Communion Of Dreams


It’s a matter of perspective.

Phil Plait has another in a long series of articles about a space rock that isn’t going to hit Earth. Seriously:

This is Part N of what is apparently an infinite series of “No, Asteroid XXX Is Not Going to Hit the Earth” posts.

I’m sure he’s right. I have no doubt that he’s right. The latest rock in question isn’t going to get any closer than about 5 million kilometers. Which, as Plait notes: “That’s a pretty wide margin, well over 10 times the distance to the Moon.”

But I think that the problem with this kind of thing is that most people just have no clue how great that distance actually is. Seriously. I remember reading that a series of studies were done where if you asked people what they thought of the relationship between the Earth and the Moon was in terms of distance, where the Earth was represented by a basketball and the Moon by a softball, they’d typically say that the distance between the two was about a foot. Some would say a yard. As in, 3 feet. Maybe they’d say a meter if they were feeling sciency.

Whereas the proportional distance would be more like 24′ in actuality. (Based on just memory, I originally said 18′. A friend who actually knows this stuff gave me the correct number – thanks, Brent!)

Space is big. Most people have no damned clue how big. So when you say that some fast-moving rock will pass by the Earth by as much as 10x the distance of the Earth to the Moon, they’ll get scared, thinking that it is going to be a hell of a lot closer than it actually is.

It’s all a matter of perspective, not science. Like most things.

Jim Downey

Edited to add: My friend Brent, who set me straight on the actual proportion above, added a comment on FB to note that if you have the distance of the Sun-Earth (one AU) set to one inch, then a full light-year would be right about a mile total distance. Which would put our nearest neighboring star at about 4.5 miles distance.

Yeah, space is BIG.



Thinking about the unthinkable.*

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s long been one of my favorite movies, even as a kid. Yeah, I was a strange kid. Don’t act like you’re surprised.

Anyway, Eric Schlosser has a good article in The New Yorker reflecting on how the movie, originally considered a farce, was actually frighteningly accurate. From the article:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

 

“Detecting nuclear detonations” … hmm, where have I heard that phrase recently? Oh, yeah:

A Sound of Cosmic Thunder: Earth-Impacting Asteroid Heard by Nuke Detectors

On the second day of 2014, a small asteroid blew up high in Earth’s atmosphere. It was relatively harmless—the rock was only a couple of meters across, far too small to hit the ground or do any real damage—and it disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean anyway.

What’s cool is that now we know for sure this is the case: Infrasound detectors designed to listen for nuclear bomb detonations actually heard the explosion from the impact and were able to pinpoint the location of the event to a few hundred kilometers east off the coast of Venezuela.

NASA put together a nice informative video explaining it:

 

Gee, it sure is a good thing nothing like that has ever hit the territory of the old USSR … er, oops.

And now that I’ve given you a nice dose of fright, let me make it up to you with a reminder that you can download Communion of Dreams (which has it all … game theory, nuclear exchanges, and more than a little of my old strangeness) for free today and tomorrow!

 

Jim Downey

*The title of one of Herman Kahn‘s books about nuclear war/deterrence, and where I think I was first exposed to the concepts behind game theory.  I’ve got Schlosser’s book Command and Control on my to-read list when the Kindle price comes down a bit.