Category Archives: Astronomy

Do You Think You’re Important?

(as my contribution to the Total Perspective Vortex, this is the transcript of my Apr 4th, 2011 10-min podcast for 365daysofastronomy.org, titled “A Copernican Gallop“)

Today we are going to have a Copernican Gallop. We are going to see how Astronomy has made us absolutely irrelevant. What have Astronomers done to us, in fact? Some say that Astronomy must be the important of all Sciences. Perhaps we wouldn’t even have Modern Science without Astronomy. But think also that…were it not for the extraordinary progress of 400 hundred years of astronomy, we would still believe to be the center of the cosmos…instead. we’re now sure we’re not. Not at all. Not by a long shot. And nothing we do is any special (physically speaking), and we actually are in a nondescript part of the Universe. Worse, the Universe itself might be just one of many.

Less than zilch, that’s what we are. And thanks to whom? Well, thanks to the..Astronomers!! None of the major philosophers and religious leaders in the history of humanity has remotely approached the ruthless efficiency with which the scholars of the cosmos have demonstrated again, and again and again what little piece of nothingness we actually are. Only to be replaced by another generation of astronomers, busying themselves in demonstrating that the previous notion of us being nothing, was actually a gross overstatement.

Who started this descent, or maybe you can call it ascent, an ascent to humility? Why, somebody called Niclas Koppernigk, known to us as Nicolaus Copernicus.

Imagine yourself then at his times. It’s around 1500, it’s the Renaissance, and Man is the center of everything. People are defining themselves as the middle point, like the Earth, the center between the perfection of Heaven and the imperfection of Hell. Everything is theirs for the taking, and now that the ancient philosophers of Greece are being rediscovered, it surely won’t take much before the whole world is understood. There comes Nicolaus, instead, no Santa Claus, him…he toppled Earth from the center, in his posthumous book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”. And if the center is not here, we’re not the center either. Bye bye Renaissance men!

Worse, Copernicus played like the first ever giant Angry Birds game. He managed to start an incredible chain reaction that might (or might not) have just ended. First stop in the chain reaction, of course, Galileo Galilei with his observations of Venus in the year 1610 demonstrating that planets orbit the Sun, not the Earth. Then Newton, extraordinarily linking in 1687 the force that pushes us down with the force that keeps planets and satellites in their orbit.

Can you imagine? By this time, the revolutionary idea was taking hold, that Earth and the heavens obey the same laws. Let’s continue: Herschel’s map of the Galaxy in 1785, with the Sun located not exactly at the center. Kirchhoff and Bunsen developing spectroscopy in 1859, thereby helping us understand what the stars are made of, the same stuff as the Sun: in other words, determining that the Sun is just another ordinary star, made of more or less the same elements as any other and with billions of almost identical twins out there.

Move now to Harlow Shapley working on Globular Clusters, clusters of stars that is, showing in 1921 how they are distributed around a point some 15kpc from us, the center of the Galaxy therefore being quite away from our Solar System. Even our modern value of 8kpc between us and the galactic center still means we’re somewhere at the periphery.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1755 and then the scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1845 already made the point that as the Sun is in no special place in the Galaxy, our Galaxy is itself just one of many. And that’s exactly what a guy called Edwin Hubble demonstrated, in 1924.

But wait…isn’t that the same Hubble that came up with the idea of an expanding universe? Is that not supporting a birth for everything in what we call the “Big Bang”? Doesn’t that make us special, as we’re only 13 billion years away from it, that is next to nothing compared to quadrillions of quadrillions of years until the last photon is emitted?

Not so fast. One of the most popular ideas in contemporary cosmology is in fact the existence of a multiverse, a collection of universes just like ours, a concept that elucidates several issues including why our universe exists at all. Some say the number of universes is in the region of 10 to the 500, a number that is totally alien from all our levels of comprehension. Obviously, even if a minute fraction of that number is the true value for a count of all existing universes, our own universe is just, simply, merely one of several many. End of the story?

