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Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns, and Other Hazards to Life in Our Universe
By Bob Berman
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The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.
—SENECA, CIRCA AD 48
It’s not the end of the world!”
My wife muttered that cliché for perhaps the fortieth time this year in a kindhearted attempt to make me feel better about our snowblower’s snapped pull cord. Usually one doesn’t reply to rhetorical comments. But I found myself saying, “Unless, by amazing coincidence, a nuclear war begins this afternoon.”
She didn’t laugh. Neither of us was guilty of original thinking. Civilizations throughout time have been obsessed with Armageddon.
We can only guess why this is so. Probably humans share a hopeful sense of collective destiny, of events unfolding according to some lofty blueprint. And this feeling of grandeur makes people want to lump their fate in with some epic, planetwide denouement rather than face the more likely reality that they’ll succumb to high cholesterol.
Whatever the reason, people’s fears commonly revolve around devastating events beyond their control. During the Q-and-A period after I give a lecture at a college or library, audience members often express worries about Earth’s poles flipping or a rogue planet colliding with ours. The 1996 Discover magazine issue with the cover story about the chances of a giant meteor slamming into our world was one of the most popular ever.
Perhaps it’s the sheer drama, plain and simple. The notion of millions of people dying at the same time—whether from an Ebola-type epidemic or nuclear terrorism—seems riveting, even while the actual likeliest threats to people remain unglamorous, like lung cancer due to smoking cigarettes.
Finally, such planetwide holocausts are not purely theoretical. Devastating catastrophes have actually happened repeatedly, and they will happen again. Learning about them, especially with the addition of all the cool-fact details that have only recently surfaced and are still not widely known, satisfies a very old need that transcends today’s culture. At the same time, recently evolving global threats, not just to our species but to our entire planet, bring a new urgency to the subject.
I’ll admit it—I’m one of those people who find this stuff fascinating. And I’m determined to create a factual narrative that vividly illustrates these cataclysms, past, present, and future.
CATACLYSMS IN THE HEAVENS
We’re all oddly drawn to a theme that started in ancient Egypt and Greece and has perennially appeared in folklore. It’s the idea of the phoenix, the creature that emerges from the ashes of a conflagration. The metaphoric implication is that if our world, or at least our culture and all we hold dear, is violently destroyed, something just as vibrant can rise from the ruins.
This has actually happened, not once or twice, but repeatedly. And not just on the local or even planetary level but on epic scales that have rattled the floorless alleyways of the cosmos. We’re talking about cataclysms.
In a way, they’re counterintuitive. A quick study of nature shows that all objects display inertia—a strong tendency to keep doing whatever it is they are already doing. Planets whirl around the sun, and nothing is needed to maintain the motion. Meanwhile the sun, the center of all this respectful planetary circling, carries its obedient retinue through the galaxy at 144 miles a second as it participates in the galaxy’s rotation. The sun and its flock have performed nineteen such circuits since their birth, and, like a mother duck with her ducklings, Sol always returns with the same retinue in tow.
No long-lived observer patiently studying our solar system for millennia would notice anything different with each galaxy rotation. Only if he were armed with a super-telescope and perhaps alerted to be extra-attentive would the onlooker detect a change. “Look at that third planet, the blue one,” he might whisper. “This time around, at some point while it’s been away on its most recent galactic orbit, most of its life was destroyed. It has undergone a cataclysm. And yet now its surface is crawling with strange new organisms. What magic! What will happen next?”
Our ageless observer might be quicker to see that with each galaxy rotation and each return, the sun itself has changed. Each time it completes its 240-million-year circuit of the Milky Way’s core, going beyond the stars of Sagittarius, it returns 2.5 percent more luminous. That’s just a little brighter. The change is as subtle as a 75-watt bulb becoming 77 watts, so our onlooker would have to be sharp indeed to notice this alteration. Only after about four circuits of the galaxy’s core and the passage of a billion years would the brightening of the sun be obvious. Still, even after that protracted interval, the difference would be a mere 10 percent boost. The 75-watt bulb is now 83 watts. But that’s enough to make the third planet too hot. In the past single circuit, all its life has vanished.
