BBC's Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, explained that most journalists
simply want a story. Any story will do. The pressure to find 'exclusive' material
in the age of 24-hour TV and Internet news is immense, and the average quality of
news stories is quite poor, as anyone watching the repetition of stories every 15
minutes or so will appreciate. This is something that the NEO community has to bear
in mind when dealing with the media, he said, and pointed out that "The average
journalist wants any story, and doesn't really care if it's correct because it can
always be corrected later."
    --John Michael, A Report of the NEO Public Awareness Symposium

held at The Spaceguard Centre Knighton, Powys, Cymru/Wales, Monday October 13th 2003

- by John Michael <>

In the light of recent media coverage of the threat to life on our planet posed by Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets, Jonathan (Jay) R. Tate of The Spaceguard Centre in Powys, Wales, convened an informal meeting of those who provide information on NEOs, and those who report the news to the general public. The aim of the meeting was to exchange experiences and views on this important subject in order to increase everyone's understanding of the issues involved, and the ways in which it is, or should be, responsibly reported to the public at large.

The Spaceguard Centre has been selected by the Rome-based Spaceguard Foundation to become the international mouthpiece of the many scientists that scan the skies for potentially hazardous asteroids and comets. Having, in the opinion of the Board of Directors of the Spaceguard Foundation, "...become the leading public outreach organisation dealing with NEOs in the UK and probably the world..." it was a fitting venue for such a meeting.

The meeting was opened with an introduction by Jay Tate, who outlined the dilemmas faced by those scientists involved in NEO research in the light of continuing 'scare stories' that appear in the media all over the world each time a new potentially hazardous object is discovered. While much of the media coverage has tended to be of the 'end of the world' genre, he pointed out that this has mainly applied to sensationalist headlines which are often not justified by the actual stories written in the small print below.

He passed on the many messages, and good wishes, that had been sent to The Spaceguard Centre specifically for the day's gathering by many leading individuals in the NEO and space research communities worldwide. These included David Morrison of the NASA Ames Research Center; Dr Brian Marsden of the Minor Planet Center, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Professor Rick Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who first developed the Torino Scale in 1999.

Then on to the serious business of the rumblings coming recently from some quarters about the 'wisdom' of putting new NEO information into the public domain in the light of recent media scare stories. Speaking from obvious personal conviction as well as his role as spokesman for the International Spaceguard Information Centre, he expressed the feelings of everyone present that, despite the risks of being accused of "crying wolf", we must "keep total openness with regard to NEO and PHA data." The general public simply has the right to know - and everyone present concurred without hesitation or further discussion.

Dr David Asher, of Armagh Observatory in the north of Ireland, began his presentation with the question "Is there a need to compute Impact Probabilities?" Using the example of the media frenzy that erupted following the IAU Circular to astronomers containing initial observations of the PHA, 1997 XF11, he outlined the subsequent newspaper predictions of 'impact' on October 26th 2028.  Dr Asher then detailed the real hard work conducted by astronomers and NEO researchers worldwide before sufficient new data emerged, pointing out the work of Paul Chodas at NASA, in mid March 1998.

Since that debacle, which had shaken the NEO research community in 1998, much had been learned that researchers had felt would not be repeated - but repeated the debacle had been on several occasions since, the latest being the QQ47 affair. He then presented an outline of developments within the NEO research community resulting from the growing media fascination with asteroids, and detailed different aspects of 'the process' of detection:

DISCOVERY: a new asteroid is found.
REDISCOVERY: an already known asteroid is found again by chance.
RECOVERY: an asteroid already known is found when deliberately looking for it.
PRECOVERY: like a recovery, except back in time looking at images taken years in the past.

Dr Asher went on to discuss the "range of uncertainties", giving examples such as 1:1million for the QQ47 to 1:50 million for an unknown rock coming right at us at short notice. He wound up his presentation by detailing the very real difficulties of trying to explain 'Impact Probabilities' to the media in two short sentences - which is about all they'll actually write in print.

The informal nature of the meeting meant that the presentations were more or less open discussions as various points were raised. CCNet moderator, Dr Benny J. Peiser, offered the suggestion that "...if
someone from the media phones, perhaps we should ask them to phone back again in 3 months after
more observations have been done".

All agreed that this was an important point, as the need to alert astronomers to look at co-ordinates of initial observations was part of a 'process' that Dr Peiser pointed out is really "a non-issue for the general public". But it was exactly this 'process' that had alerted the science journalists who were also recipients of the IAU Circular about the XF11, and it was pointed out that the development and adoption of the Torino Scale had been in response to the media speculation surrounding the XF11. Dr Peiser further pointed out that we don't want scare stories every year and that "if you have a Torino or Palermo Scale it's only relevant to astronomers, not to the general public".

Dr Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queens University, Belfast, expressed similar misgivings, and mentioned several other media scare stories involving NEOs in recent years that, when taken altogether, leaves those involved with NEO research with the feeling that many science journalists don't fully understand the science they are reporting. Jay Tate felt that there are two media aspects of major concern:

1. The danger that if every new NEO discovery announced is seized upon by journalists, they and the general public will soon get bored by asteroid stories.

2. Consequently, when a PHA is discovered which is a real and present threat the media will disregard it as "Crying Wolf".

All present concurred this is a situation which the NEO community has to avoid, or better still, prevent, as there are still many uncertainties such as "at what level of risk do you advise on mitigation?" Jay Tate felt that while the decision on issuing a Press Release currently lay with the astronomers, the reality of 'impact probabilities' are either 1 or 0, making 'Scales' such as Torino or Palermo irrelevant to the real issue.

Dr Peiser referred to the scare over the asteroid 2000 BF19 paper and widespread media reports at the time, pointing out that the paper's authors had suggested "that we may need to nuke it".  No-one expressed disagreement with his opinion that one of the main challenges we face is the Internet, and that via the global computer network information about temporary impact probabilities is going out to all sorts of people who are not actually involved in the business of looking for asteroids.

He said, "We have scales, Torino and Palermo, which are for public consumption, and if we are going to retain these scales then all Press Releases should make clear the unlikelihood of impact. We must make clear that a Torino Scale rating of #2 doesn't warrant any concern."

Dr Asher and Dr Fitzsimmons concurred with this, and it was pointed out that any initial non-zero rating on the Torino Scale seems to stimulate some science journalists to jump the gun and rush stories into print. These stories are then being based on half-calculated orbits that are presented as 'impact probabilities' on future dates when the particular object may well be nowhere near our planet. Discussing strategies to prevent this sort of situation becoming standard practice was the main aim of the meeting.

Dr Peiser began his actual presentation with the fact that improved technical capabilities will mean that even more smaller Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) will be discovered in the coming years, and we might even detect a small objects which could hit the atmosphere. He proposed that there are a number of "uncertain phases between discovery and impact" - between Pre-disaster and Post-disaster, and suggested the following 6 phase definitions:

1 low probability phase
2 moderate probability phase
3 high probability phase
4 very high probability phase
5 confirmation phase
6 mitigation phase

He went on to define these as:

* Low probability - below zero on the Palermo Scale

* Moderate probability - above zero on the Palermo Scale, when it might be sensible to post clarifying information on Internet "risk pages", but no need for an official Press Release.  But he also emphasised that it should be said that the particular object would be observable for the next few months, during which time more certain data would be gathered.

· High probability - at this phase Dr Peiser gave his opinion that the point to make a statement should be higher than it has been, and that anything below a 1% threshold is irrelevant for the public.

