[If you’re bored with politics, and really don’t care much about primaries, caucuses and polls, you have a problem. The media are full of that stuff, and not much else; so how do you get away from it? Fred called, and said he has a suggestion. People should do what we did back in the 1950’s to take our minds off the global standoff with the old Soviet Union, threatened revolutions and nuclear war. We just looked for monsters in the night sky.

Back then there was nothing like a good scare to take the mind off of dreary and confusing reality. And it was therapeutic. Projection is a wonderful thing. Fear the thing over there, and the worse thing right next to you can seem less scary. And the thing over there is, of course, really safer because it’s further away.

Of course, we had to rely on Hollywood’s sci-fi movies with their cheesy special effects to do the job. You know, the ones that featured colliding planets[1], giant ants[2], invading space alien vegetables[3] and the like. They were comforting because they were so obviously phony; but nevertheless were scary, at least in concept. Today we have much better material – actual science and strange experiments – to worry about.

So what’s happening up in the sky to frighten us? Will it save our minds from the political trivia of this season? Fred’s our guy who follows this stuff, in his own odd way, so let’s listen to his take on matters astronomical.]

Yes, there’s news from outer space, but perhaps it’s not all that scary. You be the judge. The big news is that our scientists have detected, or at least think they have detected, gravity waves generated by the collision of two “black holes” 1.4 billion years ago.[4] That event happened, of course, 1.4 billion light years from us so, apparently, there’s little or no danger to our small planet. LIGO says such violent forces manifest themselves as ripples in space-time, that “travel at the speed of light through the Universe, carrying with them information about their cataclysmic origins, as well as invaluable clues to the nature of gravity itself.”[5]

Reports are that we’ve been looking for gravity waves since Albert Einstein predicted them in 1916[6], but this is the first confirmed sighting. We can thank the good folks at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory [LIGO] [7]– i.e., at two of its underground installations, one in Louisiana and the other in Washington State – for this achievement.

Ripples in space-time? We search for them by burying facilities in the ground? That sounds like a bit from the old Star Trek, doesn’t it? Massively big things collide far away, and people shiver and shake in response. Will the Enterprise get all wavy and distorted? Are there also ripples in time? If so, how do we test for them? How long will it take, do you think, before some bright programmer develops a LIGO app. for a smart watch? Will the watch [and app.] be a fashion hit?

Pardon my feeble attempts at humor. I’m sure there are scientists out there grinding their teeth by now. Not all of last week’s astronomical events were harmless. In India, for example, a meteorite may have struck a technical college in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and killed an unlucky bystander.[8] I say “may have” not because there’s any doubt about the fatality; it occurred; but because local scientists are analyzing the fallen object to determine whether it’s  actually from “out there,” or is simply part of a passing aircraft, shuttle or low orbit satellite.[9]

The meteorite, if it is one, is kind of blue, and is described as magnetic.[10] That means it could be one of the nickel-iron variety. Normally those are reddish-brown, because they’ve been oxidizing in the ground for who knows how long; but a new one very well could be blueish. After all it’s fresh from the blast furnace, i.e., from a long hot journey through our atmosphere.

At least that’s what some meteorite-vendors say about blue meteorites.[11] But this is only speculation on my part. Let’s wait for the opinion of the scientists in India.

As we said in January, meteors are not uncommon in the night sky, but usually they burn up in the atmosphere. Apparently it’s rare for meteorites to actually hit anywhere near people. Perhaps this is because about 70 % of the surface of our globe is water[12], where humans mostly don’t live; and because other parts of the globe, like Antarctica, are sparsely populated. Of course, that might well change in 100 years or so. By then there could be so many of us that we will live everywhere, including on the oceans and at the poles. In that crowded future there will be no escaping meteorite casualties, or for that matter other people.

Even now when governments pay attention to such things, they find that meteorites fall on their countries with some regularity. By 1932, for example, India listed 106 such events of varying sizes and densities,[13] and in 2003 a meteorite shower destroyed several houses and injured 20 people there.[14] In recent memory small meteorites have targeted houses, garages and automobiles in North America.[15] And the list goes on.[16] Also, NASA says we get a big strike somewhere on the globe about every 10 years.

Last week’s strike in India, if it was by a meteorite, was not big. By “big” NASA means something like the meteorite that fell on the Sikhote-Alin Mountains of eastern Siberia in 1947. That object did the usual thing; it entered the earth’s atmosphere, overheated, and exploded; but being big, it deposited about 150 tons of iron fragments on the ground. The largest piece weighed in at 3,839 pounds. The debris field covered 0.6 x 1.2 miles, with 200 large and small craters, one of them 87 feet wide. As NASA says, “[i]f this … iron meteoroid had landed in a city, it obviously would have created quite a stir.”[17] More likely a bloodbath, I would think.

So what are the chances of anything big and bad happening this March? Not great, so far as we know. As I noted last time, NASA is finding and tracking the larger things that might collide with us – it calls them Near Earth Objects – and publishes tables of which ones are likely to get close at any given time. They’re called the NEO Earth Close Approach Tables,[18] and NASA updates them every day.