A close inspection of that planet and its near neighbors shows that Earth’s large-headed Homo sapiens creatures have built ark-like spacecraft and abandoned their world to colonize the next planet out, the orange one, although life there is proving to be a radiation-filled struggle.
The above scenario is a reasonably accurate look ahead to a time a mere 1.1 billion years from now. The sun will indeed be 10 percent brighter, and all Earth life will indeed be destroyed by the heat, and if we humans still exist, we will surely have fled to the only planet in that anti-sunward direction that has any sort of surface. All others are gaseous and slushy and offer no place to land.
This cataclysm has already happened on our planet, several times. In those previous solar brightenings, epic terrestrial responses followed each luminosity boost. The composition of our planet’s atmosphere changed in such a perfectly appropriate reaction that it might almost seem engineered. It’s as if Gaia—the name for our biosphere when viewed as a single intelligent entity whose constituent plants, animals, biomes, and natural systems function cooperatively—brilliantly reconfigured the surface to comfortably stabilize it despite the extra solar luminosity.
The record reveals other slow changes too, like Earth’s orbital path mutating from a round shape to an elongated egg-shaped track and back again over a 112,000-year period and the twenty-six-millennia alterations in the direction of its axial tilt, both of which dictate the onset and ending of ice ages. And there were more alchemic tricks in nature’s terrestrial handbook. Superimposed on these enormous global alterations and other powerful if snail-paced world-shapers, such as the muscular mountain-building abilities of plate tectonics, are the spices in the saucy story line—the disastrous metamorphoses that were sudden rather than gradual. To Earth’s inhabitants at the time, these were the cataclysms. Widespread death and disruption were their calling cards, events that seemed to be conjured by the notorious Hindu goddess Kali, who preferred to destroy worlds rather than, say, enjoy a snack.
How and when these cataclysms arose, how they changed the planet and its inhabitants, and which ones could be closer to rematerializing than you might imagine is the subject of this book.
People don’t think about cataclysms too often. That could be because it’s anathema to our need for safety, but perhaps it’s also because the topic doesn’t seem relevant to our everyday lives and thus probably requires some Paul Revere type to sound the alarm before people will pay attention.
A cataclysm is typically an event of surprise and upheaval, and it usually descends on its victims rapidly, although a relatively slow-spreading global epidemic would also qualify (and does, as you’ll see in our pandemic chapters later on). If the word cataclysm has an antonym, it might be safe routine, which is nowhere more exemplified than in modern American life, where events are largely predictable and local movement leisurely.
There’s not much animation out the back window of the typical suburban house, where the panorama resembles a snapshot more than a video. In the neighborhood, leaves may stir in the breeze. Clouds lethargically mutate. Even in bustling cities, motion unfolds at an accessible human clip. Walkers, bike riders, planes above, even the traffic—nothing is too fast to follow. The buildings on one’s block will be there tomorrow. The reassuring steady pace is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.
Even everyday tools and gadgets have been engineered to eliminate surprises and ensure that nothing alarming stirs up the dust. Since humans are famous for not following directions—or even reading those that accompany every new purchase—most devices have built-in idiot-proofing. A portable electric heater? The directions warn against placing it where it might tip over and ignite the carpet. But if you do that anyway? Why, then there’s a safety cutoff switch.
Cars are increasingly built with blind-spot monitors and backup cameras, and designers keep asking how humans can be protected against themselves. There are very few products available to the public that have significant inherent danger. The exceptions to this rule are sufficiently rare that everyone knows what they are. Two of them are chain saws and motorcycles. With such things, a single foolish moment of inattention is enough to produce grievous injury. These items simply cannot be made idiot-proof. Other semi-dangerous products exist too, but most have been grandfathered into our twenty-first-century lives. If bicycles had never been available before and someone proposed to put them on the market today, government safety agencies would never approve them. A flimsy transportation apparatus with no air bags or seat belts meant to be used on the public roads alongside motor vehicles? Are you kidding? No way!