Jay Tate asked, "At what point does the astronomical community make any comment?" As mitigation and public announcements are essentially political decisions. Dr David Asher commented that "If there are scares every year then astronomers would soon lose credibility", something at the very heart of Jay Tate's motivation in convening the symposium, and the main reason everyone who attended was there. 

These points more or less were the essence of one of the main dilemmas facing astronomers and others involved in NEO research. Over the past few years since the formulation of the Torino Scale in June 1999, observations of newly discovered space rocks have been given an initial Torino Scale rating, and after further observation these objects have been taken off the scale altogether. Dr Peiser said that the time between discovery and an object being taken off the Torino Scale was often a week or so. While Jay Tate said that in many cases this was often as little as 2 to 3 days.

This important part of the discussion essentially covered Dr Peiser's Very High Probability Phase and he proposed that the Confirmation Phase only kicks in when the impact probability reaches 95% to 98%. There was much discussion about these phases, and opinions varied, especially regarding whether or not the Mitigation Phase should start somewhere between 10% and 30%. It was generally agreed that the main criteria ruling the start of any Mitigation phase was how much time there would be between discovery and actual impact.

The presentation of the "Simulation Impact Emergency Crisis" proposed the following scenario:

1. A Tunguska-type impact without much warning. For example, 72 hours warning. Very unlikely, but what would we do?
2. Odds are it will hit one of our oceans or in sparsely or uninhabited regions of dry land.

This led on to discussion about a Pre-Confirmation Phase, and the main factors suggested were:

* What everyone will want to know is whether impact probability goes down to zero, or up to 100%
* After 1 -2 days impact probability will increase, but not necessarily all the way to 100%
* Size estimates would be based on the intrinsic brightness of the object concerned
* We may by now know which hemisphere will be affected, and maybe we can narrow down the impact point because the impact radius will be reduced as more observations of the object are made
* A relatively small area of the globe will be affected, and this must be the major aspect of any and all announcements to the public

"Simulation Impact Emergency Crisis 2" gave the scenario:

a. 180-day warning, with the discovery having, after one week, an impact probability of 1%
b.  MPC, JPL, NEOdyS and similar websites will announce it and the NEO community will then have to react to media enquiries

At this stage it was pointed out that many journalists had not consulted the NEO community before rushing into print with 'impending impact' stories over the past few years, and several incidents were referred to. There followed some discussion as to whether or not the NEO community had in the past been too pro-active with the media.

Jay Tate stated that "We cannot tell JPL or whoever, what and/or when to announce impending impacts," and gave his opinion that the NEO community should be reactive not pro-active to the media. Asteroid 2002 NT7 was mentioned as an example in this context, but Dr Peiser pointed out that the BBC's Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, did ring around experts for clarification before going into print in this instance.

Returning to the presentation, Dr Peiser then introduced a new element for consideration:

"Months of Uncertainty & Anxiety" - caused by erratic evolution of impact probabilities in a simulated impact case study:

Week 1 = 01%
Week 2 = 20%  
Week 3 = 30%  
Week 4 = 12%  
Week 5 = 07%  
Week 6 = 09%  
Week 7 = 15%  
Week 8 = 37%  

Weeks 9 to 13 sees the impact probability drop slowly down again, before it goes up in

Week 14 to 86%

The discussion of this "Simulation #2" focussed on the likely reaction of the general public to the above scenario. This, of course, would be a general public which, after enduring several years of media-hyped asteroid scares followed closely by stories of the "astronomers get it wrong again" variety a few days later, would likely react in ways that may not be at all predictable.

If the situation were left as it stands at present there might be problems for the authorities in maintaining public order, or being able to conduct orderly evacuations of the calculated impact areas.

The general public, it was suggested, will never understand the situation that will have arisen if the NEO community does not make greater efforts to explain 'the process' from Discovery to Confirmation - either of impact or not, whichever the case turns out to be.

And it was also suggested that the science journalists themselves may benefit from having 'the process' explained to them, as all of the asteroid impact scares from 1997 XF11 story to the most recent QQ47 affair have been started because some journalists have 'jumped the gun'. As many science correspondents are in receipt of the IAU Circulars intended for astronomers, and which request further observations to confirm or dismiss earth-crossing orbits likely to lead to impact, some journalists it seems can't wait for 'the process' to complete. Many may simply be unaware of 'the process', it was suggested.

While such situations are obviously regrettable, and make the work of those trying to monitor potentially hazardous comets and asteroids even more difficult than it already is, it was heartening for an observer to witness such intense discussions in which the idea of restricting the circulation of information about new discoveries was never even mentioned as an option.  The very real problem of how to balance the commitment to openness that characterises the NEO community with the need to avoid repetition of the 'end of the world' media hypes of recent years was highlighted by "Simulation #3".

In this scenario a newly discovered PHA was given a theoretical 54 years before impact.

a. The impact probability remained below 1% for the first 60 days
b. It never rose above 7% during the first 375-day apparition
c. 600 days later, when the second apparition began, impact probability rose from 4% to 75% over the course of the first 25 days.

Dr Peiser proposed that such a scenario would undoubtedly lead to a period of "Prolonged Uncertainty" for the public at large. One outcome of this, he proposed, was that we could reasonably expect fundamentalists of various persuasions to exploit the situation, which would likely be interpreted as part of some 'prophesy', or another. The resulting implications for public order should not be underestimated in Dr Peiser's opinion. No-one disagreed with this scenario, though few people in the NEO community worldwide appear to have thought things through in this particular direction.

Jay Tate reiterated a point he had made earlier that "Timescales are important - 500 years or 5 years affects mitigation strategies". Dr Peiser and others concurred, and he emphasised that even with 5 years warning "Whatever nature throws at us, we can mitigate damage by evacuations of the impact area".

In line with the intended 'brainstorming' nature of the meeting, this led to a general discussion about how much of the world's population is at present familiar with the actual 'experience' of evacuation. It was suggested that very few densely populated areas of the world could be expected to react positively at short notice to instructions to evacuate, simply because of unfamiliarity with such emergency procedures. The only obvious exception to this being the eastern seaboard of the United States of America, where typhoon/hurricane warnings are so frequent that the populace take immediate evacuation procedures in their daily stride. Peoples of other lands where annual natural cycles, such as rainfall resulting in regular serious flooding may also be better prepared mentally to cope with emergency evacuation procedures due to any other forms of disaster.

Following a light lunch, during which time the BBC's Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, was brought up to speed with the morning's discussions, he began his own PowerPoint presentation with the heading "What The Media Wants?"

He explained that most journalists simply want a story. Any story will do. The pressure to find 'exclusive' material in the age of 24-hour TV and Internet news is immense, and the average quality of news stories is quite poor, as anyone watching the repetition of stories every 15 minutes or so will appreciate. This is something that the NEO community has to bear in mind when dealing with the media, he said, and pointed out that "The average journalist wants any story, and doesn't really care if it's correct because it can always be corrected later."

This certainly struck a chord with the scientists and others involved in the NEO community to whom it was addressed, and Dr Whitehouse emphasised that they should also realise that science journalists and reporters almost always knew much more about the subject than the average editors. It is the editors who will make the decision on whether or not to run a story, and this may often be solely dictated by considerations such as "CNN are running it, so we should too".

Another aspect of media politics that most in the NEO community would not be aware of was that ordinary journalists would keep their 'exclusive stories' away from the science correspondents just to get their stories published. They may well have been advised by their editors to run it by the science correspondents, but they know that if their story contains some dodgy science, these science experts will dismiss the story before it gets anywhere near to being printed. So scare stories can often get into print by this route, especially as the media likes "something different" and can always find a "peg" on which to hang the most unlikely of stories.

