This past summer saw the release of two dramatic motion pictures — “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” — both dealing with fictional events surrounding the impact of an asteroid or comet here on our home planet, Earth. Additionally, the Learning and Discovery channels have recently presented numerous documentaries touching upon the same subject.
While all this is very entertaining and informative, the question arises: Why are we seeing this now? Such scenarios were unthinkable just a few short years ago. Reputable scientists of good standing in the scholarly community once ridiculed such ideas as fanciful and impossible — the wildest type of unsubstantiated speculation.
You may recall that the debate surrounding Dr. Velikovsky’s publication of Worlds in Collision was acrimonious. The mere suggestion that the Earth might be menaced by bodies from space caused a firestorm of derision and such antagonism that almost a half-century later the name Velikovsky is still a hiss and a byword in scholarly circles. Interestingly, various individuals who have published and promoted ideas that were first offered by the good doctor have built a number of academic and scientific careers in recent years. Yet, credit is never given to Velikovsky for his preeminence in this area. Instead, his name is judiciously avoided — seemingly at all odds — except to cast further aspersions on his name and his work.
Today we see well-respected scientists and scholars talking and writing about the reality of past and future impacts; Hollywood producers have certainly found valid story line material in the premise; even NASA has sought funding to track killer asteroids and comets, potential Earth impactors. What could have happened to instigate all this recent discussion of past and future impacts when only a few short years ago the mere mention of impacts in these circles would have brought forth defamation, ridicule and derision? Why is this suddenly being taken seriously? Something must have occurred to radically alter their point of view.
A celestial visual aid
The reason for this change of heart in the academic and scientific communities, as well as the newfound media interest in astronomical collisions, can be found in recent history. In July 1994, fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy, as predicted, repeatedly slammed into the planet Jupiter. At least one of those impact sites left a pockmark on Jupiter’s face that was larger than the Earth. Estimates were that the first fragment alone struck with the force of 200,000 megatons! Nineteen more followed, leaving visible impact scars around Jupiter’s southern hemisphere. This was an unprecedented, historic, celestial event. Nothing like it has occurred in our solar system since Galileo Galilei invented the telescope.
What crucial lesson did that impact teach scientists? Cosmic collisions do occur, and in the time frame of a human life. Moreover, if it can happen to Jupiter, it can happen to the Earth. Still more to the point, it most certainly will have happened in the past.
A major shift
Almost overnight the scientific community did a conceptual about-face that was as dramatic as it was sweeping. They had been treated to a celestial visual aid of cosmic proportions; the “impossible” had occurred before their very eyes. There was no denying the possibility of catastrophic impacts any longer.
Seemingly overnight, scientific sleuths discovered impact craters everywhere—not just on other planets and moons, but right here on Earth. Astronomers suddenly noticed that the space around Earth, indeed in the entire solar system, was littered with asteroids and comets — potentially devastating impacts in the making. Space scientists began talking about ways to use existing technology and space hardware to locate and divert any object on a collision course with Earth, thus avoiding the worldwide devastation of an impact. So it is that the Shoemaker/Levi event marked the beginning of a revolution in scientific thinking.
The gush of recent movies and documentaries is simply the media’s response to this dynamic new trend in scientific and academic circles. While all this media attention has the effect of raising the general public’s awareness, the realization is coming very slowly. Even with all this new evidence and conjecture, most people seem nearly oblivious to this conceptual revolution. The man on the street continues to generally disregard any possibility that space debris might bombard the Earth. For most people it is still little more than the premise for an entertaining “action flick.”
The fallout from a cosmic collision
Before the impact of Shoemaker/Levi on Jupiter, the only physical evidence of ancient impacts had been offered by geologist Walter Alvarez and his father, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, as well as a team of distinguished scientists. They were the first to cite geologic evidence of an impact that probably destroyed the dinosaurs. (See The Prophecy Trilogy, Vol. II, pp. 70, 71, for a discussion of the Alvarez’ discovery.) This was the beginning of a revolution in Geology and Paleontology. Almost overnight, long-held scientific views began to change. The process eventually accelerated to the point that science textbooks were obsolete before they came off the presses.
But, it took the impact of comet fragments with Jupiter to really blow the lid off the sciences. The very foundation of scientific thought — the concept of slow, gradual change — began to crumble. Where for almost two centuries scientists and scholars had seen only slow, uniform processes of change, now they saw catastrophe — sudden, tumultuous events — as the primary mechanism for change.
