Friday, April 26, 2013

Love, Neighbors, and Asteroids

Asteroids and meteorites were in the news recently. First, though, here's a little story about three cavemen: Igg, Ogg, and Oog.

Oog's family didn't have enough food. Ogg had a few nuts and berries left over, and a little meat. So did Igg.

Ogg gave his extra nuts and berries to Oog.

Igg noticed a bear walking toward Ogg's family, and drove it off. This isn't as brave as it sounds, since Ogg used a new technology to scare the bear: fire.

Ogg was furious with Igg. How dare he ignore Oog's plight! Ogg had given Oog food, while Igg chased a bear!

I think giving nuts and berries makes sense. So does chasing bears.
  1. Wolcott, Connecticut, and a Meteorite
  2. Working With Asteroids

Asteroid Angst

We live in exciting times. I enjoy trying to keep up with what we're learning about this astonishing creation, and the new technologies we develop as our knowledge increases.

Not everyone feels that way. I don't expect others to share my enthusiasms, but I'm occasionally impressed at how much some folks seem to dislike efforts to expand humanity's knowledge.

Earlier this month, National Geographic posted this:
"+NASA announced plans to capture an asteroid in deep space, bring it into our planetary neighborhood, and then set it into orbit around the moon.

" 'This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet,' says NASA administrator Charles Bolden."
(National Geographic, Google+ (April 14, 2013))
The first few comments were fairly predictable: a non sequitur reference to slavery, probably intended as a joke; complaints that NASA costs too much; and complaints that catching an asteroid won't feed starving people.

I'm very aware of America's distinctly non-booming economic status. This isn't a political blog, so I won't indulge in the usual 'it's the other guy's fault' stuff.

If it was a question of either helping folks who lack food, or preparing for the inevitable asteroid impact, I'd say that feeding the hungry was the correct choice.

But I do not think that it's an 'either-or' situation for many Americans, even with today's economic stress. The fictional caveman Igg could only be in one place at a time, but we've got quite a few Iggs and Oggs these days: and, I think, enough resources to pay attention to both immediate problems and those which are important, but not quite so urgent.

Good Practice

Catching an asteroid and nudging it into orbit around the moon won't help feed anyone. But it does seem like an excellent way to learn about moving asteroids. If something goes wrong, nobody lives on the moon: We might lose an historic site, like Tranquility Base: but that's far better hitting a city.

Or we could just sit on Earth, hoping and praying that the next major impact won't kill the folks we're helping.

Social Justice and Common Sense

Even if I hadn't grown up in the '60s, and kept some of the values I learned, I'd have to care about social justice. I'm a Catholic, so doing something for the common good is in the rules. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928-1942)

Social justice, Catholic style, isn't the sort of angst-riddled fussing about non-Europeans having 'too many' babies I'm all too familiar with. We're expected to be concerned about "respecting the transcendent dignity of man," and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1929)

The problem isn't that we lack food, or lebensraum, and I've been over this before:

Simple Rules

As I've said before, the basic rules are simple:
Here's why I think preventing the next asteroid impact and loving my neighbor are compatible ideas:

1. Wolcott, Connecticut, and a Meteorite

"Meteorite Crashes Through Roof In Wolcott"
Hilda Muñoz, Kelly Glista,The Hartford Courant (April 23, 2013)

"A baseball-sized rock that crashed through the roof of a house at 2 Williams Court on Friday night is a meteorite, according to an expert at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

"The rock has several characteristics that indicate where it came from, including a black exterior 'fusion crust' created as it traveled through Earth's atmosphere, said Stefan Nicolescu, collections manager for the mineralogy division at the museum in New Haven....
Even if their insurance doesn't cover meteorite impacts, my guess is that the folks living at 2 Williams Court will manage to get the roof fixed.

Nobody got hurt, happily, although it's a good thing that the rock didn't pack a bigger punch than it did.

Warning: Falling Rocks

"...This is the fifth meteorite that has been recovered after falling to earth in Connecticut, Nicolescu said - and the third that has crashed through the roof of someone's house.