Dr Whitehouse explained further that "Readers don't remember the particulars and details of stories. They just remember 'the impression' given by the headlines and the first 2 or 3 sentences." What journalists need when looking at stories about asteroids are simply a date, size, and the odds against impact. For this the Torino, Palermo, or even a Hollywood scale, is something that is ultimately convenient to both journalist and readership alike. Such scales can be referred to in the body of the text, but also lend themselves perfectly to graphic illustrations that both readers and editors find attractive and helpful.

His presentation included numerous examples from a variety of media, including some of his own stories about asteroids that appeared on the BBC Science/Nature webpages.

Example 1 was from the BBC website dated July 24, 2002, and headlined "Space Rock 'on collision course'" - Dr Whitehouse demonstrated how he as a science editor went about analysing the text, commenting on the soundness or otherwise of the actual  'science' in the reporting. He pointed out with each article he used as examples that the statements made, where they are scientifically sound, were often not accurately reflected in the headlines. These, he explained, were generally changed by the editors late on, and just before publication time or date, simply "to drag you into the story". The reporters themselves often knowing nothing of the headline changes until they actually see their stories in print some time later.

Some of the other examples Dr Whitehouse gave included:

April 5th 2002, "Asteroid could hit Earth in 2880" - about asteroid 1950 DA, including a graphic of the Arizona Meteor Crater immediately below the headline

March 21st 2000, "Earth's Close Shave" - about asteroid 2000 EW70, including a graphic representation of the Torino Scale immediately below the headline

July 29th 2002, "Asteroid to miss - this time around" - about asteroid 2002 NT7, including a photo taken using a telescope with a small white dot circled, and a caption underneath reading "It has been called the most threatening object in space", again immediately below the headline

September 5th 2003, "Asteroid update: End of world on hold" - about asteroid 2003 QQ47, again with an accompanying graphic, and the lead sentence reading "A newly discovered asteroid has zero chance of colliding with Earth in 11 years, although preliminary data had suggested such a doomsday scenario was possible, astronomers said this week."

July 24th 2002 "Asteroid Threatens Earth" - though the story never actually mentioned asteroid 2002 NT7, an impact graphic was supplemented by a video clip and a first paragraph which included the words "...considered to be the biggest natural threat to human existence, according to scientists.",,15410-12050733,00.html

Dr Whitehouse described all these stories as "a bit of fun - with graphics", and reiterated his earlier point that the headlines are usually changed late on by editors. A further example he gave came from both The Times newspaper and The Sun newspaper, which, while they are looked upon as rival publications, used the same graphics probably because they are both from the same Rupert Murdoch stable. The Times text was analysed as containing "good science", while The Sun even managed to get a comment about the end of the world from that day's Page Three girl. These particular examples illustrated what happens to sound scientific data once it gets into the public domain.

He told those present that people will generally come away with "the impression" they get from the headline, the graphics, and maybe the first 2 or 3 sentences. Many readers may only ever read these, and the fuller explanations given painstakingly by NEO scientists may often not be read at all.

He also emphasised the important point that "The Torino Scale is a God-given gift to journalists looking for a story" as this can often be the "peg" they need to get their stories into print. He explained that, despite the now well-established media cycle of 'scare-story' followed shortly by 'correction', another story will come along in another 6 months, and journalists will always find a new angle to write it from. What the NEO community has to realise when issuing Press Releases is that newspaper and TV news editors have no scientific training or knowledge, and are more concerned with simply "getting the story in", especially if it's appearing elsewhere.

But, in contrast to this, Dr Whitehouse explained that even with the best will in the world, "Sometimes you can't get hold of any experts before your publication deadlines, so you just have to do your best." He said that most journalists wouldn't want to repeat the asteroid scare stories too close together, and that anyway these hyped-up stories won't "queer the pitch" for a real story of a definite threat because the experts will say "this is different", and the science journalists will listen. This was reassuring, but very much in a 'lets-wait-and-see' way.

Having finished his presentation, at this point a general discussion ensued which focussed on the various fears of the NEO community. Fears such as the perception in some quarters that scientific 'experts' only use the media to help them get funding for research projects. Further, that many involved with asteroid research feel that the public perception of boffins who have to retract their stories 2 to 3 days later, will make the whole NEO community look bad.

Empathising with these justified concerns, Dr Whitehouse gave his opinion that NEO research is a "young idea", and because of this many dilemmas are arising for NEO scientists. Many of those present expressed concerns that the NEO community, in their commitment to complete openness with regard to making their discoveries public, might be perceived by the same general public as always "crying wolf".  It was explained to him that this is a matter of great concern to all involved with both the asteroid research itself, and with the public outreach efforts of Spaceguard organisations.

Dr Whitehouse responded, "I personally wouldn't be bothered about 'crying wolf' on these type of stories". But he also said that we should all be aware of the consequences of putting out Press Releases every month, as if this were to become standard practice the whole of the NEO community certainly would be regarded as trying to manipulate the media. Using the medical world as a comparison, he said, "Some medical specialists go out of their way to generate stories for their own reasons." The point wasn't lost on those listening.

Dr Peiser added that, in terms of science, astronomy has always been regarded as "a more accurate science, with a more ethical approach". Explaining that if we don't want to be accused of hyping it up, he asked openly, how should we handle this problem?

Dr Whitehouse elaborated his analogy further. "The NEO community talks in terms of 'risks'," he said, while Scientists dealing with health matters, i.e. food, BSE, GM issues etc, talk in terms of 'safety'.

Asked by Jay Tate if he thought the NEO community has a PR problem, he replied, "I think your 'raw material' is very interesting and very newsworthy. But there are various factions within the scientific community who may or do not see the 'risks' in the same way. It is one of the few areas of astronomy that has a general public relevance."

Asked to elaborate, Dr Whitehouse repeated his feelings that "You have wonderful raw material that is not always handled in the right way with the media." This time he used the media coverage of the Beagle Two as analogy. Here was a similar situation, he said, where excellent scientists, with the best of motives but no media savvy, mishandled the media who otherwise might have made much more of the Beagle Two story than they eventually did.

On the point of an individual "peg" to hang the story on, Dr David Asher asked about "the general threat out there from asteroids and cometary debris". Dr Alan Fitzsimmons concurred, and added that, what NEO researchers regard as "the normal general threat", may not in itself be seen by the media as constituting a "peg" at all. He explained that "the normal general threat" posed to the Earth by NEOs on a daily basis is in fact "the context" in which all the detection programmes have to operate. It is "the context" in which the Earth itself exists.

And this is where the main dilemma for the NEO community seems to lie in its dealings with the media. Although no-one mentioned it specifically during the meeting, the general public would probably be amazed to learn that, although estimates vary, the Earth sweeps up somewhere close to 145,000 tonnes of cosmic dust and cometary debris each year in its orbit around the sun. In all probability most science journalists would be amazed to learn this fact as well, so in a way it's not surprising that some incoming space rock appears 'out-of-the-ordinary' even to most of them.

But this is "the context" in which NEO scientists have to search the skies for 'rogue' asteroids on Earth-crossing orbits. And it was this point that was emerging in the discussions as being central to the general misunderstandings that have characterised media coverage of the asteroid threat in the past few years.

Dr Peiser, who is the moderator of the CCNet, reflected this reality when he said, "We get 5 to 10 interesting asteroid stories a month. But we need to learn lessons from the mishaps in the media. The impression people are left with is one where the NEO community is seen as having to retract stories, even though no-one has 'retracted' anything."

