Apocalyptic Visions - Science and Mysteries (Part 2)

Continuation of Page 1 - - - Most scientists believe that an asteroid or comet measuring 6 miles across killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but few people realize that wasn't the biggest impact to ever strike the Earth. In what is now South Africa, an asteroid slams into the Earth at around 33,000 miles per hour, blowing out a crater almost the size of Connecticut. 2 billion years later, the Vredefort Impact Crater remains to tell the tale. Luckily, that happened billions of years ago, but if one were to happen today, it would end all life on Earth.

Is there another large rock out there, hurtling through space with Armageddon written all over it? Probably. And if an asteroid doesn't get us, we might find ourselves in the crosshairs of a deep-space death beam.

The Christian vision of Armageddon foretells a worldwide apocalypse delivered in thunder, earthquakes, fire, and brimstone. And frighteningly, modern science thinks this kind of global cataclysm could actually be in Earth's future, delivered by a single event-- the impact of a near-earth asteroid. The discovery of near Earth asteroids is a major priority-- not only for scientists, but also for our government-- where we'd like to know how many are out there, how big they are, and how likely they are to impact Earth.

Spotting a threatening asteroid is one thing. Heading off asteroid Armageddon is another. Detecting an asteroid days or hours before it hits doesn't give us many choices for deflecting it. We need a long time scale. We need early detection. That's the key. If we can intercept the asteroid in time, we might be able to gently nudge it out of the way with rockets, or, as some suggest, sunbeams... and a well-aimed paintball.

Just as dark rooftops in the sun get hotter than light ones, changing an asteroid's color can change its temperature and its direction. By painting it either with white or silver paint or with a very dark black paint, that changes the degree to which light from the sun is either reflected or absorbed. That will ever so slightly change the trajectory of the asteroid. Whenever you reflect light or absorb light, that changes the motion of the object that's reflecting or absorbing the light.

With vigilance and technology, we might be able to avert Armageddon, at least for a while. But asteroids aren't the only threat that can destroy the planet without warning.

On April 27, 2013, scientists at observatories around the world are shocked when NASA's Swift satellite detects a monstrous dagger of deadly radiation hurtling through space near the speed of light. It's a gamma ray burst, a death beam for anything in its path, and this one was closer to the Earth than anyone had ever seen. All light, whether it's lamp light, infrared light, radio waves, or X-rays, are part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Gamma rays are a kind of high-energy light that's much, much stronger than X-rays. Gamma ray bursts are thought to release more energy than any other single events in the universe other than the Big Bang, the birth of the universe itself. They release gargantuan amounts of energy. It's interesting to speculate about what must be happening to any habitable planets that are in the neighborhood of such gamma ray bursts. They must be bathed in a huge amount of gamma radiation, which means that probably it would be somewhat cataclysmic for life neighboring such an event. So far, it appears the Earth has been mainly spared, or at least dodged the worst of it. We see gamma ray bursts at a rate of about one a day in the universe, and sometimes, they're so powerful, they even affect the Earth's atmosphere. They can be seen easily from billions of light years away, and if the jet is pointing toward Earth and the gamma ray burst is sufficiently nearby, then that can spell doom for much of life on Earth.

What could cause these megablasts? Gamma ray bursts are thought to be hyper-energetic explosions of extremely massive stars. When these massive, spinning stars suddenly collapse, their last gasp is a gamma ray burst. Gamma ray bursts get their enormous energy ultimately from gravity. A gravity well like this one can help us understand what's happening on the inside of massive stars when they die. The shape of this gravity well illustrates the strength of gravity around the central mass of a star. When material falls into a collapsing, massive star, it spirals around until it finally falls into the center, forming a black hole. As it does this, enormous jets of energy are released as a gamma ray burst. Where that gamma ray beam points is like a game of Russian roulette, and if the beam strikes Earth, it's game over. It might be the most agonizing Armageddon of them all.

The ancients have foreseen Armageddon in all its terrible guises-- by fire or water, by ice... or cataclysm. But gamma ray bursts defy even their vivid imaginations. The deep space death beam can strike the Earth without warning. - When a massive star explodes as a gamma ray burst, a lot of the energy gets channeled along the axis of rotation of that spinning star. Now, the axis can point in any random direction, but if it happens to point toward the Earth, then the energetic charged particles and the electromagnetic radiation blast into the Earth, causing potentially damaging effects. Driving in our cars, walking in the park, we probably wouldn't hear a thing when the gamma ray strikes our atmosphere and annihilates it. But once the Earth's protective ozone layer is gone, so are we, as death spreads slowly over the globe. The side of the Earth facing the gamma ray burst would have a radiation blast that could kill animals and plants, and over the long run, the loss or severe depletion of the ozone layer could let in a lot of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, leading to damaging effects and loss of life.