No. This humility extravaganza doesn’t only work at giant scales. Consider the consequence of finding as many extrasolar planets as we’ve actually discovered as yet…our own doesn’t appear to be either the strangest, or the most interesting (more or less the only thing keeping Earth apart is the existence of liquid water on its surface:
but I would expect a dramatic announcement about that too, sometimes in the near future).

Everywhere we look, at all times we look, we’re one of many.

Let me speak for the rest – we live on just another planet orbiting just another star in just another orbit around just another galaxy weakly attracted to just another supercluster that is anywhere and nowhere really in one universe out of quadrillions of pentillions of them.

And this is the end of the Copernican Gallop. Or is it? An atom in the whole Jupiter is relatively more important than us in the whole of the Cosmos. To what level of nothingness will next generation of astronomers elevate us?

One final word…please. Don’t feel depressed. It doesn’t count, anyway. And this is just another podcast by Omnologos. Thank you for listening.

Our Past Is In The Sky

Far-fetched as it might seem (and be!), we might be literally surrounded by information about the Earth’s, Sun’s, Galaxy’s past. By looking in the right direction with the right instruments, we could even be able to see how things were at different times, even billions of years ago.

By looking where? This idea is based on a little-known characteristics of black holes, namely the large amount of incoming light that is back-scattered, i.e. sent back more or less in the direction it came from. This phenomenon is visible as a halo around the black hole (see picture to the left).

Think then: by looking at a black hole 20 million light years away, we will be getting some light first emitted by our galaxy 40 million years ago, as the photons will have had to travel to the black hole and back. Correcting for the optical properties of the region around the black hole that we see as a halo, we would even be able to get a picture of our galactic surroundings.

Analogously for black holes nearer to us, eg 20,000 light years away, the halo will literally contain pictures of our neighborhood as of 40,000 years ago.

All of the above is unlikely to be easy, still any information in the back-scattered photons will be extremely valuable.

Vote Your Favorite Planet

Added bonus of this PBS/Nova interactive website is the clarifying that Pluto is not the only “dwarf” planet…

A Wonderful Place To Die

It is called “Mars to Stay” and I hope it will involve a 85-year-yound Italian in 2052 going to Heaven but first stopping for around 30 years on the Red Planet. For the final resting place I select this:

Scalloped sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars
Scalloped sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars

(Legally) Bombing The Moon

Still not much out of the LCROSS team, victims of “HYPErspace” to say the least. Let’s entertain ourselves in the intervening time with a Forbes.com article “Bombing the Moon“. And for those in a hurry:

The LCROSS mission is an important and expensive scientific experiment. Nonetheless, comments on Web sites such as Scientific American and Nature indicate that quite a few people thought the whole venture to be some sort of outer-space vandalism. Some even wondered whether NASA might have acted illegally or violated an international law or treaty by setting out to “bomb the Moon.”

The answer is no. But while many might be surprised–dismayed, even–to hear that there is such a thing as “space law,” there are treaties governing activities in outer space, including the Moon.

First Law of Planetary Building

First Law of Planetary Building: no two planets will ever be alike.

Corollary #1: if two planets are almost identical, then at least one of them will have at least one outrageously peculiar feature.

Corollary #2: Universes made of perfectly identical planets are not allowed.

The First Law is manifest in the fact that each planet in the Solar System and elsewhere appears to be a unique, very specific experiment with peculiar conditions that are never repeated elsewhere. Even single satellites are all very different from one another. And if you want to top strangeness, how about Corot-7b with its clouds of minerals?

Mineral clouds
Mineral clouds

One objection could be raised about Venus and Earth, or Uranus and Neptune, as both couples look like made of identical twins. However, Venus’s hellish atmosphere and very slow, retrograde rotation are truly outrageously peculiar features; and Uranus basically lies to one side (hence corollary #1).

