telling us our lives
     are balanced on the throw of some God's random dice?

     Malcolm Miller

    Duncan Steel <>

    Bob Kobres <> wrote:




    Michael Paine <>

    YAHOO NEWS, 6 July 1999


From Duncan Steel <>

Dear Benny,

I have sympathy with the idea of looking for Virtual Impactors as
suggested by Andrea Milani et al., and earlier proposed by Scott
Manley. I also, though, have sympathy with the contrary viewpoint
explained at length by Brian Marsden. However, I think that Brian may
have missed an essential point. 

Brian wrote that "there are only so many wild-goose chases many 
observers are willing to entertain" but missed a more important factor
of human psychology. If one searches a predicted field for a known
object and finds an image at close to the predicted position with a
brightness and motion consistent with that expected, then one is
virtually certain that one has detected the object in question (because
it is so unlikely that some other object would display precisely that
behaviour). But the contrary is not true. For targets near the limit of
detectability for any system (which most will be), observers will not
be willing to say that they are certain, virtually or otherwise, that
the object is *not* there. There is little to gain from being right,
and a lot to lose from being wrong. 

Duncan Steel


From Bob Kobres <>

Hi Benny, a recent article by Mike Baillie: Chaos from Above--Did
Asteroids and Comets Turn the Tides of Civilization? is available online
+ sidebar:

The July/August issue of Discovering Archaeology also has a brief
interview with Los Alamos astrophysicist Jack G. Hills regarding Mike's

Hills is skeptical of the number of events Mike proposes, as he relates
in the interview:

Hills has little doubt that cosmic collisions could change the course
of civilization, as paleoecologist Mike Baillie argues. The problem, in
Hills' view, is that impacts by asteroids or comet fragments big enough
to cause years of environmental disaster are relatively rare on a human
time scale. "I could easily believe it could be once in 10,000 years,"
he said. "But to have four in that time - I would be rather skeptical."
As is too often the case in this area of research, Hills seems to dwell
on discrete objects and omits the possibility of 'dirty-doughnuts'
formed by the episodic breakup of a large comet in a short period orbit.
Oh well…..

Perhaps a read of The Sibylline Oracles, as translated by H. N. Bate,
might help to show that there was something putting on an unusual
display in the sky from time to time. I rather doubt that all the
rhetoric recorded was the result of bad wine or potent mushrooms.  ;^)

Bob Kobres
Main Library
University of Georgia
Athens, GA  30602



Did Asteroids and Comets Turn the Tides of Civilization?

By Mike Baillie

The heart of humanity seems at times to have lost its cadence, the
rhythmic beat of history collapsing into impotent chaos. Wars raged.
Pestilence spread. Famine reigned. Death came early and hard. Dynasties
died, and civilization flickered.

Such a time came in the sixth century A.D. The Dark Ages settled
heavily over Europe. Rome had been beaten back from its empire. Art and
science stagnated. Even the sun turned its back. "We marvel to see no
shadows of our bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigor of the sun's
heat wasted into feebleness," Italian historian Flavius Cassiodorus
wrote at the time. "We have summer without heat. The crops have been
chilled by north winds, (and) the rain is denied."

In China, "the stars were lost from view for three months." The sun
dimmed, the rain failed, and snow fell in the summertime. Famine
spread, and the emperor abandoned his capital amid political and
economic disasters.

Then came pestilence. The Justinian plague, named for a Byzantine
emperor, apparently began in central Asia, spread into Egypt, and then
swept across Europe. Hundreds of thousands died.

The world had gone to hell in a hurry, if the historical accounts can
be believed. But with neither evidence of global disaster nor a viable
cause, the records were widely doubted by historians.

Worldwide Disasters

New evidence, however, supports the tales of ancient scribes and
identifies brief but brutal times of worldwide ecological catastrophe.
The evidence is in tree rings, which clearly show several years of cold
weather that stunted growth beginning in A.D. 536 and especially after
A.D. 540-541. The rings show similar events that began in 1628 B.C. and
1159 B.C., and rare written documents of those times seem also to
describe cataclysmic social collapse.

What weapon does nature wield that is powerful enough to alter the
course of civilizations within a few years? The most likely
explanation, the best fit with the evidence, is that described by both
Chinese and Europeans as dragons in the sky: Pieces of comets (or
perhaps of asteroids) crashed into Earth, spewing a veil of dust that
encircled the world and dimmed the sun.

A much larger and rarer bolide (an exploding meteoric fireball) is
assumed to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs some 65 million years
ago. A smaller and more common one exploded over the Tunguska River in
the Siberian wilderness 91 years ago with 2,000 times the power of the
bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. And just five years ago,
astronomers watched the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plow
spectacularly into Jupiter.

