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Should We Fear Asteroids? There Are An Awful Lot Up There… And One Might Be Heading Right For Us.

There may be very large reason that Dinosaurs aren’t around. A giant ball of rock, metal and fire hurtling at thousands of miles an hour into the Earth. But that’s ancient history right? Well, maybe not. Asteroids are more common that you think. And if you keep an eye on the news, we might be in for a close call relatively soon. But just how big is the risk? And what can we do about it?

Warning: Giant Rocks ahead.

A Galactic Swarm of Killer Asteroids

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn, No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of? – William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

In a popular lecture, Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson jokes about his new name for ‘Near Earth Objects’. These ‘objects’ are giant rocks within our solar system or have an orbital path crossing it. Neil suggests something a little less technical, ‘Killer Asteroids’. And he isn’t wrong. Although most small rocks burn up in our atmosphere, the big ones are a real problem.

Current estimates suggest that there at least 150 million rocks  greater than 100m wide flying around our solar system. That number doesn’t even consider what is hurtling inward from deep space. Although most are unlikely a threat, we don’t get much notice when one decides to visit. But where do they come from, and how can we predict their journeys?

An Asteroids Home

‘Knowing it and seeing it are two different things’ Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

Its easy to classify the home of an asteroid. You can say ‘comes from within our solar system’ or ‘comes from outside of it’. Within our solar system there is one large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, likely formed of debris left over from the formation of the planets. At the edge of our system there is the Kuiper Belt, (or more accurately orb), a tremendous interstellar cloud of icy rocks.

Most of the asteroids we encounter come from these two sources, but rarely something can be hurtled our direction from far away. These ‘Deep Space‘ asteroids are the true travellers, often traversing billions of miles of deep space. They may come from a colossal rock reservoir called the Oort Cloud, although we haven’t directly observed it yet.

So what guides these things? Do they have it in for us?

Gravity’s Missiles

“Sometimes I think gravity may be death in disguise. Other times I think gravity is love, which is why love’s only demand is that we fall.” – Shaun David Hutchinson

Asteroids, like the planets, orbit based on the principles of Gravity. Gravity is inversely powerful with distance (i.e it gets weaker the further you go,) but also grows with size. Things are said to ‘have gravity’, although the force itself is not quite understood. Nonetheless we understand its effect in space. Objects will ‘orbit’ around larger ones, at a path and speed dependent on their initial velocity and the gravity of other objects around it.

Stable orbits (like ours around the Sun,) differ from those orbits of many objects ‘caught’  by gravity. ‘Long Period Comets‘ for example have highly elliptical orbits, flying far into space before returning. When a large object passes causes a gravitational flux, things can fly off course. For us, that means the occasional flurry of Asteroids from the Kuiper Belt or beyond.

So, is one coming for us? And what can do about it?

Yes, There Is.

Dan, we didn’t see this thing coming? Well, our object Collison budget’s a million dollars, that allows us to track about 3% of the sky, and beg’n your pardon sir, but it’s a big-ass sky. – Armageddon 

In 2004 Astronomers made a startling discover. A huge asteroid named Apophis seemed scarily likely to hit us. But after modelling its trajectory after a 2014 flyby, it seems its chances to hit us will diminish in future (first in 2029, then 2036.) What worried us the most was not that it exists, but that it was spotted so late.

We can only watch a tiny percent of the sky at a time, and we miss things a lot. Chances are that you knew nothing of 2004 BL86, a mountain sized asteroid that passed us by in 2015. In fact, NASA warns us that if a ‘Doomsday’ asteroid were to appear, we would have ‘zero warning’.  Our first sign would be a flash of light, quickly followed by death.  However, if we did spot one by chance, we would have decades notice.

And in the cold reaches of space, there are a lot of candidates.

So what can we do? Short of spending huge amounts of time watching the sky, can we blow them up like in Armageddon? Well actually Yes. NASA have actually begun the design of a spacecraft to deliver nuclear warheads. The target is Bennu, an asteroid with a 1/2700 chance of hitting us in 2135. Short of that, other plans could include using gravity to nudge an asteroid out of orbit.


Watch The Skies

So the news isn’t that great. If we spot one, we have a while to plan, but if we don’t, we are doomed. But don’t lose hope, the chances of being hit by something big enough to wipe us out are low, and technology is improving every day. Asteroids are just another evolutionary pressure, and at some point any spacefaring civilisation will have to learn to deal with them.