Corollary #2 is necessary otherwise the First Law is invalidated. It seems plausible, since the number of universes is large but not infinite.

The Tragedy Of The Anti-Space Travel Space Scientist

One can only feel sad upon reading Giovanni F Bignami’s op-ed piece about the race to the Moon and what choices to take for the future (“Once in a Blue Moon “, IHT, 18-19 July 2009). Prof Bignami’s argument appears to be about treating space-faring as a purely novelty product, like a fairly curious but ultimately useless item on a late-night TV shopping channel. Something you may be convinced to buy, but just the once.

And even if we have spent less than a week in total time exploring a few square miles of a place as big as the former Soviet Union, Prof Bignami tries to seriously argue that there is no “compelling reason” to go back to the Moon. And that we should embark on the enormous effort to reach Mars instead, presumably for a couple of trips before getting bored with travelling millions of kilometers too.

Here’s a “compelling reason” then: as it is well known, one needs a lot less fuel to travel to Mars from the Moon, than from Earth. Most of the launch cost lies in getting from our planet to low Earth orbit: beyond that, the whole planetary system is within relatively easy reach.

Prof Bignami remarks also that “the notion of mining on the moon would also [be] environmentally offensive“. I for one do not understand how will humans ever be able to “environmentally offend” a surface pummeled for billions of years by asteroids of all sizes, by a perfectly unhindered solar wind, and by cosmic radiations of all sorts. That is the Lunar surface, made of a type that likely covers several billion square kilometers on hundreds of natural satellites in our Solar System alone.

Paradoxically, the astronomical/astronautical community has been unable to support its own cause since the launch of the Sputnik. Nobody has gone anywhere because of effective lobbying by planetary geologists or solar scientists.

Bignami’s op-ed appears to be yet another example of how bizarrely brainy arguments about going to Mars vs returning to the Moon have succeeded so far only in keeping the human race in low Earth orbit, literally going around in circles instead of literally reaching for the stars.

The Large Hadron Collider Can Destroy Our World Indeed

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) currently awaiting to be turned on at CERN in Geneva will not destroy the Earth. But it can destroy our world: by detecting definitive evidence for so-called “dark matter”.

Current cosmology indicates that the total amount of “dark matter” may be five times the amount of “normal” matter. As reported by Freeman Dyson on the New York Review of Books, the LHC is expected to find that “dark matter” is composed of the “supersymmetrical” equivalents of ordinary matter.

If the above is confirmed, it may be the first step towards making the world we experience as vanishing and irrelevant as a ghost in the desert at midday.

For all we know, there is a wholly separate “universe”, a “material world” coexisting with everything we can touch and see, with a lot more mass than ours, and getting by without much interaction with our “material world”, apart from gravity perhaps.

Imagine a “dark matter telescope” showing a completely different sky. Like Nicole Kidman’s character in “The Others”, it will be the revelation that the ghosts, it’s us.

And Plato would be very proud of himself.

Is your SUV Destroying the Universe?

Is your SUV destroying the Universe?

Supernovae data from the 1950’s to 2007 show trends very worrying for the fate of the whole cosmos.

The Magnitude (brightness) of observed explosions, after hovering for several decades around the 20 mark, has recently dropped to 15 (i.e. towards brighter supernovae).

Furthermore, the number of observed supernovae has been increasing at an exponential rate, again after many decades below 50 per year, to 95 in 1996 and a little less than 600 in 2007.

The fact that this is happening exactly as anthropogenic greenhouse-gases emissions are on the increase, cannot be just a coincidence. If this will not convince Governments about the importance of stopping CO2 emissions, nothing will!