Near Misses

I believe the association between the tree-ring data and historical
documents and folktales is real: Earth faced catastrophic environmental
dislocation at or around 1628 B.C., 1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 (and
probably in 2354 B.C. and 208 B.C., as well) because of near-miss
comets, either through dust-loading of the atmosphere as Earth passed
through the comet's dusty tail or through direct bombardment by
cometary fragments. (They must have been near misses, because if we had
been hit by a full-blown comet in the past 10,000 years or so, we
wouldn't be here today.) This hypothesis is not proven, but the
circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

The strongest evidence comes from tree rings and the science of
dendrochronology. Tree rings record the age of a tree, with a distinct
ring of growth produced each year. The width of each ring depends on
growing conditions, so each year's growth in a particular area leaves a
unique signature (a reflection of fat, moderate, or lean growing
conditions) in the tree-ring record.

By calibrating the rings through progressively older trees from a
specific region, archaeologists can build millennia-long chronologies
that allow them to date ancient wooden artifacts. (See Discovering
Archaeology, May/June, page 45.) The pattern of tree rings in an
artifact can be matched to the regional chronology to determine the
year in which the tree died.

A less-well-known consequence of these chronologies is that we can now
identify periods in which trees grew very little or not at all. This is
indicated by clusters of extremely narrow rings, which suggest
extremely cold growing seasons. A band of these narrow rings occurred
after A.D. 540 and lasted about six years in parts of Europe, Asia, and
North America.

Similar ring patterns are found around 1159 B.C. and 1628 B.C. These
dates may coincide with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations across
Eurasia. They may also be recalled in the biblical book of Exodus and
contemporary records from China.

The first inkling that tree rings might record catastrophic events came
in the mid-1980s from dendrochronologist Val LaMarche and volcanologist
Kathy Hirschboeck. In the extremely long-lived bristlecone pines of the
western United States, they noted a frost-damage ring at 1627 B.C. and
suggested it might reflect the massive eruption of the Santorini
volcano in the Aegean Sea. Similar frost rings followed the eruptions
of Krakatoa in Indonesia (1883) and Katmai in Alaska (1912).

After a major volcanic eruption, Earth is veiled by a layer of fine
debris circulating in the stratosphere. This layer reflects sunlight
away from Earth, causing the surface to cool.

As a result of their suggestion, I searched the ring patterns derived
from oak logs that had been preserved in the peat bogs of Ireland. I
found that many trees exhibited the worst growth - the narrowest rings
- of their lifetimes starting in 1628 B.C. Only a few other such events
were seen in the rings, but two others were at 1159 B.C. and A.D. 540.
Those years are close to dates for acid-rich layers (attributed to
volcanic eruptions) that had been identified in ice cores taken in
Greenland. We seemed to be onto something.

Mandate of Heaven

Then astronomer Kevin Pang of the California Institute of Technology
(Caltech) noted that 1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C. roughly mark the beginning
and end of the Shang Dynasty of Bronze Age China. Both ends of the
dynasty featured, according to ancient Chinese texts, environmental
disasters - dimming of the sun and summer frosts that caused crop
failures and famine. Pang notes also the Chinese concept of "mandate of
heaven," wherein a dynasty reigned only as long as it protected the
well-being of its people. This notion might have originated in the
coincidence of dynastic change and climatic disaster.

The Caltech team also noted similar descriptions from A.D. 536-545 that
describe climatic disruptions that led to catastrophic famines and
great loss of life.

Much was going on in the world around these three dates. The four
centuries of the Greek Dark Ages, which began after the Mycenaean era of
mainland Greece collapsed amid great social upheaval, are thought to have
begun in the twelfth century B.C. This period also saw the end of the
once-mighty Hittite civilization of Anatolia in the Near East and of
Bronze Age Israel.

The situation in Egypt is more ambiguous. Egypt's prosperous New
Kingdom grew out of a century or so of warfare and upheaval known as
the Second Intermediate Period, which itself followed the end of the
Middle Kingdom. The New Kingdom has been dated from 1550 B.C. to 1070
B.C. While that is 70 years later than our two dates (1628 B.C. and
1159 B.C.), the time span is almost exactly the same. Some scholars
have questioned traditional Egyptian dating, and it seems possible the
timing of the New Kingdom, some 3,500 years ago, might be a little off.

Then the volcano hypothesis began to dim. Volcanologists noted that
volcanoes normally would not be powerful enough to collapse dynasties -
the dust and acid, even if sufficient to dim sunlight, washes out of
the atmosphere within a few years. And a review of the ice-core
evidence from Greenland failed completely to confirm an exceptional
volcanic eruption at A.D. 540.