Oddly, these scholars and scientists try hard to leave the impression with the public that these revolutionary ideas are nothing new for them. They present their new arguments for catastrophic change with as much of a straight face and calm demeanor as they can muster, even though the subject matter is truly revolutionary and sensational compared to the orthodoxy of yesteryear. They seek to make it appear that this novel thinking represents no real shift of opinion at all, that they have always believed and taught catastrophism. Even though they are still loath to use the word “catastrophe,” this is at the heart of the revolution.
Paleontologists have long recognized that there are clear divisions in the geologic record. Like pages in a book, the deposits of each age lay one atop another, the present epoch at the surface. Even to an untrained eye, when exposed to view they look like the layers of a cake. Each layer contains the fossils of the plants and animals that lived then — a record of stones and bones, if you will. The lines between those ages, between the pages of Earth’s book, are also clearly visible. Those divisions or boundaries, mapped out long ago, are clear lines of demarcation between distinct ages.
The layers were all given names now familiar to all first-year Geology students (Jurassic, Triassic, Permian, Devonian, etc.). The primary layers immediately above and below them define the boundaries. The well-known K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary, made famous by the Alvarez team and which divides the age of dinosaurs from the age of mammals, is only one such boundary.
Until the revolution began, the transition from one age to another — represented by these boundary layers — was thought to have been a slow, gradual process with one form of life gradually replacing another as global conditions slowly changed to favor certain forms of life over other, less adaptive species. Then the Alvarez team proposed that the iridium in the K-T boundary was persuasive evidence of a cataclysmic impact. They maintained that the dinosaurs did not slowly die out, as was previously thought; they were destroyed in a sudden, lethal event and its devastating aftermath.
While the Alvarez’ theory sparked heated debate and captured the public fancy (as with all things having to do with dinosaurs), most paleontologists were still unconvinced. Then the Shoemaker/Levi comet hit Jupiter, presenting for all to see exactly how an impact occurs and what are its effects. There was no mistaking its catastrophic signature. Almost immediately, most opposition was swept away. This event forced scholars to re-examine the Alvarez’ impact theory. Could this be the mechanism that changed the face of the Earth so many times in the past?
It was not long before paleontologists recognized that each of the boundaries in the geologic record represented a mass extinction caused by a cataclysmic event. They now recognize 24 noteworthy extinction events, 5 major and 19 minor. That represents one of the quickest opinion reversals in the history of science — even faster than those wrought by the work of Copernicus, Kepler or Newton!
Another rapid shift of opinion involves the craters left by impacts. Until the comet fragments hammered Jupiter, astronomers insisted that nearly all the cratering seen on other planets and moons in our solar system (they had spectacular photos of those planets and moons sent back to them by various space probes) were the result of volcanic activity or volcanism. They insisted that all the cratering from impacts was done early on, during the formation of the solar system and that very little had occurred since. After Shoemaker/Levi, they were no longer so cock sure! Once they looked with new eyes, they began seeing impact craters everywhere (as if they had suddenly appeared out of nowhere!). Volcanism, as the mechanism for cratering, died a quick death now that the idea of impacts carried the day. They even went so far as to point out that the Earth would look just like the pockmarked moon if it were not for erosion, which tended to erase the evidence of earthly impacts. It was not long before the impact site for the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs was found on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. They gave the buried crater the exotic-sounding Mayan name for that region: Chicxulub (pronounced chic-shoe-lube).
Peaceful planet or cosmic shooting gallery?
Almost overnight, scientists began speaking of the threat posed by Earth-crossing asteroids and comets. NASA proposed a program and sought funding to find and track any object that might collide with the Earth. Most revealing were some recently declassified, top-secret data dating back to the days of the Cold War that was made public to bolster NASA’s claim of the danger posed to the Earth by near-earth objects, or NEOs.
As it turns out, the United States maintains a number of satellites in orbit as well as super-sensitive listening devices strategically placed around the surface, designed to detect the explosion of nuclear devices. These necessary measures were employed to verify compliance with nuclear treaties. Remarkably, those sophisticated surveillance devices detected several detonations each year in Earth’s upper atmosphere — some of them as large as 1 kiloton. Reports in the media of “mysterious explosions” in remote parts of the world went unexplained because the information was classified. Intelligence concerns prevented it from reaching the scientific community and the public. However, the intelligence community readily identified the mystery detonations as asteroids that entered Earth’s atmosphere and exploded.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the military began to declassify this information. The astronomers, geologists and planetary scientists were shocked by the figures. Still more stunning was the frequency with which the Earth is bombarded by space debris and by the size of those objects. Los Alamos scientists now estimate 10 or 11 objects explode in the atmosphere each year with the force of a one-kiloton nuclear warhead. One or more explode yearly with the force of a 15-kiloton explosion — about the same size as the nuclear detonation that vaporized Hiroshima! The largest meteorite struck south of Africa on August 3, 1963, producing a blast equal to a one-megaton nuclear explosion or one million tons of high explosive! It has become apparent that the Earth is constantly bombarded by a variety of “rocks,” ranging in size from a grain of sand to boulders twenty feet wide. Some are even larger.