The Best Science Blog 2007 Saga (1 of 3)

Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy (BA) and Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit (CA) have been awarded the 2007 Weblogs Award for Best Science blog. Remarkably, they are both prisoners of their own devices: BA cannot criticize mainstream science, CA can only criticize mainstream science. They are both great blogs and their shared Award is a honest snapshot of their relative merits. PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, on the other hand…

The Best Science Blog 2007 Saga (1 of 3) – Introduction and The Bad Astronomy Blog
The Best Science Blog 2007 Saga (2 of 3) – The Climate Audit Blog and The Weblogs Award for Best Science Blog committee
The Best Science Blog 2007 Saga (3 of 3) – Pharyngula and Conclusions (and a Prayer)

Introduction
The 2007 Weblogs Award for Best Science blog has been jointly awarded to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy (BA) and Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit (CA) after a nail-biting finale that has seen the lead swing back and forth (amazingly, even after the poll had closed, demonstrating that the Internet is a province of Florida).

I cannot but be very pleased with the result, as I have been a regular subscriber to both BA and CA for years and months respectively (yes I am an astronomy and climate basket case).

Are Bad Astronomy and Climate Audit the best science blogs on the web? Surely not. This is the best blog about everything in the whole Universe, I am sure you’ll all agree.

The circumstances have made both Plait and McIntyre rise in this reader’s consideration, alongside of course the extremely smooth operators of the Weblogs Award. The only protagonist that has lost several hundreds points is PZ Myers, the author of the close-minded gratuitously-offensive flame-throwing Brighter-Than-Thou fundamentalist Pharyngula blog.

The Bad Astronomy Blog
BA is a great blog, especially if you like astronomy. It comes out of a great website (“Bad Astronomy” of course) that has been pointing out for years the scientific fallacies of public astronomical depictions, including in the media, and especially in the movies (silly sounds in the vacuum of space and all that). Of course there is also much to learn, mostly in the form of ever-more-spectacular astronomical pictures, but there are also extraordinarily good posts on the absurd attempts by certain astrologers, fear-mongerers and deluded “religious” people to scientifically demonstrate their craft or beliefs. (Plait gets all my envy when he talks about his friendship with James Randi and Penn Jillette).

The series on pareidolias is particularly humorous. In fact, pretty much everything on BA is great fun (including the sometimes harrowing love confessions for all sorts of pop-culture heroes).

Phil Plait (bless!) has even dedicated a blog entry to my discovery that National Geographic Magazine has “sexed up” at least one recent article. And of course he has written a “Bad Astronomy” book and is going to publish a new one “Death from the Skies!” soon.

The bit where the BA blog falls short is when Plait “the Bad Astronomer” talks climate change and/or launches in long tirades against the current White House inhabitant. The two things are obviously related. Plait sees himself fighting for “Science” against the Bush Administration’s admittedly rather clumsy attempts at getting only the “right” messages across, even in matters of science. When there is climate involved then, Plaits sides with the “scientists” (i.e. the mainstream) in opposition to the White House’s reluctance e.g. to follow the recommendations of the IPCC.

Alas, in the process Phil Plait forgets to apply to climatology the same healthily skeptical methodology he is so good at using with the various nutters usually so skilfully dealt with.

(continues…)

Ptolemy’s Revenge

2154 years after being written, and 464 years after being rendered obsolete by Copernicus, the Ptolemaic System is coming back with a vengeance, masquerading as Garrett Lisi’s Theory of Everything

The Elementary Coincidence of Watson and Holmes

Has anybody else noticed that Watson, the DNA structure discoverer, has “switched off the lights upstairs” just as Holmes, the comet, has brightened up almost a million times?

Venus Forecast

In a few years, the old ideas of Fred Singer will come back into fashion.

Venus’ retrograde rotation, incredibly massive atmosphere and relatively young (<500 million years) surface will be elegantly explained by the crash of a massive satellite half a billion years ago (with subsequent melting of much if not the whole crust, and humongous outgassing).

Current lead-melting surface temperatures will be just as beautifully explained by simple adiabatic processes.

The role of CO2 in the heating of the atmosphere via some “greenhouse effect” will be seriously reconsidered and almost completely dismissed.