Dr Whitehouse advised that future dealings with the media would have to be better thought out in advance, especially in terms of the issuing of Press Releases. "You've got to talk to journalists about other aspects and ways of looking at asteroids than impact probabilities," he said, and suggested that, "the NEO community needs to become more media savvy, and look for stories other that ones about the latest rock to be discovered."

There was much animated discussion about this, and Dr Peiser summed up the present situation, saying, "We risk being perceived as being too hasty, and some science correspondents will be reluctant to look at similar stories again." While this opinion was realistic in the context of past experience, it was, though, rather pessimistic. There are many other reasons why media professionals may not always appear interested in asteroid stories, explained Dr Whitehouse, "Science journalists don't want to be seen as 'over-selling' their stories. And some editors don't like science stories at all."

"The picture the public are getting is one where they realise there is an active and developing science looking at the threat from NEOs. With BBC News Online we try to write stories in such a way that the readers will get this gist of the story in the first four paragraphs," he said.

Going on to reassure the scientists that their handling of the media will improve as they, in turn, begin to understand just how the media works, he explained that there are "A great number of scientists who don't appreciate the complexities of the media. Different types of stories for different outlets."

Jay Tate, whose job it now is to present the case made by NEO scientists to both the media and the public at large, brought up the point that the NEO community is sometimes looked upon sceptically by other astronomers. He asked generally, now that the new Torino Scale ratings will show Torino #1 as 'normal', "How can we manage it?"

To this Dr Peiser added, "The Torino Scale is not helpful because it doesn't put the risk in context," explaining that, for any newly discovered NEO, "the 'impact probability' is meaningless unless we explain how long it has been observed".  Dr Whitehouse agreed, and advised "You have to find a way of explaining that Torino Scale classification is a 'temporary factor'."

While Dr Whitehouse may be one of the few science journalists who really does understand the problems facing the NEO community, regarding the dilemma of explaining 'the context' referred to by the scientists he cautioned, "If you say this is 'commonplace' you take away the root of the story. You have to find a way to say Torino 1 to 3 is of technical interest only, and of no human concern."

CCNet is a scholarly electronic network. To subscribe/unsubscribe,
please contact the moderator Benny Peiser <>.
Information circulated on this network is for scholarly and educational
use only. The attached information may not be copied or reproduced for
any other purposes without prior permission of the copyright holders.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in the
articles and texts and in other CCNet contributions do not necessarily
reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the moderator of this


CCNet 92/2003 - 24 October 2003

Since I ended up leaving astronomy I've moved into a computer security
job, so we get info feeds alerting us to new security issues, worms,
viruses and today..... Solar Weather. Of course 'Solar Flares' are part
of every BOFH's excuse book, but this is the first time I've ever seen a
Threat Alert for this kind of event.
     --Scott Manley, Astronomer, Hacker, DJ, Scotsman

A strong geomagnetic storm was expected to hit Earth on Friday with the
potential to affect electrical grids and satellite communications. The
disturbance was expected to produce a geomagnetic storm rated G-3. A G-5
storm is the strongest.
     --Associated Press, 23 October 2003

In scientific circles where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique
solar events are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the
star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants realized
something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both
the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires,
while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with
regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana
and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.
   --NASA Science News for October 23, 2003

    The Globe and Mail, 23 October 2003

    NASA Science News for October 23, 2003

    Pål Brekke <>

    Scott Manley <>


    Ron Baalke <>

    Jonathan Tate <>

    Alastair McBeath <>

    Marco Langbroek <>

     Daniel Fischer <>

     Marco Langbroek <>

     Marco Langbroek <>

     Jon Richfield <>

     David T. King <>

     Ed Grondine <>
     Russell Seitz <MNESTHEUS@AOL.COM>


The Globe and Mail, 23 October 2003

Associated Press

Boulder, Colo. - A strong geomagnetic storm was expected to hit Earth on Friday with the potential to affect electrical grids and satellite communications.

One of the largest sunspot clusters in years developed over the past three days and produced a coronal mass ejection, similar to a solar flare, at 3 a.m. EDT Wednesday, forecasters at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

The disturbance was expected to produce a geomagnetic storm rated G-3. A G-5 storm is the strongest.

The storm could make the aurora visible as far south as Oregon and Illinois.

A coronal mass ejection is an explosion of gas and charged particles into space from the corona, the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere.

A second sunspot cluster not yet visible from Earth could produce more geomagnetic storms in the next two weeks, NOAA said.

NASA Science News for October 23, 2003

Scientists are beginning to understand a historic solar storm in 1859. One day, they say, it could happen again.
October 23, 2003:  Newly uncovered scientific data of recorded history's most massive space storm is helping a NASA scientist investigate its intensity and the probability that what occurred on Earth and in the heavens almost a century-and-a-half ago could happen again.

In scientific circles where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique solar events are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

What happened in 1859 was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat notable events. But together they caused the most potent disruption of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history. "What they generated was the perfect space storm," says Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
To begin to understand the perfect space storm you must first begin to understand the gargantuan numbers with which plasma physicists like Tsurutani work every day. At over 1.4 million kilometers (869,919 miles) wide, the Sun contains 99.86 percent of the mass of the entire solar system: well over a million Earths could fit inside its bulk. The total energy radiated by the Sun averages 383 billion trillion kilowatts, the equivalent of the energy generated by 100 billion tons of TNT exploding each and every second.

But the energy released by the Sun is not always constant. Close inspection of the Sun's surface reveals a turbulent tangle of magnetic fields and boiling arc-shaped clouds of hot plasma dappled by dark, roving sunspots.

Once in a while--exactly when scientists still cannot predict--an event occurs on the surface of the Sun that releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form of a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, an explosive burst of very hot, electrified gases with a mass that can surpass that of Mount Everest.

What transpired during the dog days of summer 1859, across the 150 million-kilometer (about 93 million-mile) chasm of interplanetary space that separates the Sun and Earth, was this: on August 28, solar observers noted the development of numerous sunspots on the Sun's surface. Sunspots are localized regions of extremely intense magnetic fields. These magnetic fields intertwine, and the resulting magnetic energy can generate a sudden, violent release of energy called a solar flare. From August 28 to September 2 several solar flares were observed. Then, on September 1, the Sun released a mammoth solar flare. For almost an entire minute the amount of sunlight the Sun produced at the region of the flare actually doubled.

"With the flare came this explosive release of a massive cloud of magnetically charged plasma called a coronal mass ejection," said Tsurutani. "Not all coronal mass ejections head toward Earth. Those that do usually take three to four days to get here. This one took all of 17 hours and 40 minutes," he noted.

Not only was this coronal mass ejection an extremely fast mover, the magnetic fields contained within it were extremely intense and in direct opposition with Earth's magnetic fields. That meant the coronal mass ejection of September 1, 1859, overwhelmed Earth's own magnetic field, allowing charged particles to penetrate into Earth's upper atmosphere. The endgame to such a stellar event is one heck of a light show and more -- including potential disruptions of electrical grids and communications systems.

Back in 1859 the invention of the telegraph was only 15 years old and society's electrical framework was truly in its infancy. A 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada. Other storms have affected systems ranging from cell phone service and TV signals to GPS systems and electrical power grids. In March 1989, a solar storm much less intense than the perfect space storm of 1859 caused the Hydro-Quebec (Canada) power grid to go down for over nine hours, and the resulting damages and loss in revenue were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The question I get asked most often is, 'Could a perfect space storm happen again, and when?'" added Tsurutani. "I tell people it could, and it could very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As for when, we simply do not know," he said.