Cosmic Swarms

It appears now that something far more damaging than volcanoes may have
been at work here, especially after seeing unassailable proof that
comets can hit planets: the extraordinary spectacle of comet
Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter in 1994. Comets appear in
Chinese records of events at the beginning and end of the Shang
dynasty. Were the catastrophic environmental downturns at 1628 B.C.,
1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 caused by encounters with comets?

Archaeologists and astrophysicists do not necessarily read each other's
work, and it mostly escaped notice that three British cometary
astrophysicists - Mark Bailey, Victor Clube, and Bill Napier - had published
a highly relevant paper in 1990. They wrote that Earth had been at
increased risk of bombardment by cometary debris in the period A.D.
400-600. They based their conclusion on the increased number of great
meteor showers during that period.

It's hard to overestimate the devastation that could result from a
serious bolide impact on Earth. The impact of fragments measuring
between one and several hundred meters across can cause fiery,
multimegaton explosions that destroy natural and cultural features
across huge areas through fire blasts, earthquakes, and tidal waves (if
the debris arrives over the sea).

The danger in A.D. 400-600, concluded Bailey and colleagues, was of
Earth running into a "cosmic swarm" of objects the size of the one that
exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. Some astronomers believe we
can expect Tunguska-type impacts every 50 years on average, while an
impact with explosive power in the 1,000- to 10,000-megaton range - a
super Tunguska event - is likely in any 5,000-year period. Such impacts
could trigger enormous global ecological catastrophe.

Impacts between those two extremes might be expected often enough to
account for these calamities. Direct evidence, however, is scanty.
Associating craters to specific events is problematic at best; the
Tunguska event left no significant crater at all, since the bolide
exploded a few kilometers above the surface. Impacts in or over the
ocean would not leave physical evidence.

We turned, then, to the written record and oral traditions. Comets were
extraordinary objects that seemed rarely to escape written notice.
Zachariah of Mitylene noted about A.D. 540 that - a great and terrible
comet appeared in the sky at evening time for 100 days." Chinese texts
about the same time say: "Dragons fought in the pond of the K'uh o. They
went westward. ... In the places they passed, all the trees were broken."
Similar descriptions are common throughout the Old World.

Sixth-century events generally are well-dated. But with more ancient
documents and traditions, dating usually is ambivalent at best. This is
why similarly spaced events in the second millennium B.C. are so
interesting. What are the chances of similarly spaced events in both
Hebrew and Chinese histories, both with cometary associations, arising
by chance?

There is, I feel, a strong case for the contention that we do not
inhabit a benign planet. This planet is bombarded relatively often. If
this story is correct, we have been bombarded at least three times -
and probably five times - since the birth of civilization some 5,000
years ago. And each time, the world was changed.

MIKE BAILLIE is a leading dendrochronologist and Professor of
Palaeoecology at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His
book, Exodus to Arthur, describes in detail his theory of comet
encounters and turning points of civilization.

Copyright 1999, Discovering Archaeology



An Impact, Plus a Volcano, May Have Battered Biblical Egypt

Moses called down a host of calamities upon Egypt until the pharaoh
finally freed the Israelites. Perhaps he had the help of a comet
impact coupled with a volcano.

A volcano destroyed the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea
(between today's Greece and Turkey) around the middle of the second
millennium B.C. Researchers Val LaMarche and Kathy Hirschboeck
suggest the volcano might be associated with tree-ring evidence for
several years of intense cold beginning in 1627 B.C.

Could that form the basis for strange meteorological phenomena
recorded in the biblical book of Exodus? In the book of Exodus, which
describes events a few hundred kilometers from Santorini, we read of
a pillar of cloud and fire, a lingering darkness, and the parting of
the Red Sea.

An enormous column of ash must have hung in the sky over the eruption
(the Israelites' "pillar of cloud by day and fire by night?"), and
the volcano doubtless caused a tsunami, or tidal wave (which could
have drowned a pharaoh's army).

The Exodus story is traditionally dated to either the thirteenth or
fifteenth century B.C. Those dates, however, depend ultimately on
identifying the "Pharaoh of the Oppression," and historians have
never proven to which ruler that infamous title referred. Many
biblical scholars will disagree, but I suggest that a
seventeenth-century B.C. date is not impossible.

The argument can be bolstered. Equally catastrophic meteorological
conditions are recorded in the Bible for the time of King David.
Psalm 18, in reference to David, speaks of terrifying events: "Earth
shook and trembled. The foundations of the hills moved and were
shaken. ... Smoke ... fire ... darkness ... dark waters ... thick
clouds of the skies ... hailstones and coals of fire."