A mystery, a solution
One of the most mysterious explosions in history occurred in 1908 over Siberia. Called the Tunguska Event after the area primarily affected, it has been the subject of intense speculation and conjecture right down to the present. An enormous fireball rent the early morning sky, as witnessed by hundreds of Siberians, producing a column of flame and clouds of thick, black smoke. A shock wave of epic proportions was felt in England some 5 hours later as it spread out across the globe. The immediate impact of that shock wave alone flattened more than 1,000 square kilometers of Siberian forests!
The mystery intensified when no evidence of an impact could be found — no crater, no meteorite. What could have caused a nuclear-class explosion long before there were nuclear devices? Numerous theories were advanced to explain the lack of a crater: Some thought it was a small comet made of ice that vaporized before impacting; one theory, advanced with a straight face, declared that a tiny black hole had passed through the Earth at that spot; many believed that an alien spacecraft — a UFO with an unstable power source — had exploded before it could land to effect repairs. Yet, now that we better understand the nature of these cosmic intruders, the Tunguska blast can be seen for what it truly was: a stony meteor, roughly 60 meters in diameter, which entered Earth’s atmosphere at an oblique angle and disintegrated in an explosion that virtually vaporized it at about 10 kilometers altitude, instantly converting nearly its entire mass into energy — about the same amount of energy as the Mr. St. Helens eruption in 1980. Had the meteorite fallen to Earth over a populated city, the devastation would have been nearly total.
Life from space
There is still one more noteworthy discovery in all this. Biologists now speculate that life may have been transported around the galaxy by catastrophic means. It is known that certain types of anaerobic bacteria can exist in extreme conditions — buried deep within the Earth where there are almost no nutrients or air, in the sub-zero cold and ice of Arctic glaciers, in the searing heat of Yellowstone’s geysers and hot pots, in deep ocean volcanic vents where no light ever penetrates. Speculation has it that these abilities would also allow this bacterium to survive the heat and pressure of an impact in the ejecta that is thrown free of the planet. Thus, an impact upon a life-bearing planet could throw small amounts of debris containing these sturdy bacteria into space. These bacteria would also be able, they conjecture, to survive the intense cold of space for a prolonged time period as well as the tremendous reentry pressure when their host rock crashed onto a new planet, perhaps millions of miles and centuries later, where these sturdy bacteria could begin the process of life anew.
By these catastrophic means, they speculate, life spreads to every hospitable niche and corner of the universe. It is for this reason that the so-called “Mars rock,” which shows microscopic structures that resemble fossilized bacteria, made such a sensation. If the early conclusions are correct, then this bit of ejecta from the planet Mars may be the best evidence for this dispersion theory, demonstrating how life is scattered throughout the universe. Once again, catastrophism carries the day. The pattern here is unmistakable. Science is turning more and more toward ideas they once thought to be laughable.
Just the beginning
One more element of this ideological revolution should be explored. Until now, it has primarily affected the sciences of Astronomy, Geology and Paleontology. The disciplines of Archaeology, Anthropology and Archaeoastronomy — the study of mankind’s history — have yet to feel the pressure of this revolution; but it will surely come, bringing sweeping change with it. It will force scholars to reconsider everything we believe about our world and our ancestors. It will become apparent that we live on a world that is swept with cosmic disaster on a periodic basis, leaving civilizations decimated and in ruin. Modern man will discover that he has failed to recognize the primary truth that the ancients endeavored to pass along. It will be seen clearly that man has survived numerous cataclysmic events, but only barely. Perhaps then Velikovsky will be acknowledged for his seminal work. More sobering still is the thought that we may succumb to our own cosmic disaster before we realize the truth about our past. Perhaps this is one lesson we will only learn by tragic experience.
So, this is, in every sense of the word, a revolution of ideas, a paradigm shift. It is most gratifying that each new step along this path of discovery brings the world closer to the catastrophist view. It would be encouraging if all Latter-day Saints could fully appreciate what this means to their understanding of the scriptures and prophecy. Joseph Smith would certainly be pleased at this turn of events.
© Anthony E. Larson, 1999