CCNet 35/2002 - 15 March 2002

"Here we meet the problem of communicating science and
distinguishing it from nonsense. As science cannot prove a negative,
they could not say "it won't happen"; so they said "it is exceedingly
unlikely". In the UK, someone summarised the report as saying "the chance is
like me winning the lottery twice in succession". The trouble is that the
vast numbers who buy lottery tickets regularly have such poor feeling
for chance that they might regard two successive wins as decent odds."
--Frank Close, The Guardian, 14 March 2002


The Financial Times, 13 March 2002

The Guardian, 14 February 2002

CNN, 11 March 2002

Sky & Telescope, 14 March 2002

BBC News Online, 14 March 2002

Michael Paine < >

Hermann Burchard < >


>From, 14 March 2002

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer

NASA announced this week a new Web-based asteroid monitoring system, called
Sentry, to monitor and assess the threat of space rocks that have been
discovered have a chance of hitting Earth.

The setup is designed to help scientists better communicate with each other
about the discoveries of new, potentially threatening asteroids and the
follow-up observations that typically show those asteroids to be, in fact,
no threat.

While no large asteroid is currently known to be on a collision course with
our planet, experts say an eventual impact is inevitable and the
consequences could be grave, up to and including global devastation that
might destroy civilization as we know it. The odds of such an impact in any
given decade are extremely low, and most experts agree that there would
likely be at least 10 years of warning if such an object were ever spotted.

Smaller asteroids, however, are more likely to hit Earth in any given year
and could cause significant local or regional damage. The odds are low in
any given year. But over the course of a generation, the chances of such an
event become significant.

The odds of a locally or regionally destructive asteroid hitting an
inhabited area in a given 50-year period are about 1-in-160, according to

False alarms

In recent years, asteroid experts around the globe have struggled to develop
a system to catalogue and track newly spotted Near Earth Asteroids -- those
that are close enough to Earth's orbit to warrant scrutiny -- and to
properly communicate any possible threats to the public.

However, asteroids move so slowly against the background of stars that when
one is first discovered, astronomers cannot pin down its exact path.
Therefore, a wide range of possibilities are generated for the rock's
possible orbit around the Sun, and often Earth becomes a possible target in
those projected paths.

A handful of false alarms, in which scientists said there was a remote
threat that a particular asteroid would hit Earth in a certain year, have
made headlines and frightened the public. The first and most notable was an
asteroid called 1997 XF11, which briefly loomed as a frightening nemesis
until four years ago this week, when new observations revealed it would miss
the planet.

A similar but less publicized "threat" emerged last August with an asteroid
called 2001 PM10. Data on the rock was available on a public website and was
hyped by uninformed web users before the fresh observations removed the

Since the 1997 XF11 situation, researchers have argued, sometimes
vehemently, over how to better manage their data and make more informative
public announcements.

The Sentry system

The new Sentry system, developed over the past two years, is partly a
response to this perceived need. It is operated out of NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. The system's online "Risks Page" included 37 asteroids as of
Thursday morning.

"Objects normally appear on the Risks Page because their orbits can bring
them close to the Earth's orbit and the limited number of available
observations do not yet allow their trajectories to be well-enough defined,"
said JPL's Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program
Office, which oversees Sentry.

"By far the most likely outcome is that the object will eventually be
removed as new observations become available, the object's orbit is
improved, and its future motion is more tightly constrained," Yeomans said
in a statement.

He added that several asteroids will be added to the list each month, only
to be removed to another "no-risk" page soon afterward.

Sentry follows other attempts to deal with the publication of asteroid risk
data. A color-coded disaster yardstick called the Torino Scale, developed in
1999 and designed in part to inform the media and the public, has gone
largely unused. On the Torino Scale, a zero or one represent remote risk,
and a 10 means it's time to sell the farm.

All but one of the asteroids currently on the Sentry list are zeros on the
Torino Scale. Topping the list, though, is a space rock named 2002 CU11,
discovered Feb. 7. It presently has a 1-in-100,000 chance of hitting Earth
on Aug. 31, 2049. But as its orbit is refined, it is quite possible that
this asteroid, like many before it, will be categorized harmless.

Big improvement

The Sentry system is similar to another online database, called NEODys,
developed in recent years by asteroid experts in Italy. Researchers from the
two systems are cooperating to cross check results in an effort to make both
systems more effective, Yeomans said.

