SMOKE: Strange Universe
Originally published: 8 October 2003
Asterix, Obelix and Friends fear nothing in the world - other than the sky falling on their heads.
I've been curious for some time as to how the Gauls could have so much courage and yet be scared of the one thing that is never going to happen - the sky falling on your head. I think I may have discovered the root of their fear.
Trolling through the BBC website I came across an article about some dude in New Orleans who arrived home the other day to discover a meteorite had passed through his house - neat as you please - leaving only a basketball-size hole in the tiles on his roof.
Initially he thought it was waste dumped from an aeroplane, but closer inspection of the crawl space beneath his house revealed fragments of rock.
A police officer on the scene declared it to be a meteorite and a sample of the rock pieces was taken to Tulane University to be tested. The fellers there said the rock was made up of rhyolite - a rock found in the deserts of Mexico and Texas.
They suggested that the rock had been hurled out of an aeroplane, or had somehow dislodged from one, but further analysis indicated that the rock was consistent with a meteorite profile.
Further speculation suggested that it probably came from an asteroid, but the whole thing is still being investigated.
Apparently your chances of being hit by a meteorite are measured in the billions to one, but when you consider that the Earth has billions of people on it, I would guess that folks are being killed left, right and centre by pieces of space rock. Apparently there are ancient Chinese records of people being killed by meteorite, but none in modern times.
According to the Cosmochemistry group of the University of Arkansas, a woman in Alabama was severely bruised by a meteorite in 1954 and a boy in Uganda was struck by one on the head in 1992 in a banana plantation, but didn't suffer major injuries as the speed of the meteorite was drastically reduced by the leaves of the banana trees.
Other than those instances, no other human has reported injury or death by space rock in modern times, and the only victim so far is a dog (unproved) who was killed by the Nakhla meteorite which fell in Egypt in 1911, breaking into 40 fragments.
So by and large you would have to assume that you're fairly safe from projectiles from the heavens. Or are you?
Last year I wrote a story for another website about a phenomenon called strangelets - sub-atomic particles which fly through space at incredible speeds, with a density of ten trillion times that of lead.
Their existence was theorised decades ago but as yet they have never been proved, although scientists seem to be in agreement that they do exist.
Naturally they make a pretty dangerous weapon - researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Texas undertook a seismology experiment last year in order to find out if there were any records of disturbances that could have been caused to the Earth by strangelets hitting it, and they turned up two very suspicious instances - both in 1993.
The first event happened on 22 October in that year - severe seismological disturbances were reported in both Bolivia and Turkey on that day, and the disturbances to the Earth were the equivalent of thousands of tons of TNT.
26 seconds later the seismographs went berserk off the coast of Sri Lanka, signifying that whatever had hit the Earth had travelled through it at speeds in excess of 900,000 kilometres per hour - drilling right though it like it didn't exist. Hardly slowed at all.
Similar activity was reported from the Pitcairn Islands on 24 November, and 19 seconds later a major disturbance happened in Antarctica, indicating that something had penetrated the Earth, travelled through it while hardly slowing at all, and exited again on the other side to continue its merry way.
Strangelets have been blamed, and are only the size of a pollen grain.
The scientists who did the study concluded that the evidence was consistent with the sort of impact that would be experienced by a strangelet hitting the Earth - a point of view they presented to the Seismological Society of America.
If we accept the Big Bang theory then it makes sense that bits and pieces are still flying around - the universe is still expanding and strangelets are thought to have been created by the Big Bang, as well as inside very dense stars.
With the massive explosions created by new stars, sub-atomic particles are being sprayed all over the universe, which means of course that the Earth is always a potential target.
I don't know if you've ever heard the popular theory that if you drop a 2c coin from a high building and it hits someone on the head with the thin edge, it will pass right through them?
I've never had the inclination to try and prove otherwise, but if it's true - and a coin can split you in two - try and imagine what a strangelet would do to you.
It's just weird to think that such incomprehensible phenomena exist in our universe and that we understand or can prove so little of it.
Look at how our scientific discoveries in the last century moved technology forward - the aviation industry combining with the rocket industry combining with the racing car industry combining with the microprocessor inventions.
Imagine how far we will go with everyday cool stuff if scientists were able to unravel and conquer such complexities as black holes, the speed of light and any number of the billions of possibilities that exist in sub-atomic worlds.
I'm still waiting for my light sabre, my hoverboard, my virtual reality and my time machine, and the only way to get this stuff - and I believe most of it is possible - is to push back the boundaries of our universe and unravel the laws of physics that bind it all together, which will give our technology all manner of options which were not previously possible.
Leap ahead 5000 years. Leap ahead 10-million years. If humans are still around (highly unlikely, but possible in some evolved form), they're going to have some pretty awesome gadget shit.
In the meantime the more paranoid amongst us can make like Vitalstatistix and get a shield to protect us from the sky falling on our heads.
Or take our chances with strangelets.
All Smoked Out,