COSMIC CATASTROPHES

SEPTEMBER 13, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

I am sure you all remember the story of Chicken Little. Chicken Little is eating some seeds in the barn yard near the old oak tree. He happens to look up into the heavens just as something falls down from above and, clunk, hits him on the head. He is startled and says to himself, "The sky is falling." He runs and tells Henny Penny what has happened. "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!", he exclaims. "How do you know the sky is falling?", she asks him. And he says, "I saw it with my little eyes. I heard it with my little ears. And a piece of it fell on my poor little head." Henny Penny replies, "Well, we must run and tell the king." As they are running they meet Goosey Loosey who asks them where they are going. "The sky is falling and we're running to tell the king." Goosey Loosey asks them, "How do you know the sky is falling?", and Chicken Little replies, "I saw it with my little eyes, I heard it with my little ears, and a piece of it fell on my little head." Goosey Loosey asks if he can join them and off they go together to tell the king that the sky is falling. Next they run into Turkey Lurkey and then Cockey Lockey and the scene replays itself all over again. "How do you know the sky is falling?" "I saw it with my little eyes, I heard it with my little ears, and a piece of it fell on my poor little head." Finally, they meet wise old, Mr. Owl, who inquires as to where they are all running in such a hurry. When Chicken Little tells him that the sky is falling, and that they are running to tell the king, Mr. Owl, like all they others, asks him, "How do you know the sky is falling?" When Chicken Little tells Mr. Owl, "I saw it with my little eyes, I heard it with my little ears, and a piece of it fell on my poor little head", Mr. Owl asks him if he could show him the piece of sky that fell on his little head. Chicken Little tells him that he didn't bring it with him, but left it lying on the ground back in the barn yard. "Well, let's go back and have a look just to be sure", suggests, Mr. Owl. So off they go back to the barn yard by the old oak tree. Chicken Little picks up something from the ground and says, "Here it is, just like I said." "Let me see that," says Mr. Owl. "Why this is only an acorn. It fell down from the old oak tree over there. Before you go running off to tell the king or anyone else that the sky is falling, be sure you know what you're talking about." So they all went back to their places in the barn yard each of them a little wiser than they were before. Now, you may ask, what does Chicken Little have to do with cosmic catastrophes in the movies or in real life? More than you might think. First of all, in many respects, Chicken Little was right. The sky is falling, every day and every night hundreds of tiny meteors stream into the earth's atmosphere and burn out as they fall towards the ground or the ocean. Every few hundred years larger meteorites fall from the sky and land on the earth with a crash and a thud and an explosion. And every few thousand years or so some very large meteorites weighing hundreds of tons crash into the earth with staggering explosive force, leveling forests and creating craters or landing in the ocean and causing gigantic tidal waves hundreds of feet high. We know that such things have happened in the past and can happen again. The most famous meteorite collision with the earth happened about 22,000 years ago, the Barringer Meteorite, which left a crater about a kilometer across and 150 meters deep near Diablo Canyon in Arizona. In 1908 a large meteorite landed in the Siberian countryside and leveled the forest for miles around. Many heard the explosion, but no pieces of the meteorite were ever found. Rarely, if ever, do meteors or meteorites strike human beings directly. The only known case in recent history is of a woman from Alabama who was struck in the hip by a five-kilogram meteorite that left her severely bruised and frightened. Fortunately, it hit her on the first bounce. I don't know her name, but it could well have been Henny Penny and she had every reason to run and tell the king that the sky was indeed falling. Back in the late 18th Century when the notion was first proposed that meteors or "shooting stars" might in fact be rocks falling from the sky the idea was laughed out of court. Nonsense! Impossible! Whoever heard of rocks falling out of the sky! But it turned out that Chicken Little was right. Rocks do fall out of the sky, and sometimes they are pretty big, and frightfully so. It's interesting to note that the root of the word "disaster" means "bad star" or "star gone awry." Hollywood, as you all know, loves to make movies that depict cosmic catastrophes on a grand scale, mainly because hundreds of thousands of people flock to the theaters to see these movies and Orion Films or other companies smile as they make large deposits of cash in the banks. This summer was no exception. I chanced to see two of those cosmic catastrophe movies--namely, "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." The latter film was the more glitzy of the two and had much more media hype behind it, but in terms of the science that informed the two films "Deep Impact" was much more plausible. The plot and the premise of the two films were virtually the same. In "Deep Impact" an earth-bound comet about the size of Manhattan is discovered about two years before predicted impact. In "Armageddon" an earth bound asteroid about the size of Texas is discovered only 18 days before predicted impact. In both films the battle plan for saving the earth is to send a manned space probe to plant a nuclear bomb to split or shatter the bad stars. Again, both movies depict some partial disasters, in one from a barrage of heavy meteor showers which devastate New York and Paris, and in the other by an impact from a piece of the comet which causes a huge tidal wave to inundate the east coast. Finally, both films conclude with last-minute saving acts by our astranaughts which split the asteroid and shatter the comet shortly before impact is due. The science which informs "Deep Impact" is for the most part fairly accurate. A comet fragment the size of a portion of Manhattan, were it to impact the Atlantic ocean would in fact inundate New York City, Washington, D.C. and most of the East Coast with a wall of water hundreds or even thousands of feet high. On the other hand the chances of an asteroid the size of the state of Texas going undetected until only 18 days before impact are virtually nil. The asteroid Ceres is about that size and it is an object so bright that it was easily discovered before the advent of powerful telescopes in 1801. And it never comes closer than tens of millions of miles to earth. Any astral object that big would be too bright to miss until only 18 days till doomsday. Secondly, an asteroid that big would be next to impossible to deflect or to fragment and were it attempted would make matters even worse by creating not one but two or more disastrous impacts. The same could be said for trying to fragmentize a comet so close to the earth. We would end up with multiple cosmic catastrophes around the globe