Sentry is "another big improvement" in the routine monitoring of asteroids,
said Benny Peiser, who runs CCNet, a scholarly electronic newsletter that
covers the threat of rocks from space.

Asteroid detections have rapidly increased in recent months, in part because
NASA has a congressionally mandated goal to find 90 percent of all Near
Earth Objects larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) by 2008. About 500 of the
these asteroids have been found, and an estimated 500 or so remain

Sentry draws data each day from the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, where most data about asteroids is processed. Sentry was
developed largely by Steve Chesley and Alan Chamberlin, with technical help
from Paul Chodas.

The list of Sentry asteroids is available at

Copyright 2002,


>From The Financial Times, 13 March 2002

By Tony Major in Frankfurt

Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurer, on Wednesday urged insurers "to
think the unthinkable" and examine seriously the threat of a meteorite
impact on the earth.

In a warning reminiscent of a Hollywood science fiction blockbuster, the
Munich-based group said a meteorite impact near a densely populated area
could cause losses "of previously unknown dimensions".

It said insurers had to "rethink future loss potential" following the
September 11 terrorist attacks and study the possible effects of
"bombardment from space".

British scientists concluded in a study two years ago that meteorite strikes
could cause an explosion millions of times more powerful than an atomic

Munich Re said insurers were underestimating the risks of such a catastrophe
which it admitted were still highly improbable.

But the terrorist attacks had created "a new dimension to risk" that the
world's insurance industry had yet to fully appreciate, said officials. "As
reinsurers we look at risks insurers have not yet realised," said Florian
Wost, a member of the company's geo-science research group. "But insurers
will have to react in future."

In its natural catastrophe report for 2001, Munich Re says insurers will
have to consider the "potential for maximum losses" even if their
probability is low.

It argues that meteorite impacts, of which about 100 were documented last
century, are capable of causing massive damage. Insurers "would be liable to
cover the destructive results, such as explosions and fires", says Munich

One of the best known events involved a 50 metre "projectile" which came
down over Siberia in 1908.

"It exploded a few kilometres above the ground ... flattening 2,200 sq km of
forest, equal to the size of Mexico City," says the report.

Munich Re concerns have been heightened by the losses it suffered as a
result of the September attacks which revealed "a previously unimaginable
risk potential". Its estimated losses of E2.1bn are the biggest in its

Copyright 2002, The Financial Times


>From The Guardian, 14 February 2002,3605,666783,00.html

When worlds collide: Scientists cannot definitively rule out adverse
consequences of experiments, says Frank Close

All the rivers, lakes and oceans froze with a "great vvarroomph", when Kurt
Vonnegut's mad scientist dropped some molecules of "ice-nine" into a stream.
Ice-nine was a (hypothetical) form of water, more stable than the ordinary
form, which froze at room temperature. In the story, Cat's Cradle, ordinary
water is metastable and changes into the stable form - ice-nine - when it
encounters minute traces of it.

Put ice-nine in a whisky and soda and you have instant scotch on the rocks;
but don't drink it or the water in your body will instantly freeze.
Thankfully, that is science fiction, but it is getting harder to be sure
when one reads reports that scientists are concerned they might
inadvertently create a "killer plasma ready to devour the Earth".

The story centres on experiments planned at two laboratories involving high
energy accelerators of heavy ions. One, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
(RHIC), has just started in the United States, while a more powerful version
is being built in Geneva - the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). According to
some reports, scientists have warned that if these experiments "go wrong"
they could produce a new form of particle, which the media has named the
"killer strangelet".

Strangelets are atomic nuclei similar to those that make matter as we know
it, but contaminated by "strange particles" such as those found naturally in
cosmic rays. Whereas strange particles normally live for a shorter time than
it takes to blink an eye, it is possible that in nuclei they might
stabilise. The intriguing possibility is that under certain conditions, the
strangelets might turn out to be more stable than the stuff we're made of.

Were strangelets to come into contact with ordinary matter, they might act
like ice-nine, gobbling up the nuclei of ordinary matter until they became
so heavy that they sank to the centre of the Earth. Then they would eat up
the Earth from the inside, "converting it into one giant strangelet and
killing us all in the process". Could this happen?