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Some quick computations:

Ratio of available solar energy Venus/Earth: 190%

Earth, surface pressure: 1000 mbar; temperature: 288K
Venus, 50km altitude pressure: 1000 mbar; temperature: 330K
330K/288K = 114% < 190%

Venus, surface pressure: 90,000 mbar; temperature: 735K
Temperature of terrestrial air compressed from 288K/1,000mbar to 90,000mbar: 887K
735K/887K = 82.9% < 190%

Far from showing any CO2-induced global warming, Venus is much cooler than expected, likely because of the high-altitude clouds that prevent us from looking at the surface.

Pretty Awful Astronomy on Astronomy Magazine

Astronomy Magazine’s latest Collector’s Edition issue “50 Greatest Mysteries in the Universe” (ed: David J Eicher) is even more special than usual, unintentionally so given the width and breadth of its errors.

With mistakes ranging from excessive simplifications to incredible blunders, it is just too tempting to wonder about Mystery #51, namely “Does anybody do any proofreading at Astronomy Magazine?

Here’s a list of what I have spotted so far, starting from the biggest howlers:

Question 36: “Could a distant, dark body end life on Earth?”: (page 73):
“Among them are the Sun-like star Alpha Centauri”
Egregiously wrong. Alpha Centauri is not a single star. In this case, the text does not show the most elementary grasp of astronomical knowledge.

Question 31: “Does inflation theory govern the universe?”: (page 62):
Under caption titled “Minuscule Time”
“…compare 1 second to the 13.7-billion-year-age of the universe. Next, divide that 1 second into an equivalent number (13.7 billion) of parts…”
Egregiously wrong. The text mistakes “years” for “seconds”. This is quite worrying as it is trivial to understand that the correct “equivalent number of parts” is 31 million times larger: that is, 13.7 billion years times 365 days a year times 24 hours a day times 3600 seconds per hour.
The result is 4.32*1017, definitely not 13.7 billion.

Question 19: Can light escape from black holes?”: (page 41):
“1067 years, or more than one million times longer than the whole history of the universe to date”
Egregiously wrong. If the Universe has been around for 13.7 billion years, that’s 7.3*1056 times less than 1067. That number is 730 billion quadrillion quadrillion, not just “one million”.
Looks like whoever did the computations, misread 1056 into 106. Or worse.

Question 6 “How common are black holes?”: (page 18):
“Encountering a black hole of any type, your body […] would be pulled into a very long line of protons”
Wrong. If one were shielded against radiation, falling into a sufficiently large black hole would entail experiencing relatively weak gravity gradients.

Question 8 “Are we alone?”: (page 21):
“Viruses…’life’ – which for them amounts to cannibalizing cells”
Wrong. Only some viruses kill the host cells: many of them are more like non-lethal parasites (I am leaving aside the fact that cannibals eat their own species, and that’s not what viruses do).

Question 42: “What will happen to the Sun?”: (page 82):
“As the swollen Sun incinerates the solar system’s inner planets, its outer, icy worlds will melt and transform into oases of water…”
Mostly wrong. That is, true only under extraordinary conditions. Liquid water can exist only at pressures above Water’s Triple Point’s (661 Pa). And so it will only appear on those satellites and asteroids capable to maintain at least that much atmosphere.
How many will? Not many, perhaps just a handful or none at all.

Question 13 “Will asteroids threaten life on Earth?”: (page 30):
“The destructive power a rock carries to Earth is directly proportional to its size”
Oversimplistic. Roughly, the consequences of an asteroidal impact are directly proportional to its mass. But this leaves out other considerations, including the asteroid’s chemical make-up, density, shape, atmospheric entry angle, and more.

Question 6 “How common are black holes?”: (page 16):
“If you could throw a baseball at a velocity of 7miles per second, you could hurl it into space”
Oversimplistic. As the baseball would have to go through lots of air at first, the initial speed must be considerably larger, for a simple throw (even leave aside all considerations about heating by friction). This may look trivial, but considering the other errors in the magazine, one is left with the lingering doubt that the 7mi/s figure may have been not just a simplification.

