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Cosmic Ray mystery
September 1, 2012 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Through the examination of carbon-14 formation in tree rings (abstract, main article paywalled), scientists have concluded that about 1200 years ago, the earth was bombarded by intense high radition, as if from a solar flare or supernova. The problem? Such an event would've been highly visible and documented at the time, and scientists were unaware of of any such record. At least until an ungrad in biochemistry googled it for them.

The page in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle the student found.
posted by never used baby shoes (35 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hat tip to aleph, whose original post got me curious and searching.
posted by never used baby shoes at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2012


A.D. 774. This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

Wonderful serpents? Snakes? Snakes! It had to be snakes!
posted by Mojojojo at 12:16 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Looks like for 755 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle had a guest blogger who'd taken considerably better notes than the usual lazy-assed scribe.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:17 PM on September 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


You can take this sort of thing too far.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ungrads are the future.
posted by fairmettle at 12:28 PM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was looking at this earlier and the french chronicles also have stuff on fire in the sky:

ANNEES: 775/776.
Car la gloire et la vertu Nostre Seigneur estoit là apparue tout appertement. Car il sembloit aux Saisnes et à tous ceulx qui là estoient qu'ils véissent en l'air deus escus de feu flamboians et ardans sur l'églyse du chastel, qui se démenoient l'un contre l'autre en bataille. Pour ceste merveille et pour ceste bataille que François leur livrèrent furent aucuns si espoventés qu'ils tournèrent tous en fuite, et ceulx de la garnison les chacièrent jusqu'au fleuve de Lippie, et en occirent moult en cette chace.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 12:33 PM on September 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


Looks like for 755 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle had a guest blogger who'd taken considerably better notes than the usual lazy-assed scribe.
I know you're joking, but as the Chronicle wasn't begun until the late 800s, earlier entries are built up from different sources. Some of which are more or less wordy, and may not have even been originally broken down into years, but rather an ongoing narrative. The entries for the early history of Wessex tend to repeat every 4 or so years, and it may be that somebody just mechanically cut up an existing saga into chunks and put bits of it in. Even entries made after the chronicle was begun may differ, as there are five or more versions kept in different places, and undoubtedly the writers changed as the years went on. Sometimes the entries veer from "Bishop Soandso died. Murrain of cattle." to long descriptions of events, including individual motives. Regardless of the actual historical content, even just figuring out the different sources, voices, biases, and so on, is a life's work.
posted by Jehan at 12:50 PM on September 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


Pity the poor fucker that has to reconstruct our society using whatever survives the great Solarpocalypse - I'm picturing a big pile of supermarket tabloids with crispy edges.

Imagine if Twitter somehow makes it...
posted by Artw at 12:56 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is off-planet data backup a thing yet?
posted by telstar at 12:58 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


At least until an ungrad in biochemistry googled it for them.

They could have found out much earlier by reading the comments section of Scientific American.
posted by vacapinta at 1:05 PM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


2029: Amazon launches Oort Cloud storage. Primary customers are social media services.

2039: Almost all civilization on Earth destroyed in freak catastrophe.

8252: having regained space flight humanity discovers a perfectly preserved record of pre-disaster life.

...Alternativly Facebook becomes sentient and descends from the stars to enslave what's left of us.
posted by Artw at 1:14 PM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is off-planet data backup a thing yet?

You'd need something shielded or buried on one of Saturn's or Jupiter's moons, I'd imagine. Stuff in orbit around Earth is probably MORE vulnerable, and to avoid solar flare worries you'd want to get out quite aways.
posted by curious nu at 1:15 PM on September 1, 2012


Stuff in orbit around Earth is probably MORE vulnerable...

Not exactly "in orbit around Earth" but L2 would be pretty safe.
posted by DU at 1:21 PM on September 1, 2012


Go undergrads!

Fascinating find. I wonder what else is out there that hasn't been looked into.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2012


Wow, vacapinta, yes. That comments section of Scientific American you link to is on the 3rd June article by Richard A. Lovett of Nature; a reprint / co-print of the first of the Nature articles in the OP; the second OP Nature article is also by Lovett but makes no mention of commenter Mattuk.

For more on this see here, elsewhere in the comments section of Scientific American. (Article and author may now be familiar to you...)
posted by motty at 1:24 PM on September 1, 2012


I wonder what else is out there that hasn't been looked into.

Most of that wonder can be found in the deep end of the conspiracy/"crackpot"[1] end of the pool - the 755 light show - evidence of the alien VS alien spacewar.

The start of such an "investigation" - the idea Visocica Hill is a pyramid. The dirt covering it is from the ocean bottom washing over the top of said pyramid. Now toss in the Vatican has the documentation in its fault and that fault access is how Tesla was able to do all he did and you are off to a "good" start.

