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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Tue June 12, 2012
Maureen Dowd Fears The Cosmos, Should You?
The little girl looked worried as she raised her hand. I was spending the morning with a 3rd-grade class talking about astronomy. The discussion was winding down and I was fielding questions. One kid asked about stars blowing up in a supernova. Another wanted to know about the universe blowing up in the Big Bang. But something else was going on with the worried girl. I asked her what was wrong. On the verge of tears, in a trembling voice, she looked at me plaintively and asked: "Am I going to blow up too?"
This is the kind of question New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would completely understand. In a recent column, the ever-astute Dowd described her growing sense of "cosmophobia."
"I'm worried about those two small asteroids that buzzed the Earth this week, those two big earthquakes in Italy and the countdown to doomsday on Dec. 21, supposedly prophesied in the Mayan calendar. Will Planet X, or Nibiru, collide with the Earth before Christmas? Will a solar flare cause a geomagnetic reversal of the North and South Poles? Will a black hole swallow us up?"
After wringing her hands for 500 or so words, Dowd eventually finds a helpful astronomer who, essentially, tells her, "Don't worry it's all going to be fine." Well Maureen, I am not so sure. I'm gonna tell you the truth because I know you can handle the truth.
Be afraid Maureen. Be very, very afraid.
Oh, yeah, be very, very patient, too.
People like to look at the sky and see it as a sea of tranquility. You can blame that on the Christians, with their heaven/angels up-there thing. The truth is that there are no choirs singing hymns in the tabernacles of deep space. Instead it's an unholy mess.
Let's start with the blowing up part.
Stuff blows up all the time in space. Stars are really good at it. Massive stars (those with more than eight times the matter of our sun) blow themselves up when they run out fuel at the end of their lives. Lower-mass stars usually need a sibling who can donate the mass needed to push them into blowing up. Then there are gamma-ray bursts, with radiation jets so powerful they can potentially sterilize planets hundreds of light years away.
OK, now for the collisions. Collisions are a big thing in space. Big, big, big. First you have your Galaxy collisions. Very showy stuff, those colliding galaxies. Stars tossed this way and that before the whole thing merges into an elliptical mess. Of course, if you really want collisions, solar systems are the place for you. It's the young ones that really go wild (ah, youth!). It's an orgy of collisions when solar systems are forming: asteroids colliding with asteroids, asteroids colliding with planets, comets colliding with planets, even planets colliding planets! The story of the early solar system is one big summer blockbuster of collisions.
Of course, once a planetary system (like our own) reaches maturity it calms down. Who doesn't? But does that mean you should be complacent Maureen? Does that mean you should rest easy? Does that mean you should stop worrying?
You see, it's like this. There are those who will tell you that the probability of any of these cosmological threats affecting us is small, tiny, itty-bitty, totally insignificant. I say, don't let 'em get to you, Maureen. I say, why should a little thing like probability theory stand between you, me and a healthy does of free-floating anxiety.
Sure, any one of these world-shattering disasters may be thousands, millions or billions of years in the future. But are we going to let a few zeros (well, a lot of zeros, actually) get in the way of some perfectly good existential dread? No way!
Existential dread is one of the things that has made our species great. Existential dread got us out of the trees and into cities, where we could finally invent therapy. No, the sky is really, really scary. You just have to have a lot of patience.
So stand by your cosmophobia and I, a card-carrying member of the American Astronomical Society, will stand by you.
Remember, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean the universe isn't out to get you. Oh, and about that little girl's question? Let me tell you about this thing called The Big Rip ...
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.