Question 2 “How big is the universe?”: (page 10):
“…we live in a Universe that is at least 150 billion trillion miles across…”
Antiquated. The galaxies we observe as 10 billion light years away have obviously had 10 billion years to move away much further by now, and that is not all. By considering additional effects such as post-Big Bang inflation, and the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, the actual value for the size of the Universe may be in the region of 160 billion light years

And finally…
Question 2 “How big is the universe?”: (page 10)
“Other universes might exist beyond our ability to detect them. Science begs off this question…”
Question 3 “How did the Big Bang happen?”: (page 12):
The often-asked question ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ is outside the realm of science”
Antiquated. For a more up-to-date view, check http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4974134.stm and Science magazine

All in all: plus 50 points for the magazine’s idea, but minus several million for being so careless with the stuff they are supposed to know more about…

Drawback In The Sad “Dwarf Planet” Saga

Size does matter for NASA, ESA and the likes. That’s the drawback.

This summer, 49 years after being established, NASA will launch its first major space probe dedicated to the study of main-belt asteroids Ceres and Vesta.

In the meanwhile, in 46 years of interplanetary travels there have been only a couple of Russian attempts at studying Phobos, the satellite of Mars that is likely to be a captured asteroid.

And none at all about Deimos, the other satellite of Mars, despite the fact that it is the easiest and cheapest place to reach in the Solar System from the Low Earth Orbit (such as the Space Station’s). It’s easier and cheaper than the surface of our own Moon.

Can’t anybody else see a pattern emerging? Yes there have been peculiar missions like the one to asteroid Eros, but those are by far the exception.

Let’s face it: Big Space Agencies don’t like to bother with small components of the Solar System. It is not “cool” enough to say “Well guys and gals we are going to see a space rock smaller than Rhode Island” (despite the surprises those space rocks may be hiding for us to discover).

There is a mission en-route to Pluto now. It was cancelled before lift-off at least once, and I am sure it would have never been approved had Pluto been demoted to “dwarf planet” in that silly astronomical congress a few months back.

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And all of that, just to make sure schoolchildren could keep a mnemonic of 8 planets?

There are more than 9 stars and more than 9 galaxies…

The more time passes, the more unbelievable the whole thing is. Now Eris has been discovered to be larger than Pluto.

So what?

Anyway, I think 99.99% of people will agree that there is no way to scientifically define a planet. Here’s a definition for the “Average Joe and Jane” then:

A Planet is a round-ish object that orbits around a star and does not orbit around another round-ish object” (c) Maurizio Morabito 2007.

Who can get simpler than that?

And what would be soooooooooooooo wrong with it?

An Indirect Way For The Sun To Influence Earth’s Climate

The old idea that cosmic rays influence climate on Earth by increasing cloud cover is finally being proven

Exploding Stars Influence Climate Of Earth” (from Spacedaily)

[…] The data revealed that electrons released by cosmic rays act as catalysts, which significantly accelerate the formation of stable, ultra-small clusters of sulphuric acid and water molecules which are building blocks for the cloud condensation nuclei. A vast numbers of such microscopic droplets appeared, floating in the air in the reaction chamber […]

It is known that low-altitude clouds have an overall cooling effect on the Earth’s surface. Hence, variations in cloud cover caused by cosmic rays can change the surface temperature. The existence of such a cosmic connection to Earth’s climate might thus help to explain past and present variations in Earth’s climate. […]

What makes this all the more powerful, is that it could expand the role of the Sun in the shaping of Earth’s climate, as it can be used to link Solar magnetic activity (i.e. the number of sunspots) to the heating and cooling of our planet

Interestingly, during the 20th Century, the Sun’s magnetic field which shields Earth from cosmic rays more than doubled, thereby reducing the average influx of cosmic rays.

