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Pons-Brooks
October 17, 2011 11:53 AM   Subscribe

A reanalysis of historical astronomical observations suggests that Earth narrowly avoided an extinction event just over a hundred years ago in 1883.

On August 12th and 13th 1883, the astronomer José Bonilla at the observatory in Zacatecas Mexico observed 450 objects passing across the face of the Sun, which he described as surrounded by mist, suggesting fragments of a comet.

As no other observatories witnessed the fragments at that time, Hector Manterola at the National Autonomous University of Mexico has argued using parallax that the comet must have passed within 8000 km of the Earth. "If they had collided with Earth we would have had 3275 Tunguska events in two days, probably an extinction event."
posted by jeffburdges (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
On one hand: interesting and sobering!

On the other: this isn't peer reviewed, and, based on a short read of the article, it seems like a real stretch that this single observation, rather than being a fluke, was actually the result of an extremely close comet.

So, I am going with the latter, but look forward to the real astronomers weighing in.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:56 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hmm...
posted by drinkcoffee at 12:01 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This paper is written in Comic Sans. That is all.
posted by atrazine at 12:06 PM on October 17, 2011 [16 favorites]


extinction event August 12, 1883
posted by stbalbach at 12:06 PM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oops, I should have used the title "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn".

There are other near misses listed by NASA's Near Earth Object Program. 2005 YU55 should pass around 330k km on 8 November 2011. NEO Party!
posted by jeffburdges at 12:14 PM on October 17, 2011


How do we know we avoided it? Someone get Haley Joel Osment on the phone.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:20 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This paper is written in Comic Sans. That is all.

I thought this was a joke, but it's true.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:26 PM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Extremely sketchy hypothesis about a single observation that could have numerous other explanations. It could be true, but not likely.

On the other hand, it's pretty much certain that there have been numerous near-misses of extinction-level collisions during recorded human history and probably in the last few hundred years. There are a lot of objects that have very irregular orbits and/or very long orbits that we've not yet had a chance to see with modern astronomy.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:40 PM on October 17, 2011


Not pictured: Steampunk Victorian-era Superman punching the fuck out of the comet to make it miss Earth in the first place. The fragmentation was the result.

Also: SCIENCE!
posted by Eideteker at 12:43 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Color me the same color as the Bad Astronomer on this one.
posted by The Bellman at 12:48 PM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


I also downloaded the paper just to see if it was, indeed, written in Comic Sans.

Lo and behold, it was indeed. It was indeed.
posted by Scientist at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


2005 YU55 should pass around 330k km on 8 November 2011.

Whatever will we use to send miners to it?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:56 PM on October 17, 2011


I also downloaded the paper just to see if it was, indeed, written in Comic Sans.

Me too. Yeah. Don't expect people to take your science seriously if you do it in comic sans.

Anyway, I find it kind of ridiculous that this is just a single observation, never confirmed by anyone else at the time.
posted by delmoi at 1:15 PM on October 17, 2011


This is all pretty straightforward. In 1883 any astronomer notable enough to have his findings published would have been easily on the take from the Illuminati, but the Illuminati was never quite clear on it's own limitations, and snobbishly discounted work being done in Mexico.

It's pretty simple, really.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:25 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I considered the single second-hand observation effect before posting this, but the "sobering warning" effects made posting it worthwhile (see related xkcd). I'm content with Bad Astronomer criticism that "comets break up over millions of miles" of course.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:14 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


No supporting observations of meteor storms during the nights around this time period?
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:32 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hmmmm.... shades of Peshawar Lancers.
posted by codswallop at 6:29 PM on October 17, 2011


An asteroid made a big crater at Chicxulub, Mexico 65 million years ago, extinguishing about half of all animal genera and ending the dinosaurs.

The question is: Could something like this happen again? Or is this a sort of phenomenon that only happened in the distant past? In other words, do we still live a solar system where this sort of thing occurs?