On both continents, committees of scientists were convened to look into this
and the more general question: what risks are there when entering unknown
territory with high energy particle accelerators? Our experience has given
us a picture of how the universe works, and based on the best evidence we
proceed to plan the next steps. Although RHIC and the LHC will be entering
new territory in our experience, it is not a first in the history of the
universe. Scientists will be recreating conditions that existed long ago,
within a split second of the Big Bang.

The universe has been there, and survived for 15 billion years. Even today,
some particles in cosmic rays attain energies far in excess of anything we
can imagine reproducing here. If such conditions could lead to subatomic
ice-nine, they would most probably have done so already. All the evidence is
that they have not. The scientists produced a compelling report. Here we
meet the problem of communicating science and distinguishing it from
nonsense. As science cannot prove a negative, they could not say "it won't
happen"; so they said "it is exceedingly unlikely".

In the UK, someone summarised the report as saying "the chance is like me
winning the lottery twice in succession". The trouble is that the vast
numbers who buy lottery tickets regularly have such poor feeling for chance
that they might regard two successive wins as decent odds.

Contrast this with the chance of being hit by an asteroid - tiny, but
someday it will happen - or with destroying our ecology, which is happening.
But as for killer strangelets or destabilising the universe in some way,
would any committee chairman have risked using language the public
understands and said: "It won't happen?" After all, if it is wrong, no one
would ever know!

Copyright 2002, The Guardian

MODERATOR'S NOTE: The media hype surrounding particle accelerators is
described in a review paper together with various doomsday scenarios that
are essentially ruled as unlikely; see DISASTER CAUSED BY HEAVY ION


>From CNN, 11 March 2002

By Richard Stenger, CNN

(CNN) -- Piecing together clues from astronomy, paleontology and geology,
scientists have proposed that an ancient supernova may have damaged the
protective ozone layer around the Earth and wreaked havoc on terrestrial

The researchers theorize that a group of young stars prone to short,
cataclysmic lives passed relatively near our solar system several million
years ago.

"Nobody had realized that this cluster of stars ... could have been so close
to Earth during the (time)," says astronomer Narciso Benitiez.

Along with his partner Jesus Maiz-Appellanis, Benitez dug around in the
geologic record for evidence that one of the rogue stars detonated with the
Earth in the blast zone.

"When I did a search, one of the first things that popped out was a 1999
finding," Benitiez says. A team of German astronomers had found an unusual
variety of iron in samples drilled from the Earth's crust below the ocean

The Germans hypothesized that the iron isotope originated from a supernova,
but knew of no suspect stars in our celestial neighborhood when the strange
metal was thought to have dusted the planet, Benitez says.

But Maiz-Appellanis and Benitez did some detective work and came up with the
likely culprit -- a volatile star pack known as the Scorpius-Centaurus OB
Association, which passed relatively near the solar system several million
years ago.

The Scorpius-Centaurus horde

A crucial break in the detective case came from a fortuitous source,
Benitez's wife, microbiologist Matilde Canelles, whom Benitez enlisted to
search the fossil record for clues.

Canelles found strong evidence that a catastrophe killed off a large
population of marine organisms about two million years ago.

Her husband calculated that the Scorpius-Centaurus horde so was close to the
Earth at the time, that if one of them had gone supernova, the powerful
energy blast could have stripped away much of the ozone layer, which
protects terrestrial life from harmful solar ultraviolet rays.

"This would have produced a significant reduction in phytoplankton abundance
and biomass, with devastating effects on other marine populations, such as
bivalves," Benitez says.

The scientists acknowledge that more study is necessary to confirm their
theory. But if it proves correct, there's little to worry about from

The next member of the gang expected to go supernova is Antares, which at
roughly 500 light-years away is too distant to rattle our planet, they say.

Copyright 2002, CNN


>From Sky & Telescope, 14 March 2002

By David L. Chandler

March 14, 2002 | Ever since it was trumpeted at a hastily convened press
conference in August 1996, the subject of possible signs of life in the
Martian meteorite ALH 84001 has remained intensely controversial. At the
time, David S. McKay (NASA/Johnson Space Center) and his coauthors presented
four lines of evidence suggesting that the 4-billion-year-old meteorite
contains chemical or fossil traces of microbial life. In the years since,
however, these signs have been disputed by other researchers, who ascribe
them either to terrestrial contamination or to nonbiological processes on
ancient Mars.