The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, may be a significant factor in the global warming Earth has undergone during the last century. However, until now, there has been no experimental evidence of how the causal mechanism linking cosmic rays and cloud formation may work […]

Likewise, when the solar magnetic field was weak during the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715), winters were definitely harsher

Asteroids and Global Warming

No, I am not going to suggest that Global Warming will cause huge meteors to fall from the sky (but I am sure somebody somewhere is just blogging about that…)

Here instead a letter I have just sent to The Economist on risk mitigation, global warming and asteroids:

Dear Editors

In “Dismal Calculations” (inside The Survey on Climate Change, Sep 7th 2006) you write that “Global warming poses a serious risk, and the costs of mitigation are not so large as to be politically unthinkable. Mitigation is better done gradually than swiftly, because the faster it is done, the more it will cost” but then conclude that “the economics of the subject are too uncertain for policymakers to lean heavily upon them

Well, there is at least one topic where there is a serious risk, a risk that is far more certain and whose economical consequences are well accepted in a consensus far larger than global warming’s. That topic is the destruction that will be caused by an asteroid 20 meters or larger hitting our planet 

One would expect people making the case for mitigating global warming because of its potentially serious consequences, to be even more active and more concerned about setting up a planetary defence system to protect us all from the killer space rocks that we know for sure are going to hurtle our way

Why talk only about mitigating global warming then? Is it because it gives its proponents a chance to enact their own dreams of social engineering?

How to run a successful political campaign

Recommendations For How to Run a Successful Political Campaign

As extracted from a lecture given at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 by UK parliamentarian Lembit Oepik:

The main gist appeared to be (a) get yourself prepared, (b) learn how to communicate, and most important of all (c) do not act like a True Believer, treating with disdain anybody not yet married to the cause

  • Be an expert
  • Describe a danger or issue that people understand
  • Do it with a smile
  • Don’t involve yourself in other issues
  • Keep in mind the ultimate goal: be ready for when the danger materializes
  • Clarify from the start your assumptions, the barriers on the path to success, and what organization you are going to need
  • Politically, the main goal is establishing a Task Force to get the Government to take ownership of the problem.
  • Facts and responsibilities must be clearly established. “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself
  • Prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand
  • Question yourself: why would a Government care?
  • Write to your MP asking for something to be done
  • Understand the letter will be passed to a “researcher”. Write it so as to help the researcher find the necessary information
  • For the Media, prepare a handful of established pictures and stick to those, so you won’t have to describe the basics of your problem again and again
  • Get ready for a long wait for “next big push”, when the campaign runs out of steam

——————

Lembit Oepik has been the LibDem MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales since 1997

Officially, his lecture at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 was on the cheerful topic of “We are all going to die

Self-styled profile provided at the lecture included age, Estonian parents escapees from Stalin, a birth in Northern Ireland (admittedly, not the wisest choice for emigrating a place to), a degree, a long-standing passion for Astronomy, and being a risk taker.

His grandfather was Ernst Julius Oepik, who did NEOs NEOs (Near Earth Objects, i.e. asteroids and comets flying close to our planet)work in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was particularly unfashionable.

Lembit Oepik wanted to get the UK government interested in NEOs.

He started by asking himself why would a Government care, so that they’d take seriously the threat of an asteroid smashing against our planet

Cynically, Governments won’t be interested in “extinction level events” wiping out most of humanity: if that were to be announced, all the Government would think of is that they will not lose next election.

It’s all different with relatively small impacts: a 300m-diameter asteroid could cause catastrophic effects on the economy or social cohesion, without killing billions of people. The Government would be left with the job of patching things up together again.

How to establish then a Campaign to defend ourselves against NEOs? Oepik and his team defined their Assumptions (date is early 1999)

1. A future impact is a certainty
2. It can definitely destroy civilization without wiping out humanity
3. We are taking care of lower risks already, incidents and disaster with far easier consequences
4. The threat from NEOs is not taken seriously
5. There is no sign of any Government working on this.