The version I have for March – it’s several days old – shows that about 36 NEOS will get close, but not uncomfortably so. Their size will vary from 23 meters[19] to 2.3 kilometers.[20] The closest any one of them will come is about 1.3 times the distance from the earth to the moon.[21] That happens on March 5th. Actually, that’s pretty close in astronomical terms, but luckily the NEO involved also is the smallest one we will see that month.[22] Still, at 82 to 170 feet, it’s pretty big. It would make a mess if it landed in New York, Chicago, or even in Charleston, SC.

Nevertheless, for March anyway there isn’t very much frightening about the night sky.  But on the other hand, you never really know. We understand – or think we understand – the known threats to us, not the unknown ones. NASA says it’s finding new NEOs all the time, at a rate of about 1500 per year.[23] So chances are they haven’t found all of them. Nevertheless, the picture for March looks to be fairly benign.

And what about the threats we haven’t even thought about? Well, gravity waves are new, but they don’t seem very threatening. After all, we had to spend over a billion dollars to even see one. Other phenomena, the currently unknown ones, might be different, but who knows? If you don’t know something exists, how can you evaluate its threat potential? You can’t. You can only speculate. But it’s hard to do even that, if you don’t know what you’re speculating about.[24]

[Too bad! It looks like recent events in the sky won’t help us ignore the ongoing political wars. The neurotically fearful, I suppose, may continue to speculate about mythological things, say, about space aliens and zombies ready to attack. However, the scientists won’t support that. There’s not much evidence for such invasions, nor is there likely to be any new research anytime soon.

Nobody is funding peer-reviewed investigations into zombies and space aliens. So people who worry about them have to get their “information” from TV programs or novels currently popular with the teenage set. These are known to be fiction, of course, and generally are less reliable even than media commentary on politics and politicians. So, really, how can they be useful?

Perhaps there’s a different way out. This spring let’s ignore politics and whatever fears we might have of the unknown. Instead, let’s just find a good book, and read that!]

[1] See the Wikipedia entry on When Worlds Collide (1951), at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Worlds_Collide_(1951_film)

[2] See the Wikipedia entry on Them (1954) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Them!

[3] See the Wikipedia entry on The Thing from Another World (1951), at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_from_Another_World

[4] See LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger, at https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/system/media_files/binaries/301/original/detection-science-summary.pdf

[5] Id.

[6] Id. “Their existence was predicted by Einstein in 1916, when he showed that accelerating massive objects would shake space-time so much that waves of distorted space would radiate from the source.”

[7] The experiment was run by run by CalTech, web address https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/ , in collaboration with many other countries and people.

[8] See IndiaRealTime, Malhotra, Meteorite Killed Man at Indian College Says Chief Minister (Feb. 8, 2016), at http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2016/02/08/meteorite-killed-man-at-indian-college-says-chief-minister/

[9] See  USA Today, Onyanga-Omara, Indian scientists analyze suspected meteorite (February 9, 2016)  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/02/09/indian-scientists-analyze-suspected-metorite/80044212/

[10] See globalpost, Agence France-Presse, Scientists study India’s deadly ‘meteorite’ (Feb. 9, 2016), available at  http://www.globalpost.com/article/6730807/2016/02/09/scientists-study-indias-deadly-meteorite

[11] See KD Meteorites, Chasing Meteorites since 1990, Meteorite Types, at     http://www.kdmeteorites.com/IdentifyingAMeteorite.html  If you want to know more about the meteorite finding business, take a look at the Meteorite Men website, at http://www.meteoritemen.com/

[12] Actually Wikipedia says it’s currently 70.8%. That could rise, of course, if ice melts and sea levels rise. See the Wikipedia entry on Earth at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth .

[13] See Mineralogical Magazine, Silberrad, List of Indian Meteorites, (Vol. 23, 1932), available at http://www.minersoc.org/pages/Archive-MM/Volume_23/23-139-290.pdf

[14] See e.g., BBC News, Meteor dazzles Indians (29 September 2003) at     http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3149404.stm

[15] See, e.g., the list in Tulane University, Nelson, Meteorites, Impacts and Mass Extinctions (last update 01 Dec. 2014), available at http://www.tulane.edu/~sanelson/Natural_Disasters/impacts.htm

[16] See, e.g., the list at International Comet Quarterly, Some interesting meteorite falls of the last two centuries, at http://www.icq.eps.harvard.edu/meteorites.html

[17] See NASA/JPL, The Probability of Collisions with Earth, available at  http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/sl9/back2.html

[18] See NASA, Near Earth Object Program, Close Approach Tables (updated daily), at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/

[19] That’s the low estimate for NEO 2013TX68.

[20] That’s the high estimate for NEO 7350 (1993VA).

[21] The Lunar Distance is measured from the center of the earth to the center of the moon. One Lunar Distance equals about 384,000 kilometers, or 239,000 miles. So 2013TX68 will pass by us at 1.3 times that, or about 311,000 miles.

[22] That is, it’s NEO 2013TX68, which is estimated at 23 to 52 meters.

[23] See NASA/JPL, Secondhand Spacecraft Has First Hand Asteroid Experience (November 11, 2015), available at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4767

[24] Thank you Don Rumsfeld, who famously made the distinction between known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. See, e.g.,  the You Tube video at http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=don+rumsfeld+unknowns&&view=detail&mid=76C083BB81C50CD4A19C76C083BB81C50CD4A19C&rvsmid=D4C870444FD6FD174777D4C870444FD6FD174777&FORM=VDQVAP&fsscr=0

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