The more scientists search the skies, the more they locate hazards that could fulfill-- or surpass--ancient visions of Armageddon. From stars that explode... to objects like this-- rogue planets careening through space. We used to think that all planets circled stars, which kept them bound to a particular spot in the galaxy. It was reassuring, but wrong.

Scientists have recently started discovering rogue planets, wandering aimlessly through space, unleashed from any star's gravitational field. There are more out there than we ever imagined, hiding in plain sight. We know that there's a population of planets out there that exist without orbiting a parent star. Because there's no light from the parent star, and we can't use the parent star to indirectly detect these planets, that makes them very difficult to find. Maybe we need to look harder. As a rogue planet wanders into our solar system, its gravitational pull could disrupt the Earth's orbit, slowing it down, speeding it up, or changing its shape. That could affect the seasons and the climate, endangering life on Earth.

We now think that there could easily be as many rogue planets in our Milky Way Galaxy as there are stars, and perhaps many, many more rogue planets, ten or hundred or a thousand times as many rogue planets as there are stars. That's an ominous discovery that makes our galaxy a bit more crowded, and maybe a little more dangerous to our planet's survival. If there are way more rogue planets than there are stars in our galaxy, then the chances that they will come and gravitationally interact with our solar system are greater.

Fortunately for us, the galaxy is still very, very sparsely populated. Everything is very far apart, and so it's almost diminishingly small chances that you would have one of these dark planets entering our solar system. But in 2014, just on the edge of our solar system, the closest rogue planet was found to date. It's out there, 80 times further from the sun than we are, which isn't very far at all. That's the bad news. The good news, if you can think of it that way, is that another, much larger and more distant rogue planet is holding it safely in its gravitational grip. Knowing the apocalypse probably won't be tripped by a rogue planet is only slightly reassuring.

The ancients and modern scientists agree, there is no escape. Somehow, someday, the end is coming, and the final vision of Armageddon is the strangest of all. We've seen Armageddon rain down on us by Nordic ice and Buddhist fire, Aztec darkness, killer meteorites of Biblical proportions, and deep space death beams, but maybe there's hope. What if the end...isn't?

The biggest recycling project in the universe might be the universe itself, and according to Ancient Hindu philosophy, every Armageddon marks a new beginning. Hindu belief for the end of the world involves cycles. The end of the world was also the beginning of the world, which in due course would live out its life span, and it too would end and once more be reborn, in constant cycles.

Could this view of Armageddon really come to pass? Not if dark energy continues to expand the universe eternally, extinguishing it in a Big Chill. But the mysteries of dark energy leave open the possibility that instead of a Big Chill, there will be a Big Crunch, a universe that reverses course and collapses back in on itself. It's conceivable that the dark energy could change sign in the future. Right now, it's repulsive, but what if someday, it becomes gravitationally attractive? We don't know what dark energy is, so it's possible.

During the big crunch, the universe would collapse... and collapse... and collapse... Everything becomes so dense, so compressed, that we call this a singularity, a big crunch, a "gnab gib," which is "Big Bang" backwards. It's conceivable that there will be a rebirth, a new expansion, a new big bang, if you will.

Scientists call that the Big Bounce. It's very much like what happens if you take a ball and throw it up into the air. You give it that initial push, that would be like the Big Bang, it expands out, it goes up into the air, and then the gravity of the Earth eventually turns it round and brings it back down to your hand.

Toss it up again... and again... and that's the Big Bounce. That's what's called the cyclic model in cosmology. The universe is born, dies, and then is reborn again, and this process could go over and over. It's akin to Hindu mythology. If the universe does in fact crunch and bounce back, as the Ancient Hindus believed, then we might have been down this road many times before. Or maybe there isn't just one universe after all. - We now think that there may well be other universes popping into existence with their own big bangs and their own expansion and their own stars and perhaps even their own life, and that process can lead to a progression of universes that is never-ending. That's good news for universes, if not necessarily for us. If the Earth can dodge asteroid strikes and gamma ray bursts and rogue planet invasions, we can expect our sun to expand before burning out 5 billion years from now, incinerating the planet as the Buddhists envision. If dark energy can be trusted, the universe will continue to expand, freezing to death in the process, as the Norse predicted.

Or maybe another universe will spring to life from the corpse of the old one, as some Hindus suggest. Whether we look to the ancient lore of the Aztecs, the Norse, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Romans, or to modern science, the answer is the same-- We are doomed. Sooner or later, things fail. Sooner or later, people die. Sooner or later, the world ends.

- - - The End - - - 

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