To many, the strongest remaining evidence for Martian microbes is the
presence of tiny, uniform, chemically pure crystals of magnetite embedded in
globules of carbonate - crystals that look remarkably similar to those
produced by certain strains of terrestrial bacteria. Kathie L. Thomas-Keprta
(Lockheed Space Systems) and her colleagues have continued to study the
crystals and strengthen their argument that the tiny grains exhibit a suite
of five characteristics found in biogenic crystals and never seen in
magnetite produced by chemical and geophysical processes.

Not anymore, say two teams who will report tomorrow that they have
independently synthesized magnetite crystals in the laboratory showing most
of these same characteristics. The presentations will be made at the 33rd
Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas. One group, led by
Dadigamuwa C. Golden (Hernandez Engineering) and Douglas W. Ming
(NASA/Johnson), had previously produced perfectly formed, chemically pure
magnetite crystals, thus matching two of the distinctive features of those
in ALH 84001. Now, having completed 3-D examination of their fabricated
crystals, Golden and Ming say these also share the distinctive shapes
(termed truncated hexaoctahedrals).

Using a similar method, Andrea M. Koziol (University of Dayton, Ohio) and
Adrian J. Brearley (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque) have also
produced crystals that match the same nearly uniform size and purity of
those found in the meteorite. But they have not yet been able to study the
3-D shapes, a difficult process. Still, Koziol notes, the fact that both
teams were able to subject carbonate globules to a high-temperature pulse -
470° C. for 5 minutes - without altering them and without introducing other
metals into the magnetite contradicts a key claim made by Thomas-Keprta. "It
doesn't disprove" her overall claims, Koziol says, "but it does show a
pretty nice alternative."

Allan H. Treiman (Lunar and Planetary Institute), who has grown very
skeptical of the McKay group's claims, believes the new work will mark a
turning point in the debate over ALH 84001. Of the original lines of
evidence, he said, "The only one really standing at this point is the
magnetite crystals. This will pretty much be the death knell."

Still, the fossil proponents are far from throwing in the towel. An
assessment led by Joseph L. Kirschvink (Caltech) concludes that up to half
of the meteorite's magnetite grains are indeed truly biogenic. Thomas-Keprta
will also be reporting new results Friday. Everett K. Gibson (NASA/Johnson),
a member of the original McKay team, says that the other groups subjected
their samples to conditions that ALH 84001 could never have experienced,
which undermines the relevance of their results. But Thomas-Keprta "is going
to present some data Friday that's going to knock the socks off some
people," he said. "I think the argument stands stronger now than when we
looked at it in '96."

Copyright 2002 Sky Publishing Corp.


>From BBC News Online, 14 March 2002

John C Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and former professor at Cambridge
University, has won the 2002 Templeton Prize for progress in religion.

A one-time fellow of the Royal Society, John Polkinghorne specialised in
work on sub-atomic particles before entering the priesthood.

He said he wanted to take science and religion with great and equal
seriousness, seeing them as complementary to each other and not as rivals.

The prize is the world's most lucrative annual prize for an individual,
earning the winner £700,000 ($1m).

Sub-atomic particles

Author of many books, Dr Polkinghorne has made his name applying the same
rigorous scientific disciplines that he mastered as a mathematical physicist
to the study of theology.

Many of these attempt to marry theology with science.

For instance he argues that evolution is not opposed to believing in God,
but is a perfect fit with the concept of a God-given gift of creation that
continues to be and to make itself.

He resigned as professor of Mathematical Physics in 1979, after creating
mathematical models that predict the movement of sub-atomic particles. These
calculations helped reveal the structure of matter.

He then entered the priesthood, becoming a parish priest before returning to
Cambridge where he was president of Queens' College for three years.

In 1997 he was knighted for distinguished service to science, religion,
learning and medical ethics.

The announcement of this year's Templeton Prize comes at a time of growing
interest in the relationship between science and religion.

In the US support for the theory of creationism to explain the origins of
life is growing to the point were campaigners are trying to get it added to
the school science curriculum alongside Darwin's theory of evolution.

So it seems all the more appropriate that Dr Polkinghorne should have been
recognised for his work in attempting to reconcile the study of science and

Truth to be found

Dr Polkinghorne is known for saying that science and religion in fact
complement each other and are not rivals.

"The most important thing they have in common is the belief that there is a
truth to be sought and found -- a truth which comes through the pursuit of
well-motivated belief."