We have done well so far.

What’s Next?

  • Learn more about our imminent cosmic death.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight.



What Stephen Hawking Can Teach Us. Lessons From A Great Man.

To eulogise Professor Hawking is not in my remit, I knew him too little and there are those much better deserving and placed of that honour. To obituarise him is also beyond my scope, as I possess neither the gravitas or right to do so. But to celebrate him, and all that he has achieved through his inexhaustible pursuit of knowledge, that is something that we  all can do. Stephen was a pioneer, philanthropist, physicist and inspiration, and it is only right that he be celebrated.

For Stephen. 1942-2018. 

Somewhere in Cambridge University, likely dog-eared and covered in dust, lies a paper written over 50 years ago.  Within its pages, between the rather impenetrable prose, lies a set of formidable equations. And these equations carefully examine the nature of our universe, in particular the properties of its expansion with relation to ‘singularities.

It may seem odd that thin wood and scattered ink can capture such dramatic notions, but I assure you it can. And with this first foray into the laws of the Universe, the late Stephen Hawking laid strong foundations for a future we can all dream of.

”Closed in a room, my imagination becomes the universe, and the rest of the world is missing out.” – Criss Jami

An Expanding Universe

In 1929 Edwin Hubble used an analysis of light wavelength change to demonstrate the expansion of the Universe. Each galaxy is rushing away from one and another, in a Universe oft described as ‘Infinite but bounded.’ This is a confusing concept for most (including myself,) and asks more questions than it answers. Will it expand forever (very possibly,) can we ever transverse all of it (disappointingly unlikely,) and why does it behave as it does?

The same questions plagued a young doctoral candidate called Stephen Hawking, who set about to answer them. Having graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Physics, Stephen was ready to prove his worth. His 1965 paper, titled ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’ (note the pluralisation of Universe,) along with many others of his own,  answered seminal questions that propelled this young man into infamy, and we still use his work today.

In his work on ‘singularities‘ (where matter becomes incredibly densely packed,) he investigated the nature of universal expansion, black holes and other phenomena. Alongside mathematician Roger Penrose, Hawking showed mathematical proof for the Big Bang, modelled the nature of Black Holes and even went as far to examine what happens to information devoured by such holes as they die.

In short, Stephen probed the darkest centres of reality and found light. And because of this, modern days physicists can begin to answer even more of the very questions that define our existence.

Stephen and the Universe

‘One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away – Professor Hawking

The young hands responsible for this work belonged to a brilliant mind, but one fraught with worry. An exceptional intelligence, Stephen Hawking’s quest for knowledge found little hindrance in the solemnity of disease. When diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (a diagnosis oft questioned,) he fell into a depression which marred his studies. But then the disease failed to progress as expected, Stephen found a new lease of life.

It is something wonderful that Stephens spirit was not crushed by his physical limitations. And even as he lost the use of his body, his mind became freer to set itself amongst the stars. Not only has he answered some of the greatest questions known to man, but propelled countless young minds outwards into the same abyss he explored. It is poetic that even confined physically, he explored more of space and time than many of us ever will.

With his passing today humanity can all feel a collective loss. All great men (and women,) must die, but their deeds are remembered in infamy. Although it is likely, and shamefully so, that many will have never heard his name, their descendants will use his work to transverse the stars, find new homes and spread humanity to the farthest reaches.  And for me at least, opening the pages of his books will always feel like home.

In his very equations are his legacy, the deepest paint on the extraordinary canvas that was a challenging and incredible story. Stephen showed us that the Universe is ours for the taking, and that you can do it from a wheelchair. He showed us that passion and spirit can conquer the greatest odds, and that generosity and determination can build great things.

Goodbye Stephen. And thank you.

What’s Next?

  • Read Stephen Hawkins ‘A Brief History of Time’
  • Learn more about ‘black holes’
  • Go do something wonderful.

The opinions above are those of Dr Janaway alone. You may note that this page still has ads on it, and all proceeds from this post will go to charities associated with Motor Neurone Disease. I hope you find this acceptable. Image courtesy of Lwp Kommunikáció

Why Do People Confuse Nazi’s With Socialists? Next Time Send Them This. Inside; What Is Socialism?