Me, I'm waiting for the press release from the aliens to confirm that the leadership has been lying for centuries *wink*

1 - crackpot I don't like the emotional loading with that word - because they might be right. Because I've lived long enough to have seen the label of 'crackpot theory' turn out to be wrong a few times. And what an amazing Universe if its filled with enough life to not only make spaceships but to travel here. Boo and hiss on leadership to not share such.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:35 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Early chronicles can be difficult to interpret in an unambiguous way."

Let's not get too excited.
posted by clvrmnky at 1:51 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Such an event would've been highly visible and documented at the time

Not necessarily. The powerful 1859 "Carrington" flare created extra-bright auroras, but might have otherwise been unremarkable except for its effect on telegraphy. Beyond flares, there may be unknown scenarios for intense GRBs unaccompanied by visible light. (We didn't even know GRBs existed until the late 60s, so there's no doubt a lot more to learn.)

As for documentation, people in those times (apart from distracting wars, plagues, lack of education and short lifetimes) lived in a highly "magical" world with "signs and wonders" everywhere. Substantial records may have been censored. (Great film: The Name of the Rose). Let's hope we're not sliding back in that direction.
posted by Twang at 2:12 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not exactly "in orbit around Earth" but L2 would be pretty safe.

Well, I was thinking more cosmic rays and the like. Very little of that filters down to the ground on Earth, right? Whereas you're exposed to it all in space. I was reading something the other day about one of the (I think) Apollo missions; the astronauts reported seeing bright flashes of light when they closed their eyes, and it was theorized (at the time, at least) that these were cosmic rays.
posted by curious nu at 2:17 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Substantial records may have been censored</i<

Even the mundane can be censored.

How does one turn square corners with 'all* court cases are to be public' with 'the records for this case are to be sealed' when the case had the trial Courthouse open for all.

Business A goes after Business B for B's crap -why should that previously public dispute be closed later?


*all - ok, Juvie and 'sensitive crimes' and .....

posted by rough ashlar at 2:20 PM on September 1, 2012


the astronauts reported seeing bright flashes of light when they closed their eyes,

Such happen(ed)/s on MIR/International Space station/Space shuttle flights.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:24 PM on September 1, 2012


One thing that's easy to forget nowadays, except when you go camping and sailing and stuff, is that people didn't spend a lot of time outside looking at the sky at night. For the vast majority of humanity for the vast majority of history, all the daytime hours were spent working very hard just to stay alive, illumination was an expensive luxury, so mostly what you did at night was sleep. And if you were awake you were probably illiterate and certainly not blogging or keeping a diary. I can easily imagine that significant stellar events would go mostly unnoticed and completely unrecorded.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:24 PM on September 1, 2012


"Early chronicles can be difficult to interpret in an unambiguous way."

"Let's not get too excited."
posted by iamkimiam at 2:29 PM on September 1, 2012


I'm surprised no one in the SA article mentioned Mike Baillie - he's been on this for a long time, and wrote a (regrattably titled and cover-art-ed but still worth a read) book called Exodus to Arthur that has made these correlations about many events that made a lasting impression on both humans and trees. He's the tree ring man, and his department is the home of European dendrochronology (or at least the cradle - it's been a while since I've been up to date on this). What he discusses in his book isn't high levels of radiocarbon for any given year, but the fact that there are years where trees are missing rings - they were so stressed by environmental conditions that were so bad, something so catastrophic happened, that they skipped a growth cycle (my memory is really vague, here, so check the book for the facts and a competent interpretation), and this is visible during ring-counting. (coincidentally, ice core records are also all fucked up at the same times - and with both ice cores and tree rings, there's annual-or-better resolution, so it's fairly specific to a very tight timeframe.) Exodus to Arthur correlates some of the worst of these tree ring events with human catastrophes/events in the historical/ish record - plague, dearth of bread, revoking the mandate of heaven, what have you. His theory of all this is cosmic events, cometary close approaches (I don't know the right term, sorry), that even supervolcanos and their aftermaths don't have as far-reaching and catastrophic an effect as the tree ring signal is showing for these specific events.

The European dendro record is what's used to calibrate radiocarbon dates for the past 11,000 years (bad memory disclaimer again, sorry) - which entailed tree ring samples from the past 11k years having been radiocarbon dated (in chunks, I forget the resolution) - so I'm surprised this spike wasn't seen at that time.

Interesting/cool post! Sorry for blathering.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 2:41 PM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


One thing that's easy to forget nowadays, except when you go camping and sailing and stuff, is that people didn't spend a lot of time outside looking at the sky at night. For the vast majority of humanity for the vast majority of history, all the daytime hours were spent working very hard just to stay alive, illumination was an expensive luxury, so mostly what you did at night was sleep.
For farming societies (such as in Old England) this can often be true, inasmuch that some times of year are unbelievably work-heavy. But other times of the year were relatively slack. Between sowing and harvest was often one, and between winter slaughter and first fruits was another. This could depend on how much livestock you had, and needs for milking, shearing and haymaking. But before harvest was often a time of festivals and the like. However, for hunter-gatherer societies, it definitely isn't true. They often worked much less and had a great deal of leisure time. Again, there was some difference depending on where they lived and what they lived off, but they had plenty of time to stare at stars. Also, in both times the sky was much brighter than today due to the lack of air or light pollution, and it is believed that two sleeps split by an hour or so of nighttime waking was common practice.