The award is given each year for outstanding originality in advancing the
world's understanding of God or spirituality.

The award is always set at an amount that exceeds the value of the Nobels.

The first winner was Mother Teresa in 1973. Others include the Rev Dr Billy
Graham (1982), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1983), physicist Carl Friedrich von
Weizsäcker (1989), and Benedictine monk and professor of astrophysics
Stanley L. Jaki (1987).

Last year's recipient was the Rev. Canon Dr. Arthur Peacocke, an ordained
Anglican priest, Oxford University faculty member and a biochemist who
pioneered early research into DNA.

Two more of Dr Polkinghorne's books are due for publication later this year:
The God of Hope and the End of the World, and Quantum Theory: A very short

He will receive the award from Prince Philip on 29 April at Buckingham

Copyright 2002, BBC



>From Michael Paine < >

Dear Benny

Your Australian subscribers might like to know that the letter to the
Australian Government from more than 90 researchers has attracted the
attention of two major TV networks. The letter was sent to Prime Minister
John Howard and several Ministers at the end of January.
( )

This Sunday (17th March) the issue will receive extensive coverage on
Channel 7's Sunday Sunrise program (8am Sydney time) and Channel 9's 60
Minutes (7.30pm Sydney time). They include interviews with Paul Davies and
Duncan Steel. Sunday Sunrise also interviewed Malcolm Walter and myself at
the National Museum of Australia (Malcolm has organised an excellent space
and bioastronomy exhibition there, including a section on impacts developed
by John Gorter).

The discovery of 2002 CU11 is an interesting coincidence - an 800m diameter
Near Earth Asteroid that has been assigned a Torino Scale rating of 1
("merits careful monitoring.").

Michael Paine


>From Hermann Burchard < >

Dear Benny,

as DIE WELT reported 3/13/02, a pair of polar orbiting satellites named
GRACE will be launched by an international team headed by Christoph Reigber,
GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, on a Russian carrier Saturday. The satellites
will travel at a constant distance from each other for highest accuracy in
determining gravity anomalies.

The launch will be transmitted live on the web:

See the Potsdam Institute site:

An earlier project launched a satellite CHAMP that according to DIE WELT had
found a 500 km "oldest" crater in Angola.

Best regards,

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>From Jonathan Shanklin < >

Interestingly the comet's behaviour can also be represented by a simple
progressive brightening that is simply dependent on the time from perihelion
and is independent of log r. At the moment this does not give much
predictive information as some comets with this type of behaviour continue
brightening after perihelion, whilst others begin to fade before. An
optimistic estimate of brightening continuing for 10 days after perihelion
would suggest that the comet could reach 2nd magnitude. The current rate of
brightening is about 0.08 magnitudes per day, so that the magnitude equation
becomes: m = 3.6 + 5 log d + 0.08 * abs (days from T) For March 14.5 this
would become 3.6 + 5*log(0.90) + 0.08*(18.9-14.5) = 3.7. Alternatively the
traditional form of the equation is m = 6.7 + 5 log d + 9.3 log r which
gives m = 3.8 for the same time. Both equations corrected for aperture, so
giving the current naked eye brightness.


Jonathan Shanklin
British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, England

British Astronomical Association, Comet Section


>From Mark Kidger < >

Jonathon raises an interesting point here. The apparent brightness of a
comet depends on the instrument used to see it so two astronomers, one using
the naked eye and another a telescope will not see the same brightness.
Although it is called the aperture correction this is a misconception as it
is really a "magnification correction" - the comet will appear fainter with
an instrument that spreads its light out more than with one that
concentrates it, so the naked eye observer will see it brighter.

There is a standard aperture correction, but it really needs to be derived
comet by comet as it depends on how concentrated the comet is. For
Ikeya-Zhang I would have great doubts about it as the comet started fairly
difuse and has become much more concentrated with time. This means that a
single aperture correction is unlikely to be valid over the 6 weeks or so of

As the comet has got brighter and more condensed the standard correction
will over-correct, thus possibly explaining the quite slow brightening rate
found here (just about average for a comet of this kind).

In the end though it matters very little because the end result is very much
the same either way... this will not be the magnitude 2 comet that some
people were hoping and it will not get very much brighter than it is now.
It's a pity. We'll just have to wait for 2004 and C/2001 Q4 (NEAT).


CCCMENU CCC for 2002

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