Politics is confusing, and that’s before the lying. Allegiance to a certain ‘movement’ is often fraught with ambiguity, with terms like ‘communist, fascist and liberalist’ often used more as insults than rationale. History teaches us that politics is divisive, with more focus on a person’s overall ideation than their views on particular policies. Or worse, on the actions of ancient leaders sharing that ideology.

I have been described as both a ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ within the same sentence. I’m not sure exactly how that would work, answers on a postcard.  I note that I was defending Britains national health service at the time. #facism

Often, old names and old ideas get mixed up in the new. For example, Stalin’s communism is often used as a standard for all of those believing in shared resource allocation. But I doubt most modern-day communists would advocate death squads. Adolf Hitler is sometimes described as a ‘socialist’, but I don’t think Bernie Sanders would advocate concentration camps.  A quick review of twitter will demonstrate how these terms have become diluted. People have bones to pick, and words can become their tools.

These tools are often blunt, inappropriate or downright stupid (See above.)

In order to help make sense of the madness, I will do my best to define socialism, and explain in some way its stellar rise to significance. Like it or not, most western societies are socialistic, or use many systems based on socialist principles.

What is Socialism

In socialist approaches, the ownership of resources generated and used by the population is owned by that same population.  Production and allocation of resource is limited to need only; no profit or surplus is desired or warranted. Decisions about resource allocation are made democratically, through discussion. This means that no one has any great power to manage any resource greater than their personal possessions. So if we all make cheese, we share the cheese.

This means simply that any resource you generate by work is for use by all. Similarly, any resource generated by your neighbor by his or her work, is for them, you and everyone else. Owning possessions for personal use, such as clothes, does not undermine the system, but is a practical limitation of the ethos. So you can have my cheese, and I yours, but as much as you need. You can use your own fork.

Democratic management of resource allocation and means of production is fundamental to a ‘fair’ society based on socialistic principles. Any dictatorship quickly undermines the system, as it poses significant risk of personal gain at global expense. Often the idea of democracy in socialism is described as a different movement of ‘Democratic socialism’, depending on whether the management system is centralized through government or not. The government makes sure there is enough cheese for everyone, and that no one has too much.

Regardless of the nuance, socialist approaches aim to ‘reduce societal inequality’ through ‘need based’ allocation of ‘fair production’.  Cheese or not.

Strengths and limitations

Political ideologies are often described in terms of their limitations. Socialism carries many moral trophies, with its aims of reducing social inequality, promoting fair use and democracy at the forefront. However, fair criticism has been made of potential limitations in societal progression. A lack of financial incentive to produce, a cornerstone of capitalism, has been suggested to hinder and social, technological or economic progress within the society or on the world stage.

It is worth noting that the incentive to progress is a human faculty, not a limitation of the ideology. However, in understanding why socialist approaches have failed in the past we cannot ignore human nature. How do progress without financial incentive is indeed a good question and suggests a change in global conscience rather than just policy.

How does Socialism differ from Communism?

 It is easy to conflate socialist and communist ideals.  In both systems, resource allocation is based on need only. There is no financial incentive to work harder or produce more, as a worker’s rewards are the same regardless.  The crucial difference between the two systems is that in communism, the management of resource is owned by the workers alone, whereas in socialism there is recognition of a need for centralized democratic management.

Socialists are often mislabeled as ‘communist’s due to the stark contrast both ideologies share against Capitalism. It is important to note that the two are different, and historical examples of failed societies, such as Soviet Russia in the case of communism, reflect the people and not the approach. Stalin was a communist and a murderer, you can be both, either or neither.

 What socialism is not

 Socialism is not ‘doing nothing’, ‘overthrowing the government’ or ‘being a commie’. Although I see no moral issues with communism, I do have concern with misattribution of ideology. It is clear that socialist perspectives value work for the greater good and recognise the value of democratic government in fair allocation.  Being a socialist is not the same as being an ‘anarchist’ or ‘communist’, it is often perceived as a moral decision based on valuing the fair work of all.

Im not even sure how being a socialist is equivocal with being  a ‘facist’, ‘Nazi’ or ‘Ultra right Zionist’ (thanks Twitter.) I suggest that if you encounter these terms, send the perpetrators this article.

Next week Communism