It's much more likely that the average person then was far more acquainted with the stars and night sky than today, even if they understood them less. The average city dweller of today might not even be able to see the stars.
posted by Jehan at 2:45 PM on September 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


Do note that the constellations were purportedly named by Chaldean shepherds, who as in certain religious hymns, "watched their flocks by night". The very existence of astrology and in turn modern astronomy traces itself to the great importance placed on the night skies by people living under them.
posted by dhartung at 3:22 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of the story about a Washington state earthquake and tsunami 300 years ago found through geological research and contemporary Japanese written records. "Craziest thing happened yesterday. These big-ass waves came out of nowhere..." And 300 years later, some guy goes, "A-ha! I found it!"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:28 PM on September 1, 2012


Great filmbook: The Name of the Rose
posted by DU at 5:40 PM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


One thing that's easy to forget nowadays, except when you go camping and sailing and stuff, is that people didn't spend a lot of time outside looking at the sky at night

I'd wager that they did it a lot more. What else are you going to look at at night? And btw, when you don't have artificial illumination ruining it, the night sky is absolutely stunning.
posted by empath at 8:06 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


L2 would be pretty safe

L2 is a saddle point so I don't think it's a good place to put something if you might not be able to go maintain it for a while. L4/L5 are the stable ones. I'm not sure what kinds of disasters would destroy something left in a deep Earth vault but not in orbit— the coming of Galactus?
posted by hattifattener at 11:17 PM on September 1, 2012


Wow, vacapinta, yes. That comments section of Scientific American you link to is on the 3rd June article by Richard A. Lovett of Nature; a reprint / co-print of the first of the Nature articles in the OP; the second OP Nature article is also by Lovett but makes no mention of commenter Mattuk.

Here's a followup comment from Allen, the undergrad:

Jonathon Allen said:
James, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I made the connection between the AS-C and the podcast story on Thu Jun 7, and emailed Leslie Sage on that evening. Leslie Sage was the guest on the podcast. The specific search terms I used were "eighth century chronicle site:.edu" in Google. This led me to the Avalon project hosted on the Yale website.So it appears that these two indeed made the same connection before me! I have emailed the author of this article as well as the editors at Nature to let them know, so that due credit may be given.
First comment:
SlashDot user "JustOK"
Mon Jun 4 10:10am
http://news.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=2893343&cid=40208359
Second comment:
Scientific American user "mattuk"
Tue Jun 5 4:12am
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mysterious-radiation-burst-rec

posted by vacapinta at 1:55 AM on September 2, 2012


I haven't seen any other mention of the French chronicle above, but it may be that the different chronicles
borrowed from each other. It strikes me that the fire in the sky does not have a definite shape in the French chronicle but is a cross in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. This may suggest that the latter is actually a re-telling and embellishment of the first?

Although the French chronicle is a later compilation of earlier entries and I think that earlier entry was originally in Latin(scroll down to 776):

"...apparuit omnibus duobus scilicet scutis sanguineo colore flammantibus quosdam motus.."

So, this appears to refer to two burning shields seen in the sky.

What may have happened is that all the chronicles refer to the same original entry which has suffered from the mangling of going through many translations.
posted by vacapinta at 2:15 AM on September 2, 2012


It also looks like there has been more followup on this.
posted by vacapinta at 2:18 AM on September 2, 2012


One thing that's easy to forget nowadays, except when you go camping and sailing and stuff, is that people didn't spend a lot of time outside looking at the sky at night. For the vast majority of humanity for the vast majority of history, all the daytime hours were spent working very hard just to stay alive, illumination was an expensive luxury, so mostly what you did at night was sleep.
Yeah, I don't think that's true at all. First of all, if you go camping or sailing (or whatever) where there isn't much light pollution, the stars are much, much more vivid.

Second of all, all these societies employed astrologers who tended to write a lot of this stuff down. So we actually have records of all this kind of stuff.

In fact, we have lots of records of Supernovas from early history.

Also, Supernovas leave behind remnants that can still be seen using telescopes. So if there was a supernova on that date, the leftover shell should be visible somewhere. Ancient records would (I guess) help narrow down where in the sky to look, though.
posted by delmoi at 4:42 AM on September 2, 2012


Cool post. Thanks, never used baby shoes.
posted by homunculus at 3:33 PM on September 2, 2012


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