(Three interesting facts as an aside:
(i) If the Tunguska asteroid or comet of 1908 had hit a few hours later, say, just on top of Westminster Abbey (similar latitude), most of London would have been wiped out
(ii) A 15-km asteroid would be enough to kill up to 90% of humanity. That would leave alive a still sizable 600 millions of us)
(iii) Whatever solution we come up about the threat of NEOs, it may still not be enough. An asteroid zipping on the other side of the solar system that gets aimed at us as if straight from the Sun, would be invisible in the glare of the stellar light, and detected (if at all) when it’s way too late)

Then Oepik listed the Barriers:

1. Governments follow “fashion”
2. Governments think about elections, voters’ fears and anything that can hurt them
3. On a human timescale, hugely-disastrous NEO collisions against our planet are rare an event. If we would be living for 100,000 years, we would witness a couple of terrible impacts. We can only expect a Tunguska event every 100 years.
4. Space is not as fashionable nowadays as in 1969

The Campaign was then organized around:

a) Goal
b) Core Proposition
c) Timetable
d) Team
e) Political Strategy
f) Media Strategy

Goal: Create a NEO task force to investigate the threat and publish a Government report with recommendations for actions

Core proposition: Present the effort for tracking NEOs as an insurance policy (comes down to around 10€ per citizen). Computations were based on actuarial risks: insurance experts can calculate the short- and long-term costs of action and inaction, for countries and insurance companies. This is easy then to compare with impact devastation, and with other risks

Timetable: Relevant Ministerial Department contacted in March 99; Parliamentary debate in April 99; Task Force established in December 99; Report published in December 2000; Actions from 2001 onwards

(Actually, finding the right department has been a challenge in itself. Oepik run into a bit of luck as the long-standing Minister for DTI (Lord Sainsbury) was personally interested)

Political strategy: Make NEO threats a public talking point. Establish facts and responsibilities. And “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself

It is also important to prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand, making sure the Government spokesman on the floor is aware of what request is going to be submitted.

Media strategy: Elicit press interest. Scare tactics are Ok in this case as the upcoming disaster is a certainty. “Near misses” by NEOs must be publicized, along with the effects they would have had had they stricken our planet.

The aim is to balance the politicians’ neglect and the media’s sensationalism, sometimes destructive irony and sarcasm.

(Oepik saw himself described alternatively as the Savior, or the Destroyer of Planet Earth, when the asteroid sporting his grandfather’s name was mistakenly thought approaching our planet)

A handful of established pictures are very helpful, as after they are distributed through the popular press, they can easily be used in the future to recall the whole issue in the minds of the readers without having to explain the whole problem all over again.

(In another case of hard luck, a “miracle” happened in the midst of Oepik’s efforts, and 2 movies came out of Hollywood on the topic of NEO threats: “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”, the latter with Bruce Willis. It became much easier to get the media interested)

Situation now: The Task Force was established without much of a problem, and included topmost scientists. As a positive sign of strength, Oepik himself did not have to be a member of it.

After a year, the Task Force came out with 14 recommendations. Only one of them has been implemented: the Government has pushed for NEO threats to be considered as facts, with regular coverage by the media.

Oepik is now waiting for the opportunity for “next big push”, something to get the remaining 13 recommendations back on top of the Government’s priorities.

He is also asking everybody interested in the issue to write to their own MP asking for all recommendations to be implemented asap

The evening ended with a Q&A session. Oepik re-asserted his conviction that scare tactics are in this case justified, as chances of dying because of an asteroid impact are superior to those winning the UK lottery. He wasn’t clear however on how he planned to differentiate his campaign from others also using scare tactics.

Finally, Oepik strongly recommended not getting oneself embroiled in other, even similar campaigns, so as not to lose focus