No, this event was of a bygone era, when the solar system was only 99% of its current age.
posted by neuron at 7:56 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I watched the live television coverage when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in 1994. David Levy, the comet's codiscoverer, was one of the commentators on the broadcast. He described this as a once-in-a-hundred-million-years type of event.

I thought, how extraordinary that within just a handful of years of being able to observe it that such an event would occur. But, of course, it's not an amazing coincidence. This sort of thing goes on all the time.
posted by neuron at 8:06 PM on October 17, 2011


Dr. Manterola is apparently a fan of Comic Sans.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:13 PM on October 17, 2011


As soon as the scientists make a claim of 4 digits of accuracy in their estimates that range over one magnitude (538 to 8062? Couldn't be 8063, huh?), you know this is complete bunkum to get attention. I wouldn't trust these "astronomists" to clean my reading lenses.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:44 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. I cannot belive that it was written in comic sans.

My first 2 years in my PhD program, I'd sit through lectures/seminars/presentations that were done with comic sans. Then I gave them hits and misses. The last couple of years, anything done in comic sans I walk away - because I have better things to do with my time. Haven't been any examples of my missing anything profound/exciting.

One lecture did stand out; it was comic sans (and a buddy I was sitting with snickered about this) and dealt with moth nerve ganglions and how they process moth olfactory data. At the end of the presentation, as we are supposed to do, the display of funding sources included DARPA.

(OH MY FUCKING GOD.

I've never visited DARPA's site before. It looks like some shady Chinese mainlander gaining cheap eBay reputation scores before selling the account to scammers. Facebook, twitter, youtube, and rss? Is that now "professional?")


Based on the Bad Astronmer link, yeah, this is another miss.

I've been told, though, that I've missed some hilarious stuff.

How is it in the Cornell University Library? I'm having a not-easy time of figuring out the provenance of this "paper." Was it peer reviewed or is this some random article that's been archived? Sorry, I'm not familiar with astronautics journals/papers.
posted by porpoise at 9:34 PM on October 17, 2011


Any skeptics will in the near future have access to a review article documenting the multiple independent confirmations that the article above is, indeed, written in Comic Sans.
posted by Anything at 9:56 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


August 13th is traditionally the peak of the best meteor shower of the year (which -used- to be very energetic), the Perseids. "The stream of debris is called the Perseid cloud and stretches along the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle", which is 26 kilometers in diameter, moving 60km/sec and "is on an orbit which puts it close to the Earth".

May not be entirely coincidental. It's also the date of the 1930 'Brazilian Tunguska'. Curiouser and curiouser.

Prof. Bonilla was director at Zacatecas. A paper of his about a meteor was read to the New York Academy of Sciences in Jan 1887. Jacques Vallee mentions Bonilla's sighting in 1977's UFO's in space.

In 1883 Krakatoa (Aug.27) was damn near an extinction event.
posted by Twang at 12:45 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


2005 YU55 should pass around 330k km on 8 November 2011

first response: holy fuck! that's really close, like within the orbital band the ISS occupies.

next response: oh, that's off by a factor of 1000, it's actually 325,000 km.
posted by russm at 3:48 AM on October 18, 2011


330k km means 330,000 kilometers.
posted by marsha56 at 5:44 AM on October 18, 2011


oh, yeah. OK, colour me confused.

though technically you can't double-apply an SI prefix - "The prefixes are never combined: a millionth of a metre is a micrometre not a millimillimetre."
posted by russm at 6:44 AM on October 18, 2011


extinction event August 12, 1883

The bastards had it coming.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:10 AM on October 18, 2011


The last couple of years, anything done in comic sans I walk away - because I have better things to do with my time. --porpoise

Famous sayings:
Twentieth Century: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Twenty-first Century: Judge everything you read by its font.
Somehow I don't think we're moving in the right direction.
posted by eye of newt at 12:18 AM on October 19, 2011


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