Monday, June 30, 2008

Happy Tunguska Day!!!

Speaking of destroying the world, today is the 100th anniversary of the meteor/comet/Cylon basestar impact over Tunguska, Siberia.

Bad Astronomy has all the gory details:
100 years ago today, a small chunk of rock or possibly ice was lazily making its way across the inner solar system when a large, blue-green planet got in its way. Traveling roughly westward, it entered the Earth’s atmosphere moving at tens of thousands kilometers per hour. Compressed and battered by tremendous forces, the object got about 5 - 10 kilometers from the ground before it succumbed, exploding like a gigantic multi-megaton bomb.

The air blast flattened trees for hundreds of square kilometers. The ground shook, witnesses felt the hellish heat from kilometers away, and the shock wave circled the world. It happened over the remote Podkammenaya Tungus river, a swampy region in Russia; had it happened over Moscow a million people might have died within minutes.

Now known as the Tunguska Event, it stands today as a shocking reminder that we live in a cosmic shooting gallery, and the Earth sits in the crosshairs of many objects.
I'm not too worried about impacts from outer space objects. Hopefully we'd see it coming, and if there's anything we could do about it, we would (one hopes). My concern is what would happen if something like Tunguska happened today and it wasn't terribly destructive, because it would probably be followed shortly by someone's nuclear arsenal, and then there would be terrible destruction. Overreaction, I'm sayin'. Imagine, if you will, that today was the 50th anniversary of Tunguska, not the 100th. That would mean that, on June 30, 1958, a massive fireball of uncertain origin erupted over Siberia. We know now that the Soviets didn't have as much atomic annihilation capacity as was once feared (although it was and is pretty f--in' scary), but they also had a highly flawed decision-making structure. It would at least make for some interesting alternate history.

Beer and LEGO

The Beer Song, as performed by LEGO figures that look a little like a cross between hobbits and the Village People:

You never know where you might find useful info

A combination of being on vacation (at home), being bored, and enjoying learning led to me to random Wikipedia pages on European history. That, in turn, led me to an interesting series of maps of Europe (yes, I'm a nerd; and no, you cannot give me a wedgie). What makes this notable is that, in addition to obviously-educationally-relevant maps showing language and religion and such, they also present these nuggets of wisdom: Legal status of cannabis in Europe, and Ages of sexual consent in Europe. I tried hotlinking the maps, but to no avail (the page won't even let you right-click). More to the point, alongside maps showing population density and the like, you have a map showing where it's legal to get baked and/or find a woman to go with your whiskey.

I think I saw all of this on a t-shirt once.

Point is, if anyone ever tells you they're going to Europe based on information they got from a map on Eupedia, you might seriously consider punching that person in the groin very, very hard.

It's boycottin' time!!! Or not...Support local business!!!

An Austin musician has called for a boycott of local watering hole/substitute office space Austin Java, over something to do with trees and high-rise condos.

I only have two thoughts on this:
1. Austin has lots of trees. High-rise condos, by their basic nature, do not.
2. Doesn't Austin have enough high-rise condos already? Who the hell is buying these places?

I should note that, as I write this, I am sitting at Austin Java. They have hella-good cheesecake. Everyone should eat here. But don't hang out her too much--it's hard enough to get a table near a plug for my laptop as it is.

The end is nigh...???

Two new polls ask the internetting public to evaluate whether the soon-to-go-online Large Hadron Collider is worth the risk of global annihilation that it poses. Actually, as PZ Myers points out, the polls ask the following: "Is the gaint[sic] particle smasher worth the risk?" and "Which do you think is more likely to destroy the world? Human actions or natural disaster?"

I'm hardly any expert on the LHC, but I have watched a lot of SciFi Saturday movies, so I feel that I am more qualified to bloviate on this issue than your average tenured nuclear physicist. And this thing is BIG. Which means it must be powerful in ways we simply cannot understand.
The most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.

But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists' wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth? Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN - some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

"Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on," said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider's huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

"If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here," he said.

The collider basically consists of a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference attached to huge barrel-shaped detectors. The ring, which straddles the French and Swiss border, is buried 330 feet underground.
Damn Swiss. My biggest fear? Those pesky "particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump." They really do exist, even if Big Science won't admit the genius of my research. I call them torchyons in honor of the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four, who once rescued me from falling through broken ice.

But enough about that. What does it mean, really, to "destroy the world"? Does the whole not-quite-spherical thing have to blow up, as shown by the classic and infallible astrophysics documentary Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope? Is it enough for all sentient life to be eradicated? All life period? What about pikas? They're cute, so I'd rather keep them around. If the LHC has any chance of killing pikas, let's preemptively bomb Switzerland. Anyway, here's a handy guide to destroying the earth (h/t MrQhuest, whoever you are). I have my doubts that it can be accomplished solely through subatomic particles (unless they come from subspace and are enhanced with trilithium, of course.)

I recall a book by David Brin called Earth (it must have been nonfiction, of course) about a black hole being mistakenly unleashed from a lab in New Zealand (damn Kiwis), and there was also something about nuking Switzerland--gosh, it's like reading a newspaper. It was a pretty good book.

I think I've gotten it all out of my system. I shall now invoke a corollary of Poe's Law and reassure my reader(s) that I am generally being sarcastic. I think critics of the LHC are just jealous that they don't have one as big (damn Swiss).

Still, I'd look out for any rogue gaint particles after August.

And even if the earth is destroyed, it will always exist as long as we remember it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The chances of '70s disco coming from Mars...

Bad Astronomy Blog has a reminder of the awesomeness that is The War of the Worlds. The very first commenter to his post referenced the 1978 concept album, and another showed us where to find an addictive montage of '70s cheese and fake UFO pics:

The chances of anything coming from Mars - The best video clips are right here

You have to wait until about 6 minutes into the video to get to the hook: Once Richard Burton gets a break from narrating, Ogilvy the Astronomer gets a tenor solo (courtesy of Justin Hayward) about his opinion of the chances of life on Mars. My dad own(s)(ed) this opus on vinyl LP, and I recall many a weekend marveling at the artwork and not realizing how cheesy it all was. (True confession: I bought the CD's on sale at Waterloo in 2002.) I dare you to listen to the whole thing, though. It's catchy.