instead of one. The film "Armageddon" took its title from a verse in the Book of Revelation that depicts a doomsday scenario at a place which is called in Hebrew "Armageddon." The seventh bowl of God's wrath is poured upon the earth as a voice from heaven declares, "It is done!", and then follow great "flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as had never been since men and women were on the earth, so great was that earthquake." (Rev. 16: 16-18) I can tell you this, an asteroid the size of Texas would be an Armageddon to end all Armageddons--all life on earth would be destroyed. We have to understand that the ancient Biblical writers and their contemporaries looked upon natural disasters as the judgment and acts of a wrathful deity for human wrong doing. They had no sense of distinction between natural events and moral law and judgment, but saw them as somehow one and the same. You begin to get some sense of distinction or detachment between divine judgment and natural disasters in the writings of the Psalmist. In the 46th Psalm the writer declares that "though the earth should change, the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,...we will not fear" because "God is our refuge and strength." He still believes that God "has wrought desolations in the earth," but he also believes that the LORD "makes wars to cease" and that it only remains for us to "be still, and know that I am God." In the New Testament Jesus tells his hearers that they are adept at forecasting the weather based on their observations of the earth and sky, but that they lack the moral sense to interpret the times in which they live. He cites a disaster in which 18 persons were killed when the tower in Siloam fell upon them. He then asks, "Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?" And he tells them emphatically, "No, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Jesus was saying that accidents and natural disasters were not the direct result of human moral turpitude, but that nonetheless acts of moral wrong doing have consequences of their own that can lead to death and disaster if we do not relent and repent from such actions. Such a view is clearly more in line with a modern understanding of natural events and moral actions. One thing that cosmic catastrophes in the movies and in the real world can do for us is to remind us of our human finitude and mortality, and that the real purpose of our lives is to learn to love and help one another through both good times and bad. Disasters often impel people to pull together and work together to help one another survive and endure. We try to rescue the injured, aid the fallen, comfort the afflicted. Why do we have to wait for disaster to strike before we do such things. Live love and compassion now while you may. Don't wait until its too late. There's not an awful lot we can do about cosmic catastrophes other than to know that they have happened and will happen again and that we must find a way to go on living and loving and hoping for the best in spite of there ever present possibility. The earth could be destroyed someday by a supernova death star were such an explosion to occur within 30 light years or less from the earth. We could all be slowly roasted on a rotisserie of gamma rays impacting the planet from the supernova death star. The Crab Nebula in the heavens is the remains of such an explosion which was first seen in 1054 A.D. Fortunately, it was far removed from our planet and is no threat to our existence. But who knows how many planets in other solar systems may have been destroyed by that cosmic catastrophe. Or we could all be rendered lifeless again by another ice age which could be triggered by the sun moving into dust clouds that drift between the stars in the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy. There have been past ice ages. There may very well be future ice ages yet to come. There was a so-called Little Ice Age during the period of 1640-1715 when the average annual temperature declined by just one degree below normal. That Little Ice Age happened to coincide with a period of little to no sunspot activity. Who is to say that such a period might not come again and for a longer stretch of time? A major ice-age would result if the average temperature drops only five to ten degrees. A recent theory holds that the entire earth was once a global snow-ball from the poles to the equator and that the snow ball was melted with the build-up of carbon dioxide over millions of years caused by volcanic activity. Now that the planet has evolved so many life-forms which produce carbon dioxide and keep it well supplied in our atmosphere it is highly unlikely that the entire earth will ever become a global snow ball again. Our problem would appear to be the exact opposite, the production of too much carbon dioxide leading to global warming and the green house affect. The end result could be like our neighbor Venus, a hot-house planet with boiling seas. In the long view of things we know that eventually the earth will be destroyed when our sun becomes a Red Giant star and expands outward to the earth and beyond. When that happens the surface of the earth will reach 1500 deg. C. The best current estimate for that event is about five billion years so it probably doesn't make much sense for us to lose any sleep over it. But what if our estimates are wrong? Time to worry! Time to worry! My colleague, Clarke Wells notes that years ago the Pogo cartoon had an episode in which Churchy LaFemme sits wailing in the back of a rowboat after seeing a newspaper headline: Sun Will Burn Out in Three Billion Years Killing All Life! Churchy cries, "Woe is me, I am too young to die." Porky reprimands him and says, "Shut up, you're lucky to be here in the first place." Which I think is a good note to end this reflection about Chicken Little and Cosmic Catastrophes. It may be true that the sky is falling, that one day a gigantic meteorite will do us in, or that we'll end up in a deep freeze or a hot house planet, or a Red Giant expansion, or a supernova explosion--but until such a time arrives let us quiet our minds with the knowledge that we are lucky to be here in the first place, that the gift of life, however brief it may be, is a wondrous gift indeed, fraught with possibilities for love and beauty and companionship. What else is life for, what else is a church community for, but to grow in love and knowledge and to reach out and help one another. The great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, was once asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. And he said, "I would go out and plant a tree." Yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling. But the oak tree still stretches towards the sun and drops down acorn seeds of hope for future trees we may never see.

Bless us, O Spirit of Creation, with courage and wisdom to make the best of the days that are given to us, to be faithful and loving to one another in good times and in bad, in grief and in gladness, and to know the difference between falling acorns and shooting stars that have gone awry. May we always consider ourselves lucky to be here in the first place and the blessing of life the greatest gift of all. Amen.