On some chronologies, David is placed 470 years after the Exodus. The
spacing between the two disastrous events recorded in Irish tree
rings at 1628 and 1159 B.C. is 469 years.

The Exodus story includes dust, several days of darkness, hail, dead
fish, undrinkable water, cattle killed by hail, water breaking out of
rocks, the earth opening, the sea parting as in a tsunami, and so on.
Someone looking at the Exodus story and knowing descriptions of other
distant volcanic effects might offer the possibility that the
Israelites escaped from Egypt under the cover of a major natural

There may be veiled references to comets in the biblical narrative
leading to the possibility that the Santorini eruption itself may
have been triggered by a bolide (comet or asteroid) impact. David
Levy, co-discoverer of the comet that bears his and Jean Shoemaker's
names, has argued that the description of the "angel of the Lord in
the sky over Jerusalem with a drawn sword" (1 Chronicles 21) could be
a reference to a comet. The Angel of the Lord was, of course, also
present at the Exodus, as it was "traveling in front of Israel's

Further, there are indications that as the Israelites left Egypt, the
night was as bright as midday. The nights over Europe were reported
to have been daytime-bright after the only known modern bolide
impact, the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908.

These stories raise the question of whether comets recorded by the
Chinese at the start and end of the Shang Dynasty, at very near the
same dates, were the same as the comets that may be recorded in the
Old Testament.

I believe that we know the answer: In the last five millennia,
several dynastic changes and dark ages have been the direct result of
impacts and/or volcanoes. The consequences of such events must have
been devastating, leading to apocalyptic imagery in religious writing
and predictions of the end of the world.

Zachariah of Mitylene lived through the environmental disaster that
began about 540 A.D. In the mid-550s, he wrote in his twelve-volume
records of the trials the world had survived: "In addition to all the
fearful things described above, the earthquakes and famines and wars,
... there has also been fulfilled against us the curse of Moses in

The curse included pestilence, consumption, fever, fiery blasts from
the skies, mildew, a rain of powder and dust, and darkness. The curse
of Moses must have seemed an appropriate description of life after
the impact of a piece of a comet.


Copyright 1999, Discovering Archaeology



Too Many Comets

Astronomer Doubts the Numbers, Not the Effects, of Cosmic Collisions

A major comet crashing into Earth would create "a crater the size of
Texas and sterilize the entire planet," essentially ending all life.
The skies would fill with dust, and darkness would settle upon Earth.
Our small, blue planet would return almost to "primordial soup" (sic)
and perhaps begin again.

"Fortunately, these things don't hit very often," says astrophysicist
Jack G. Hills. "But once would be enough."

Smaller impacts are much more common, although their effects are far
less dramatic. Hills, of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New
Mexico, has for seven years been using computer simulations to study
the potential effects of collisions with comets, asteroids, and
assorted cosmic debris. He and many of his colleagues argue for a
national effort to identify potentially dangerous "Near-Earth
Objects" and for a plan to deflect any that appear on a collision
course with Earth.

Hills has little doubt that cosmic collisions could change the course
of civilization, as paleoecologist Mike Baillie argues. The problem,
in Hills' view, is that impacts by asteroids or comet fragments big
enough to cause years of environmental disaster are relatively rare
on a human time scale. "I could easily believe it could be once in
10,000 years," he said. "But to have four in that time - I would be
rather skeptical."

Baillie finds evidence in tree-ring analyses for three to five
periods of ecological upheaval in the past 4,500 years. He
hypothesizes they may have been caused by a sun-blocking dust veil
hoisted into the atmosphere by impacts associated with asteroids
and/or comets.

To pound Earth that often, Hills said, these "would have to be
relatively modest objects, under 600 meters [2,000 feet] or so. Those
are not likely to cause enough dust to be ejected into the atmosphere
[to darken the sky for an extended period]. It's very difficult to
see how they would affect" Earth so severely.

The most recent example of a significant impact is the "Tunguska
event" in the Siberian forests on June 30, 1908. What was probably a
stony asteroid about 200 meters (650 feet) or so across exploded
several kilometers above the ground. The blast wave felled trees in a
radial pattern over an area of 2,150 square kilometers (830 square
miles). The dust kicked up by the blast produced spectacular sunsets
and unusually bright nights over much of Europe and middle Asia for
several weeks, but it caused no lingering environmental problems.

Hills says a Tunguska-size object is likely to crash into land at
least once every 300 years. Add ocean impacts - with no damage or
trace - and the rate probably increases to once every 100 years. The
explosion in Siberia caused few problems in the uninhabited
wilderness, Hills said, "but over a city like Los Angeles or Mexico
City, it would be devastating."