Pål Brekke <>

A large sunspot group has caught the attention of many sungazers around
the world. Sunspot group 10484 has been associated with several powerful
solar flares, including one X-class event (the most powerful category).
The sunspots in the group cover more than 1700 millionths of the visible
solar surface, or 10 times the surface of the entire Earth!
But hold on! Another group, number 10486, is rotating onto the solar disk,
showing even more signs of activity. And this particular region caught the
attention of solar physicists while it was still on the far side of the
Sun! In the MDI instrument's pictures, it showed considerable development
over a short period of time. The rapid growth was noted by KehCheng Chu of
Stanford University, but the fact was not widely publicised. "The data
were a bit scarce, and there was a chance that the images were influenced
by this," says Phil Scherrer, Principal Investigator for MDI.
The speculations have been vindicated, however, by a lot of activity
(including an even stronger X flare) coming from this new region as it is
entering the front side of the Sun. So although it may or may not have an
impressive sunspot group, it is certainly an active region that must be
taken seriously!

Full story:

Follow the sunpsots and flares here:

Read also about our Voting Contest:
SOHO will be celebrating the 8th Anniversary of its launch on 2 December
2003. To help commemorate this event, a Top 10 list of SOHO's images will
be featured on the  astronomy web site, with a related article
about SOHO's achievements. We want you to help us decide which images to
feature. On our voting page you will see 30 thumbnails of our favorite
SOHO images (click on any of them to make them larger). All you have to do
is tell us which five of the images you like the most. Just click in the
"VOTE" box under five of these images, then click "Submit votes". The
voting will end on 17 November. The results will be posted on 25 November
on , and will be available here a day later.

Dr. Pål Brekke       |         Tel: +1-301-286-6983
SOHO Deputy Project Scientist       |         Mob: +1-301-996-9028
European Space Agency       |         Fax: +1-301-286-0264
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center      |
Mail Code 682.3, Bld. 26,  Room G-1   |


Scott Manley <>

Since I ended up leaving astronomy I've moved into a computer security
job, so we get info feeds alerting us to new security issues, worms,
viruses and today..... Solar Weather.

Of course 'Solar Flares' are part of every BOFH's excuse book, but this
is the first time I've ever seen a Threat Alert for this kind of event.

Scott Manley
Astronomer, Hacker, DJ, Scotsman

ID : 6847
TYPE : Intelligence Bulletin

TruSecure Activity Report: Geomagnetic Activity Warning

DATE_PUBLISHED : 1066935840
DATE_DISTRIB : 1066935840

A coronal mass ejection (CME) from Sunspot 484 erupted on the sun on
October 22, 2003, at approximately 3:00 PM. A CME is a cloud of
high-energy particles that is ejected from the sun''s outer edge. In
this instance, the CME has sent nearly 10 billion tons of matter toward
Earth at speeds nearing 1 million miles per hour. It is expected to
impact Earth at midday on October 24, 2003, and create a significant
geomagnetic storm that could affect communications equipment worldwide
when it enters Earth''s magnetic field.

Geomagnetic activity associated with CMEs can dramatically disturb
Earth''s magnetic field and disrupt electrical and communications
systems that rely on radio waves as a transmission medium. Specifically,
a CME can create voltage surges in electric power grids, disrupt radio
communications and navigation systems, and negatively impact satellite

Similar storms have caused telecommunications outages in the past. In
1997, such a storm shut down an AT&T Telstar 401 satellite that provided
television broadcasts. The following year another storm disrupted a
Galaxy IV satellite from PanAmSat that supported automated teller
machines and airline tracking systems. A storm disabled a number of
satellites in 2000, affecting the functionality of communications and
navigation systems. Such storms are also known to impact mobile phone
operations and may disrupt Wi-Fi functionality.

Most recently, Sunspot 484 emitted a solar flare on October 19, 2003,
that temporarily disabled high frequency radio communications over the
continental United States for more than two hours, greatly impairing
airline and marine communications.

This CME was unexpected because the 11-year cycle of activity for
sunspots supposedly peaked at the end of 2000. A second region of the
sun is also active and could create more powerful eruptions during the
next two weeks.
Summary :

An unexpected coronal mass ejection on the sun has sent nearly 10
billion tons of matter hurtling toward Earth. It is expected to hit
Earth at midday on October 24, 2003, and may result in a strong
geomagnetic storm that could affect communications equipment.

LANG : en
POPULARITY : Urgency : 2 Credibility : 5
COMMENTS : Version : Original Release Alerthistory :

This is a TruSecure Activity Report.

SOLUTION : Warning :
DATE_INSERT : 1066928506


By Robert Roy Britt

Astronomers have spotted a strange, obvious and inexplicable black spot near the equator of Jupiter. A picture of the object is circling this planet electronically as researchers scratch their heads about what they've found.

A second image, taken on another day by a different photographer, contains a similar looking spot. As of early today, the second image had deepened the mystery. Some astronomers were at first puzzled over whether the two photos show the same thing or not. As it turns out, they do not. 

Researchers said the second image appears to reveal a transit of one of Jupiter's moons across the face of the planet. If that's right, then the two pictures represent a very interesting coincidence.

What follows is a story of raw discovery, a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the Internet Age when astronomers find something interesting.

Stormy spot

Jupiter's complex atmosphere is known to generate ephemeral spots, whirls and cloud formations of various sorts. Many are colorful; often they are bright, sometimes they are dark. This one is particularly dark and larger than many seen in the past.

The first picture of the black spot to circulate among astronomers worldwide was taken Oct. 19 by astrophotographer Olivier Meeckers. The image gained wider attention yesterday as it was mentioned in astronomy newsletters. It has experts captivated.

Meeckers, a member of Groupe Astronomie de Spa in Belgium, told he does not know what created the spot.

Jean-Luc Dighaye, who founded a European amateur astronomy group called the EurAstro Association, has discussed the odd spot with Gino Farroni of the French Astronomical Society and Emmanuel Jehin, a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory.

"The black spot, accompanied by at least one plume, can be seen not far away from the Great Red Spot," Dighaye said. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is a colossal cloud structure, much like an oversized hurricane, that has been raging for at least three centuries.

The new spot is an obvious dark circular object below and to the right of the Great Red Spot in Meeckers' images (he took two at separate times on the same day).

Not a shadow

In an e-mail interview with, Dighaye said the dynamics of Jupiter's atmosphere, with convection and radiation generating strong winds and changing cloud structures, is not well understood.

"Spots of various shades depending on the chemical composition of the gases involved in the process are observed from time to time," Dighaye said. "Plumes indicate gas exchanges with the adjacent atmospheric streams which are always fast in the equatorial zones."

It is not known if the spot is purely an atmospheric phenomenon or if it might have been generated by some foreign object, though the latter possibility is doubted. In 1994, impacts of the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 created huge black scars in the Jovian atmosphere.

"This time, however, astronomers did not report the presence of any potential nearby impactor," Dighaye said.

Jupiter shines by reflected sunlight. Shadows from the four largest Jovian moons can also create spots on the planet's cloudtops. But the astronomers have checked the schedules of the moons' passages and, in three independent investigations, ruled them out as the cause of the spot in Meeckers' image.

Mystery deepens

However, a second image taken by Eric Ng of Hong Kong, on Oct. 22, shows a dark spot on Jupiter in the same location as the strange spot seen by Meeckers.

