No master plan be­hind me­teor flash

Penticton Herald - - OPINION - Jim Tay­lor is an Okana­gan Cen­tre au­thor and free­lance jour­nal­ist. His col­umn usu­ally ap­pears Mondays, but tech­no­log­i­cal glitches pre­vented the col­umn from ap­pear­ing on time this week. He can be reached at re­ JIM TAY­LOR

Joan and I were sit­ting in our hot tub Mon­day last week, star­ing up at the stars and won­der­ing when — if ever — the rains would re­turn to the B.C. in­te­rior, that day be­ing our 66th with­out per­cep­ti­ble rain­fall, when a bril­liant flash lit up the east­ern sky.

“Light­ning?” Joan won­dered. “The weather isn’t sup­posed to change un­til later this week.”

I started count­ing for the boom of thun­der. Years ago, I learned that sound trav­els at roughly a thou­sand feet per sec­ond. If the boom fol­lows the flash by five sec­onds, the cen­tre of ac­tion is safely about a mile dis­tant. (For a kilo­me­tre, about three sec­onds — a lit­tle closer.)

I quit count­ing after 10. Joan claims she heard a rumble, about 10 min­utes later.

Which would be about right. Be­cause the flash, we learned the next morn­ing, had oc­curred more than 200 km away, di­rectly over Koote­nay Lake.

A hunk of rock left over from the for­ma­tion of our so­lar sys­tem had smashed into the earth’s at­mos­phere over the lit­tle town of Boswell at the south end of Koote­nay Lake; it blew up over Meadow Creek, slightly be­yond the lake’s north end.

It blew up be­cause it en­tered the up­per reaches of the at­mos­phere at up to 250,000 km/h.

That’s about 10 times faster than a space shut­tle’s re-en­try. You may re­mem­ber that over­heat­ing de­stroyed the Columbia shut­tle, in 2003. Imag­ine the ef­fect of an en­try 10 times faster.

The sonic boom caused by its ex­plo­sion shook houses in Kaslo and Nel­son.

Tech­ni­cally, the fly­ing rock was a me­te­oroid. If it burns up in the up­per at­mos­phere, it’s called a bolide; col­lo­qui­ally, a “fire­ball.” It be­comes a me­te­orite only if it sur­vives long enough to hit the ground.

Jaymie Matthews, a pro­fes­sor of astron­omy and as­tro­physics at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, es­ti­mated that the me­te­oroid was about the size of a liv­ing room couch.

Alan Hilde­brand, geo­science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, es­ti­mated the couch’s weight at sev­eral tonnes.

If a mere fly­ing couch can make that much bang and flash, I can only imag­ine what an as­ter­oid 10 km in di­am­e­ter would have done 66 mil­lion years ago, when it smashed into what’s now the Yu­catan Penin­sula in Mex­ico.

Ap­par­ently thou­sands of th­ese space frag­ments hit the earth’s at­mos­phere ev­ery year. But few of them are seen. They’re too small to light up the sky. Es­pe­cially dur­ing day­light hours. Or they ar­rive over un­der-pop­u­lated re­gions like Canada’s far north. Or over the oceans, which cover three-quar­ters of the earth’s sur­face.

A fire­ball in the sky cre­ates awe and won­der. A fire­ball that hits the earth causes fear and ter­ror.

Es­pe­cially if it smashes through a roof. Or hits a hu­man be­ing.

After nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma, dev­as­tated vic­tims won­der, “Why us? What did we do to de­serve this?”

The di­nosaurs might have asked them­selves much the same ques­tion — if their minds were ca­pa­ble of for­mu­lat­ing it — when their as­ter­oid cre­ated a 180km crater.

Its fire­ball caused mas­sive fires all over the world; the im­pact threw so much de­bris into the at­mos­phere that cli­mate change killed off three-quar­ters of the earth’s species. In­clud­ing those be­mused di­nosaurs. And what’s the an­swer? There isn’t one.

We hu­mans don’t like to ac­cept that things can hap­pen by chance. We’re pre­dis­posed to be­liev­ing in cause and ef­fect.

Long be­fore Isaac New­ton for­mu­lated his Third Law of Mo­tion — “For ev­ery ac­tion, there is an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion” — our an­ces­tors at­tempted to pla­cate the gods of na­ture, hop­ing to ward off dis­as­ters like floods, earth­quakes, vol­canos, and hur­ri­canes.

If things go wrong, we rea­son, we must have done some­thing to de­serve it. Or per­haps failed to do some­thing, like of­fer­ing enough sac­ri­fices. Or prayers.

Mod­ern sci­ence tells a dif­fer­ent story. The uni­verse is not a machine. We’re not deal­ing with cogs and gears. We’re deal­ing with prob­a­bil­i­ties. Among which is the in­finites­i­mal prob­a­bil­ity of be­ing hit by a me­te­orite. There is no master plan. There was no master plan to wipe out the di­nosaurs.

There was no master plan to pre­des­tine that a par­tic­u­lar chunk of rock, or­bit­ing in empty space for five bil­lion years since the for­ma­tion of the so­lar sys­tem, should fall into the earth’s at­mos­phere at pre­cisely 10:14 p.m. PDT on Mon­day, Sept. 4, to flash the length of Koote­nay Lake be­fore ex­plod­ing so that a few of its me­te­orite frag­ments might fall into an un­pop­u­lated area and kill a spe­cific earth­worm in the for­est floor.

There is no master plan. There are only prob­a­bil­i­ties. Which in­clude chance.

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