Hills also studied the effects of asteroids five to 10 kilometers
(three to six miles) in diameter. A 10-kilometer (six-mile) object is
about as big as the one believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs some
65 million years ago. If such an object hit in the mid-Atlantic, it
would create a wave up to 200 meters (650 feet) high that would roll
over the East Coast all the way to the Appalachian Mountains and move
across Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

But even that pales before the real cataclysm: the full-force impact
of a comet. Hale-Bopp, the easily visible comet that sailed within a
relatively close 15 million kilometers (nine million miles) of Earth
in 1997, would have abruptly ended human history.

Hills said it should be possible, given enough lead time, to
intercept an asteroid (even a 10-kilometer object) using rocketborne
nuclear weapons to deflect its path away from Earth.

Comets are more complicated. They come charging in at speeds up to
259,000 kilometers (161,000 miles) per hour relative to Earth. "It
would be very difficult to get out to these objects," he said. "Even
if we had a rocket in place, it can't travel that far out from Earth
to intercept a comet" in time to accomplish anything with the typical
two-month warning time.

The danger, he says, is real, if quite unpredictable, and solutions
are possible. "Yet it has never hit the consciousness of the people.
They just can't make that psychological leap. That amazes me.


Copyright 1999, Discovering Archaeology


From Michael Paine <>

Dear Benny,

The BBC has an article covering a conference in Geneva:
Taming a violent planet
Here are some extracts:

We live on a dangerous planet - from time to time the ground shakes;
volcanoes spout streams of red hot lava and storms bring devastating
winds and torrential rain.

Throughout history, natural disasters have wiped out entire
communities. However, it is only recently that humankind has developed
the power to predict when some of these events will happen.

Making sure that the best use is made of this knowledge is the theme of
a conference in Geneva, a United Nations-sponsored forum on disaster

Scientists, policy makers and community workers want to develop
strategies that will save lives.

There is no way of stopping the forces of nature, says Helena Molin
Valdes from UN's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction
programme. However, just knowing a serious event is coming means people
can get to safety.
"People now believe that there is something that can be done to prevent
natural hazards from turning into disasters, when people believe that
something can be done, they start doing things. While we cannot stop the
forces of nature, we can and we must stop them from turning into major
social and economic disasters" - Philippe Boulle, Director of
Secretariat for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

The federations warned of the dangers of they called "super disasters".


Michael Paine


From YAHOO NEWS, 6 July 1999

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From Kjeld Engvild, Risoe National Laboratory (07/07/99) <>




From CNN Interactive

July 7, 1999
Web posted at: 6:29 AM EDT (1029 GMT)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- A meteor exploded in the sky
above New Zealand on Wednesday, casting an eerie blue light and
showering the earth with fragments from space, authorities and witnesses

No injuries were reported, but authorities were flooded with hundreds
of calls from people who reported seeing the streaking meteor,
emergency services said.

The Carter Observatory in Wellington said the explosion occurred
about 4:15 p.m. (0615 GMT) and was followed by smoke in the sky _ and
a flood of phone calls from witnesses.

"It was picked up by aircraft and on radar, so we've had some air
traffic controllers calling too," said John Field, the observatory's
public programs officer.

Police said hundreds of people reported seeing a bright streak across
the sky over a remote part of New Zealand's North Island, between the
cities of Napier, 186 miles (300 kilometers) north of the capital,
Wellington, on the east coast and New Plymouth, about the same
distance from Wellington, on the west coast.

With a loud explosion, the meteor apparently broke up in the
atmosphere, leaving a vapor trail and blue cloud hanging in the sky,
the police spokesman said, on customary condition of anonymity.

Brendon Bradley, an instructor with the New Plymouth Aero Club, said
he was in the air when he saw the meteor streak over the top of his
plane. "It was just a bright light, exactly like a flare," he said.
"Afterwards there was smoke in the sky."

Other witnesses described a bright flash, followed by an explosion and a
cloud of brown smoke. "A big fiery ball came down. There was a
terrific red glow and it sort of went pop," said Eric Ray, a resident
of the town of Te Aroha. One man told police the explosion sounded
like a natural gas tanker igniting, the police spokesman said.

Field said the meteor could have been either metal or rock and was
probably as big a a car. A rock meteor would have broken up as it
came through the atmosphere and broken into a shower of stones, he
said. He said that throughout the world about one meteor falls to
Earth each week.

Police said reports of objects seen falling to the ground were received from
across the region. Night has since fallen, and there were no reports
of any pieces being found.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.

CCCMENU CCC for 1999