Ng told the spot in his photo is the moon Ganymede, which shows up very dark compared to Jupiter's bright clouds. Dighaye at first said that's very unlikely, as the moon's location would be coincidentally superimposed on Meeckers' strange spot.

"That's incredible!" Dighaye said of the possibility. But there was more information that apparently hadn't been taken into account.

Other astronomers, drawn into the discussion, agreed the spot in Ng's image is Ganymede -- not the moon's shadow, but actually the moon itself -- perhaps coincidentally positioned over the strange spot imaged by Meeckers. That account came from an e-mail discussion among members of the U.S.-based Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO).

However, it appears there's another explanation altogether.

Because Jupiter's cloud bands move at different rates, Meeckers' spot had rotated out of view by the time Ng took his picture three days later, according to Geoff Gaherty of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Gaherty was alerted to the apparent similarity between the images when he read the initial version of this story.

Ng, re-interviewed, agrees with Gaherty's explanation.

That still leaves the original strange spot, the one found by Meeckers, unexplained. will update this article if and when more information becomes available.

See for yourself

Meanwhile, observers are working with a narrow window of time each day to learn more about the unexplained spot. Jupiter rises in the East at around 3:30 a.m. local time and is high in the sky at daybreak. But since it rotates, the hemisphere with the new spot is not always facing Earth.

"It would be exciting to follow the evolution of this new black spot -- probably still visible in modest astronomical instruments -- from many locations of various longitudes on Earth, so that some observers are always favorably positioned when the Jovian hemisphere of interest comes into sight," Dighaye said.

Jupiter is visible to the naked eye. It appears as a very bright star in the predawn eastern sky. In fact it is brighter than all stars and cannot be mistaken.

Binoculars or small telescopes can reveal up to four points of light near the giant planet. These are the Galilean moons. A modest telescope -- about 4-inches -- will reveal the major cloud bands of Jupiter. In general, larger amateur telescopes are needed to show smaller features like the newfound, unexplained black spot.'s Night Sky Columnist, Joe Rao, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003,


Ron Baalke <>

Meteorites on display in Orissa
Sampad Mahapatra
October 23, 2003

Bhubaneshwar - Three pieces of the extra-large meteorite that lit up the sky
along coastal Orissa last month have been recovered from two villages in
Kendrapara district.

These are now on display at the Geological Survey of India office in
Bhubaneswar for the people to have a closer look.

The meteorites had caused considerable panic across the state on the night of
September 27 when they crashed.

As a result the extra-terrestrial objects, weighing between 500 grams and
5.7 kilograms, have aroused great curiosity especially among the school students.

"I had read of these in our geography books, but I hadn't ever seen it. To see
and touch it has been a great learning experience," said Shobhna Shroff, student.

Meteorites are magnetic and contain an alloy of iron and nickel mixed with
silicate materials. The geologists say the meteorites that struck the state
may have their origin either in Jupiter or Mars.

But exact details about its genesis, content and geological age will be known
after laboratory tests. The pieces will be sent to the Indian Museum in Kolkata
after the city exhibition for display along with nearly 600 similar pieces of


Jonathan Tate <>

Thought that you might be interested in the lates from Peter McGauron.


From: The Hon Peter McGauran MP

15 OCT 2003

To: The International Spaceguard Information Centre
Llanshay Lane
Knighton, Powys

1 wrote to you in May this year, about the OECD Global Science Forum's
Workshop on Earth Objects (NEOs), which was held from 20-22 January 2003.  1
said that I would write to you again after the Global Science Forum had held
its general meeting in June this year.

The Global Science Forum comprises delegations of senior science officials
and experts from all OECD Member countries who analyse high-priority science
issues and develop proposals for action by Governments if the issue may
require international co-operation.

As I mentioned in my last letter, Australia was represented at both the NEO
Workshop and by a delegation to the Forum's general meeting held from 30
June -1 July in Paris. Amongst many other issues considered over the two
days, the Forum discussed the report produced by the NEO Workshop. In accord
with its general practice, the Forum noted, but did not make any further
recommendations to OECD Member countries about the findings of the NEO

However, the delegation from the United Kingdom proposed that a second,
follow-up NEO workshop be held. The Forum agreed that a second NEO workshop
would be authorised if there was sufficient interest from other delegations.
After the Forum meeting the UK delegation circulated a paper outlining the
desired outcome of a second workshop. A decision is expected soon from the
Forum secretariat on whether a second workshop will take place.

Australia indicated that it supports the possibility of second NEO workshop,
but that it should be held later in 2004 to allow sufficient time to
organise significant input from risk assessment and risk management
specialists, as well m a broader range of government agencies, academics,
the reinsurance industry and private risk modelling companies.

It would also be important that some background studies be undertaken ahead
of a second workshop, to examine various aspects of the NEO hazard and risk.
For example, it is important to examine if my models have been developed
that place NEO risk in the context of other natural hazard risk on a local,
regional or global scale. Without such an analysis, it would be difficult
for a second NEO workshop to significantly advance our current understanding
of NEO issues.

As soon as there are further significant developments in regard to assessing
NEO issues, 1 will ensure that you are informed.  I hope you find the above
information useful.

=========== LETTERS, LETTERS =============


Alastair McBeath <>

Dear Benny,

The three splendid images of the south Wales "event" of September 24 by Gary Green, notified in CCNet 87/2003 (16 October 2003) confirm the sunlit contrail was definitely that of Concorde, as Robert Matson had earlier suggested (CCNet 83/2003, 7 October 2003).

The imaged trail resulted from part of the near-supersonic climb with afterburners on, which occurs from when the Welsh coast is crossed west or south-west of Cardiff, outbound to New York. The aircraft accelerates from Mach 0.95 to Mach 1.7 as it climbs from around 8.5 km (28,000 feet) to some 13.1 km (43,000 feet) during this time, when the afterburners are switched off. Although the climb to cruising height, typically between 17.7 to 18.28 km (58,000 to 60,000 feet) continues after this, it is at a much shallower angle, as Gary Green's second image indicated very clearly. Thus the kink in the contrail immediately after the thicker part ended was not due to any sudden clear-air turbulence or some piloting error, and about all the passengers would have noticed would have been a slight lurch as the afterburners were turned off. Mach 2.0 is attained at roughly 15.2 km altitude (50,000 feet) forty minutes after take-off from London, approximately when Gary Green's third image was taken. Concorde, and any later contrail it was still producing, would have vanished behind the clouds nearer the horizon by then. Some of this information was picked up from various media sources over the last ten days, as the retrograde step of ending civil supersonic flights has drawn nearer. However, a complete summary of the outbound London to New York flight can be found in the chapter "The Flight - Acceleration", pp.82-97 of "The Concorde Story" (new edition; by Christopher Orlebar, Osprey Aerospace, 1997), along with maps showing the flight paths at the front and rear endpapers of the book. The information is still current, though sadly not for much longer. There are slight variations in the exact heights, speeds, track and timings from day to day, dependent on ground events, aerial and near-space weather conditions.

Contrail occurrence is dealt with in useful detail by the "Handbook of Aviation Meteorology" (3rd edition; authored by the Meteorological Office, HMSO London, 1994), pp.157-158. Basically, assuming the air conditions will allow contrail formation, a greater trail production happens when more fuel is being burnt by the engines. Contrail generation can be reduced by throttling-back the engines. The effect of simply cutting Concorde's afterburners in this respect is clearly demonstrated by Gary Green's second image. It seems the post-afterburner altitude air was also significantly less conducive to long-lasting contrail formation, hence the afterburner cutoff zone gave the appearance of a possibly explosive event, once the later thinner contrail had quickly dissipated.