"The Wolcott ... said he had heard a crash the night before, but assumed a joist or a rafter had broken. When he checked the attic in the morning, ... he discovered damage to the roof, to copper piping in the attic and to the kitchen ceiling, and found the rock itself in the attic.

"Officials initially thought the rock might be a piece of runway carried by a plane from Bradley International Airport and or Waterbury-Oxford Airport. Arrangements were made to have someone from the Federal Aviation Administration view it...."
(Hilda Muñoz, Kelly Glista,The Hartford Courant)
Connecticut is one of America's older states, so five known meteorite impacts isn't very impressive. On the other hand, Connecticut isn't a very big state. Rocks fall out of the sky all over the planet, most likely as often as they do over Connecticut.

The odds of any one person getting in the way of a meteorite are tiny. Until very recently, We only know of one person who was hit by a falling meteorite.

(Jay Leviton, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, via National Geographic, used w/o permission)
"The True Story of History's Only Known Meteorite Victim"
Justin Nobel, National Geographic News (February 20, 2013)

"Ann Hodges was hit by a meteorite in her Alabama home in 1954....

"...On a clear afternoon in Sylacauga, Alabama (see map), in late November 1954, Ann was napping on her couch, covered by quilts, when a softball-size hunk of black rock broke through the ceiling, bounced off a radio, and hit her in the thigh, leaving a pineapple-shaped bruise...."
There isn't any way to keep someone else from being hit by a meteorite: today.

2. Working With Asteroids

"Planetary Defense Conference to meet (no word from Justice League)" (April 15, 2013)

"It sounds straight out of comic-book fantasy, but a real-life group of concerned scientists - the Planetary Defense Conference - will gather this week at a desert compound with the goal of protecting humanity from one of the destructive forces of the universe: asteroid impact.

"The leaders of the B612 Foundation will meet for the week-long Planetary Defense Conference beginning Monday (in Flagstaff, Ariz., not the Fortress of Solitude) to debate what may be one of the biggest planetary threats civilization faces today...."
The bad news is that we don't know when or where the next big rock will hit. The good news is that we may have enough time to set up an effective 'planetary defense' net, and at least one national government seems to be taking the threat seriously.
"Forget falling stars: NASA plans to catch an asteroid"
Dana Ford, CNN (April 8, 2013)

"NASA is planning to catch an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon.


"What sounds like something from science fiction is actually a part of President Barack Obama's proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year, according to a Florida senator.

"The budget is expected to be unveiled this week...."

How Bad Could it Be?

"...A rogue meteorite that struck out of the brilliant blue morning skies over Russia in February illustrates the real risk that even tiny asteroids pose. That hunk of rock exploded with nearly 500 kilotons of energy over the Ural Mountains, creating a tremendous thunderclap that shook a nearby city, shattering windows and injuring over a thousand...."
Compared to nuclear weapons like 1961's 57 megaton Tsar Bomba, a 500 kiloton explosion may not seem like much. On the other hand, the relatively low-yield 16 kiloton Little Boy bomb did a remarkable amount of damage in Hiroshima.

(from, used w/o permission)

February's meteor explosion released about 30 times as much energy. Nobody was killed, and property damage was surprisingly light. That may be because it detonated far above the ground: probably more than 18 miles up.

Back in January, I described what might happen if a smallish asteroid hit New York City's Greenwich Village.

Briefly, Greenwich Village land value would drop to zero, several million people would die, and we'd have a two mile wide crater near the mouth of the Hudson River. I think it's prudent to avoid that sort of thing, if possible.

On average, that sort of impact happens every 65,000 years - on average. But as I pointed out in that post, that's a statistical average, not a schedule.

I think the odds are pretty good that a major city won't get obliterated by falling rocks next year: or even for the next century or so. But stuff happens, and since we know about this threat: I think it's a good idea to pay attention.

By the way, I don't think humanity would be doomed if an asteroid hit. It's beginning to look like it took three near-simultaneous major impacts and a colossal volcanic event to wipe out the dinosaurs. Even so, preventing the next near-extinction event would be nice.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.