So protective measures keep increasing, and transportation, once one of the most dangerous activities in human endeavor, has never been safer. Even a natural calamity such as an earthquake now encounters buildings and bridges specifically designed to withstand its assault. And anyway, such dramatic natural cataclysms are rare.
All this tranquillity is, thankfully, nature’s rule rather than its exception. If restlessness someday drove humans to leave this planet for a more exciting venue, they’d find most celestial destinations to be even more placid than their home world. An immortal observer on the moon’s surface could wait a million years and still not perceive the slightest change in the dusty lunar terrain other than the sharp-edged inky mountain shadows that gradually lengthen and then shorten in a reliable fortnightly cycle.
The overwhelming majority of celestial acreage is inactive and will remain forever unruffled. More than 90 percent of the visible universe’s current seventy billion trillion suns had non-attention-getting births and are living out their lives in a steady, predictable fashion. When their lives near the end, they do not explode but merely collapse and harmlessly fade to black, as if in a movie’s final scene.
But when cosmic violence does unfold, it more than rattles the neighborhood; it changes the very fabric of the universe, even if these mega-shake-ups lie near the limit of human comprehension.
Most of us don’t know much about pandemonium, and that makes sense, since we’re generally interested in events and circumstances that affect us personally. If you asked people to think of a dozen arbitrary topics, few would involve frenzied life-threatening catastrophes. Their thoughts might first turn to nutrition. Vacation swimming spots. Hollywood gossip. Nature lovers might think of birds or constellations or hiking trails. Even when natural violence makes the front page, people are mostly concerned with the consequences.
A series of wildfires ravages California. The TV news plays video showing flames that are awfully fast in their hypnotic dances, but the fire itself rarely spreads faster than human walking speed. Truly rapid natural motion is something else. Its rarity alone makes it startling. It always grabs our attention, partially because it displaces air and thus produces a sudden accompanying noise, and we mammals are most attentive when multiple senses are simultaneously activated. If the speedy movement involves something small, like a mosquito’s wings beating 440 times a second, the sound is diminutive. The mosquito’s wings produce a whine in the musical pitch of A, which coincidentally is one of the two simultaneous notes that make up a telephone dial tone.1
If the fast action involves something physically large, like a mile-long bolt of lightning traveling that one mile in a mere 1/6,000 of a second, then the huge mass of displaced superheated air creates a startling 100-to 120-decibel thunderclap if the bolt is nearby. We jump at the extreme noise level but normally do not contemplate its roughly 100-hertz tone bellowing subwooferly at a low bass-clef pitch of G or A.2
The faster the motion and the more massive the object that suddenly changes position, the greater the violence and the more likely the event gains a nomination for inclusion in our narrative. The motion needn’t involve solid things. Much dynamic activity can unfold in the myriad liquid drops in the curvy cubic-kilometer assembly known as a cumulus cloud. A cloud typically weighs a million pounds, and even if its volume were solely a gaseous mass that lacked a liquid component, that much vaporous material abruptly shifting position would produce sufficient violence to attract immediate attention.
Water, which volume for volume is 784 times heavier than air, unleashes great destruction when it rapidly shifts, as was tragically seen in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed a quarter of a million lives. Though we will examine such earthly violence later on, these local ferocities pale in comparison to the events and processes that produce ultrapowerful novas, exploding galaxies, supernovas, and other space-time-warping cataclysms. There is also strange, off-the-radar, newly discovered violence spawned by unlikely mechanisms like extreme magnetism. And we won’t neglect the lesser but still impressive shake-ups in the Earth’s own neighborhood, including the catastrophically explosive birth of our moon.
We’ll unravel the workings of nuclear fusion that culminated in the hydrogen bomb; its surprising mechanisms deserve to be probed in instruction-booklet detail, especially since the bomb’s creation involved nail-biting wrong turns that led to human tragedies that are still largely untold.
We will see what’s behind the ongoing violence that makes four trillion neutrinos zoom through every human eyeball each and every second. And we’ll learn about the ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays from distant cataclysms that are continually bombarding us and discover how they affect our health. We’ll examine our planet’s protective mechanisms and how they nonetheless leave us periodically susceptible to the cosmic sadism that envelops us still.