Arvind Paranjpye (CCNet 88/2003, 17 October 2003) raised a very valid point about the common nature of aircraft contrails generally, and indeed contrails now seem to be second only to light pollution as a source of complaint for astronomers in some places. However, the circumstances where the special form of Concorde's acceleration contrail could be lit by the near-setting Sun, would only produce such a vivid reflection for a few days near the equinoxes for the UK, since at such times of year, the sunset time is rapidly shifting from day to day with respect to relatively fixed points, like Concorde's overflight time for south Wales. The sunset time shift is about two minutes a day around September 24 in south Wales, and Jon Burnett's original pair of images nicely demonstrated the difference only two minutes made to the contrail's appearance. Aside from these geometric considerations, sky conditions needed to be clear enough for the trail to be seen, but atmospheric conditions also needed to be right to a) produce good sunset cloud colours, b) produce contrails, and c) for the late afterburner contrail to remain without the thinner continuation trail, to give exactly the observed detonation-like appearance.

Lastly, whatever John Lambert (CCNet 87/2003, 16 October 2003) may have seen from Cambridge, possibly a genuine near-sunset fireball, it is most unlikely to have been the section of Concorde's contrail imaged from Wales. Recent new information (with grateful thanks to Robert Nemiroff for forwarding it on October 22) suggests his sighting may not have been made on September 24 after all. Unfortunately, no other reports of a fireball near sunset observed from the UK in late September or early October have yet appeared, so this cannot be confirmed at present.

Hopefully, we can at least draw a line under this September 24 non-meteoric trail episode now!

Alastair McBeath,
IMO Vice-President.


Marco Langbroek <>

Hello James,

I just read your letter in CCNet on the Welsh event and your experience from
the mid-70'ies. In the case of the Welsh pictures, we can 100% exclude that
this was a rocket booster or satellite decay. There are two separate lines
of evidence for this:

1. NASA OIG does not give a re-entry for the date and position of the Welsh
event. This means there likely wasn't any, except if it concerns a decay of
a classified object. Please note that NASA OIG provides decay warnings for
objects much smaller than needed to provide a clear fireball visible around

2. On the new pictures from Gary Green, it is well visible that the trail is
*below* the highest cloud deck. This is much too low for a satellite or
rocket booster re-entry. Also, as I pointed out earlier, a dust-trail at the
altitude of bolides (and re-entries) should be fully sunlit. It should also
show very clear deformation (twisting), as Rob Matson remarked.

kind regards,
Marco Langbroek
Dutch Meteor Society

Dr Marco Langbroek


Daniel Fischer <>

Dear Benny,

There was no further reference in CCNet on the death of an
Indian attributed to the Orissa event since Vishnu Reddy's
notice in the Oct. 7 edition (item 12) - but the case was
described in somewhat more detail in Science magazine
(Vol. 302, p. 224, Oct.10): It was not a hit by a meteorite
but the shock from seeing the fireball that the death was
attributed to:

"Some onlookers reportedly collapsed from the shock of the
spectacle, and one, a 55-year-old man, was taken to a
hospital where he died 2 days later."

Thus it was superstition*) that killed the poor man and not
a meteorite. And so the number of humans killed by impacts
remains at zero as a previous claim of numerous meteorite
fatalities in China (that was even a topic of a JPL Preprint
some 10 years ago) is apparently based on misinterpretations
of old chronicles (as I learned from a Japanese paper at
this September's International Meteor Conference).



*) quite widespread in the Indian society with respect to
sky events, it seems, judging from bizarre reactions I noted -
via the Indian media - in connection with the 1995 solar


Marco Langbroek <>

Hello Benny, Hello Wendy,

While the newspaper report from the South Carolina Herrald quoted in the
last CCNet issue (23/20/03) quotes a meteorologist who identified the sigtings
as "Orionid shower meteors", this is highly unlikely. Other news reports give a
time of about 9 pm for this observed celestial event. The Orionid radiant is
still well below the horizon at that time, and hence Orionid meteors are out
of the question, they are just not visible at this time of the evening.
Also, other reports mention what appears to be a sonic boom, which is not
quite the behaviour of an Orionid meteor. This requires a deep penetrating
fireball, and the Orionid shower is not a likely source of such objects.

More likely this concerns sightings of a sporadic (non-stream associated)
fireball, or possibly a Taurid stream fireball. The Taurid stream is active
throughout October and November.

Marco Langbroek
Dutch Meteor Society (DMS)


Marco Langbroek <>

Hello Benny,

The newspaper report in the latest CCNet about the recent meteorite that
fell in India, states it is now identified as an iron.

However, this might be in error. On the meteorite-central mailinglist
(archives accessible through US meteorite dealer
Mike Farmer, who having travelled to the area in India acquired a small
piece of the meteorite, reports it is a chondrite, a stony meteorite,
probably of H class. H-class meteorites do contain quite some iron (visible
as minute iron specks on a break surface or cut surface), but they are
stonies, not irons.

Farmer is someone who ought to know what he is talking about. So it appears
this news-report might be the result of some confusion. There is a remote
possibility that this could perhaps be one of those peculiar chondrites with
extremely large metal veins, such as Portales Valley, and it then depends on
what piece of the rock you have, but this is pure speculation of course. I
think it is more likely that the news-report is a mistake. We'll know when
the formal classification appears.

- Marco


Jon Richfield <>

Hi Benny,

The discovery that Hutton had published a theory of micro evolution by
natural selection certainly is interesting, but the term "plagiarism" in
the title is neither appropriate nor proper in this connection, even
though the text of the article disavows any impropriety. In fact
Professor Pearson's charitable remarks on the source of the inspiration
for Darwin's work strike me as not nearly charitable enough. To
speculate whether "... it is possible that an old half-forgotten concept
from his student days later resurfaced, as he struggled to explain his
many observations ... " really is a bit woolly, I should think!

All of us who have lived part of our lives in the heady atmosphere of
student or laboratory discussion, know how subtly embryonic memes can
establish themselves unnoticed and uncontrollable in the backs of our
minds, to surface at opportune or inopportune times, but they don't
count in allocating precedence. For one thing, their sources seldom can
be traced and confirmed any more reliably than the source of a joke,
either within the community or in the mind of the host of the memes.
About the most one might reasonably say is that such memes contribute to
an intellectual climate and in that climate ideas may be very vague and
confused. In this instance, the climate for the conception and
acceptance of evolution had been increasingly favourable for some time
before either Darwin or Hutton wrote.

Technically Darwin's publication should have yielded priority to
Wallace, let alone Hutton. That it did not was due to the largeness of
spirit of the parties concerned and Wallace's own recognition that he
could never have produced the theoretical edifice that Darwin had

Whether Professor Pearson is nearer the mark in speculating on the
influence of Hutton on the ideas of Wells and Matthew, I cannot comment,
as I never have read their works, though certainly I have read of them.
However, one cannot take such tenuous guesses seriously.

Note that Darwin's work, though rightly praised for its originality in
its day, was in practice most important
? for having been published sufficiently visibly to have made a major
impact on society as an overwhelming argument for the new theory (it had
already been accepted among his closest biological associates),
? for its specific application to the origin of species instead of just
adaptation of populations within a species (macro evolution as opposed
to micro evolution, as we term the two aspects nowadays),
? for the illustrative insights and monumental documentation of the
biological evidence,
? for the discussions of the implications of his theory for biology,
geology, ecology, and cosmology,
? for the impartial discussion of possible evolutionary (and genetic)
mechanisms and their implications for his theory.

There is a great deal more to evolutionary theory and Darwin's work than
just evolution! It was hardly an overstatement when Dobzhansky said that
nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and it
was Darwin's work that led to the justification of that aphorism, not
that of Hutton, Wells or Matthew. And here I refer not to the
recognition that their publications received, but to the completeness of
their respective theories.

Note that all this is totally independent of my now deepened respect for
Hutton. In his own right he was a giant in the history of science, all
the more so, bearing in mind the times in which he lived, in which he
did not simply organise and enlarge geological knowledge, but gave it
form and meaning beyond anything it had had before. His conception of
evolution is yet another evidence of his breadth of intellect and his
intellectual creativity. It also is an example of how amateurs'
expression of their ideas, even when those ideas hold the seeds of
greatness, may fail to take root and further the progress of thought and

For, as a biologist, Hutton certainly was an amateur, even in his own
time. And he was writing in, by current standards, a community of
amateurs. I don't know whether for instance he knew of the works of
Cuvier (whose publications largely came after the main period of
Hutton's writing) or of Lamarck, but in any case, taken out of context,
it is not surprising that few people noticed a theory that did not deal
with the origin of species, as opposed to micro evolution by natural
selection. Apart from the fairly unadventurous nature of his
speculation, he did after all publish the idea in the middle of a large
mass of notoriously heavy reading. Besides, the concept of natural
selection is subtle; it takes some insight to see its implications. In
fact it seems clear that Hutton himself did not recognise even its most
obvious major implications. No dishonour to him; millions of others from
that day to this miss much more than that!

It took a Darwin to build the theory to a supercritical mass and present
it as an irresistible structure of fact and of crushing argument. His
contemporaries remarked that in spite of its clarity and fairness of
expression, it was hard work to read and understand properly. The mix
was too rich, the field too vast, and the implications too pervasive for
easy assimilation.

I not only am delighted by this discovery, but enthralled by its
illustration of the nature of the advance of scientific thought (I hope
it gets publicised as it deserves, with full credit both to Hutton and
Pearson). It deserves to become a classic case study in the history of
science. At the same time, its sensational aspects have nothing to do
with plagiarism, conscious or otherwise, by Wells, Matthew, Darwin,
Wallace or anyone else. In Darwin's day macro evolution was an idea
whose time had come; as Huxley said: "How stupid not to have thought of
that!" and you may be sure that many thousands of biologists have echoed
that idea ever since.

Micro evolution had been a commonplace in biology for centuries, though
insight into the concept and implications of natural selection had not.
That insight was very rare at best, even among those who were familiar
with its principles in practice, without consciously recognising them in
theory, let alone recognising the ubiquitous importance of their

In any case, this is a delicious example of the treasures that one
sometimes unearths unexpectedly in old publications, classics or
near-classics. I continually mourn the accelerated disappearance of the
books that I once might have found by the crate in second-hand shops and
flea markets. There is scope for thousands of them in the Project
Gutenberg files.

Jon Richfield


David T. King <>


    In CCNet 89/2003, a segment called WAS DARWIN A PLAGIARIST?
appeared. This caught my attention for several reasons. I turned to
the definitive biography of James Hutton by Dennis Dean [1992, James
Hutton and the History of Geology, Cornell Univ. Press]. Even though it
is written by a US citizen and printed in the US, I am sure it is in
most libraries of English univesities. I found on page 61 (see
footnote) comments on the matter of Hutton's views on 'natural
selection,' which were discussed in the CCNet report as though it were
something newly found. Hutton (1794, Principles of Knowledge, v. 2, p.
500) is quoted by Dean thusly: "In conceiving an indefinite variety
among the individuals of that species, we must be assured that, on the
one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution
will be most liable to perish while, on the other hand, those organised
bodies which most approach to the best constitution for the present
circumstances will be best adapted to continue in preserving themselves
and mulplying the individuals of their race." Dean goes on to say that
there is a scholarly argument in print (Jones, 1984, in Hope, 1984,
Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment; pub. in Edinburgh) saying
that Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather, was influential with James
Hutton and that they discussed 'natural selection' together earlier than
when the 1794 volumes were printed.
    There are several issues here.  One is titling the piece Was Darwin
a Plagiarist?, which is quite inflamatory (to get attention, I
suppose). If all great thinkers who wrote on expanded topics that
related to something they once heard something about were labeled
plagiarists, the list would be endless.
    Another point (an ironic twist, really) is the CCNet story's
suggestion that Hutton was the source of such notions in Charles
Darwin's head, when Charles more likely got it directly from the
writings of his beloved grandfather Erasmus (1731-1802). (Charles was 7
when his grandfather died.)
    Left out of the article (as it is in most other writings on the
subject!) is proper recognition for James Hutton, the Scottish farmer
and scientist who was obviously far, far ahead of his time.  James
Hutton is really the father of modern geology (more deserved of the
reputation than is Lyell, who was a great popularizer to be sure), and I
would encourage all geologists to become familiar with his writings and
insights.  Most introductory texts in geology either neglect Hutton or
state his contributions wrongly.
David T. King, Jr., Professor, Dept. of Geology
Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849-5305 USA
VOICE  334 844-4882, -4282 FAX  334 844-4486


Ed Grondine <>
Hello Benny -

The most recent CCNet was certainly packed with new and important
information.  I was particularly struck by a couple of comments by
B. Geerts and E. Linacre:

"We do not know why the Sun spends part of its time in a magnetically
quiescent state, and whether the sunspot minima occur with a regularity that
is sufficient to predict when the next quiescent episode might occur. "

"The periodicity of the sunspot number, and hence that of the circulation in
the solar plasma, relates to the rotation of the Sun about the centre of
gravity of whole solar system, taking 11.1 years on average. Sometimes the
Sun is up to a million kilometres from that centre, and sometimes it more or
less coincides, leading to different conditions of turbulence within the
photosphere. The transition from one condition to the other affects the
number of sunspots...."

May I suggest that perhaps Timo Niroma's studies of Jupiter's possible
influence on the susnspot cycle may be of interest in providing a solution
to this problem?  Viz:

The work by the Danish team on their use of Be isotopes to reconstruct the
sunspot number was certainly very important as wel, and finally, the Space
Policy Institute' s recommendations for the re-direction of NASA's weather
research was very well researched and thought out.  All in all, quite a
remarkable number.

best wishes,



RE: CCNet, 22 October 2003:
It is encouraging that mankind is concerned about the effects of human
activity on climate, including the build-up of carbon dioxide. Compared to
solar magnetic fields, however, the carbon dioxide production has as much
influence on climate as a flea has on the weight of an elephant.
--Oliver K. Manuel, University of Missouri, CCNet, 21 October 2003


Assuming  human carbon dioxide production to represent 31 of the present CO2
in the atmosphere, and a fair sized elephant weighing six tonnes, Manuel's
flea  would be  about the size of a sheepdog, and weigh in excess of 80 pounds.
Unless, of course, Manuel is a physicist, in which case we should assume a
spherical flea with a radius of about 17 centimeters

--Russell Seitz, Harvard University, 23 October 2003

CCNet is a scholarly electronic network. To subscribe/unsubscribe,
please contact the moderator Benny Peiser <>.
Information circulated on this network is for scholarly and educational
use only. The attached information may not be copied or reproduced for
any other purposes without prior permission of the copyright holders.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in the
articles and texts and in other CCNet contributions do not necessarily
reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the moderator of this

CCCMENU CCC for 2003