We will savor the most spectacular of all violent events, the all-time-greatest pyrotechnic displays, by-products of which were the very materials nature used to fashion our brains: the Big Bang itself.
It’s usually a bad entertainment strategy to begin with your highest superlative. What could ever top it? But if I am to offer any sort of timeline, the curtain cannot rise sooner than “at the beginning.” This chronology is also set in stone because if time has any independent reality (which is actually doubtful), it dates to the Big Bang.
The problem, if it can be called that, is that although the Big Bang is popularly visualized as an unimaginably violent explosion, its nature was fundamentally different from everything that followed. An explosion is a sudden outward-rushing paroxysm. A star can explode, and so can a galaxy. In war, all manner of armaments and shells detonate. In all these cases, material is flung outward. The violence is easily ascertained and qualified by the mass and velocity of the outrushing fragments.
Damage is always intimately linked with kinetic energy, which is a fancy way of saying “the power of speed.” Kinetic energy is expressed as mass multiplied by velocity squared. So speed—not the weight of the material being destroyed and not the behavior of the explosive substance—is the supreme damaging factor in an explosion.
But the Big Bang was different. There, nothing was accelerated. Rather, this unimaginable violence solely involved the frenzied expansion of space, of emptiness itself. How that resulted in continued wild motion with consequences felt to this day is a story that has neither a true beginning nor, yet, a decisive denouement.
IT REALLY WAS A BIG BANG
The Big Bang was the most violent incident in the universe’s history. That it was utterly different from all the other cataclysms that came afterward barely expresses its uniqueness, since the event contains contradictions even in the logic needed to grasp it.
In 1929, when the brilliant but snooty and widely disliked Chicagoan Edwin Hubble announced in his faux-British accent that the universe was expanding, he opened up an argument. Until then, most cosmologists and philosophers had believed that the universe was eternal, a condition they called “the steady state.” But using California’s new Hooker telescope with its eight-foot-wide green mirror made of melted wine bottles, Hubble saw that all galaxy clusters were racing away from Earth.
The farther away they were, the faster they went. It was so unexpected and bewildering that many of the astronomers may have wished that a few of the bottles had been spared. The discovery suggested a violent if confusing natal moment in the distant past.
The opposing model, which was that everything always existed and never had any sort of beginning, was science’s majority view until then. And as we’ll see in a bit, that might actually be true, at least on a larger level.
The new alternative—that the cosmos did indeed have a birth of some sort and that it was abrupt rather than stately—was of course not such a new idea, since it jibed with the Genesis account in the Bible, which explained that God effortlessly created the cosmos in a mere few days.1
Science has never been too keen on the idea of a natal moment. It was obvious that any genesis event would immediately provoke further questions about antecedent conditions and how they arose. It took no genius to realize that you’d frustratingly find yourself in an inconclusive series of infinite regressions.
Nonetheless, in an 1848 essay, Edgar Allan Poe wrote about the cosmos beginning as a kind of primordial egg. And a lifetime later, a few years before Hubble’s announcement, a Belgian priest and astronomer named Georges Lemaître proposed, in his hypothesis of the primeval atom, that one could perhaps trace all speeding galaxy clusters back to some sort of super-dense starting point.
Extrapolating back in time is a simple task with any explosion if it’s filmed in slow motion and then the movie is played in reverse. And that’s our situation, as observers, as we watch the universe expand. In the case of the entire cosmos, its rate of expansion, eventually called the Hubble constant, is easily appreciated. A good analogy is a balloon with ants scattered evenly on its surface. Each ant represents a group of galaxies. Inflate the balloon further, and each ant sees its nearest neighbor move slowly away. It observes ants on the far side of the balloon recede fastest. But no ant itself expands.
Similarly, galaxies and even clusters of these cities of suns retain their sizes and do not inflate while the gaps between the clusters continually grow. As for the rate of this expansion, a longtime holy grail for astronomers, you can easily memorize this Hubble constant (drop it in conversation at parties; it will impress your listeners no matter their vocations). It’s fourteen miles per second per million light-years of distance. So you just multiply fourteen by anything’s distance from Earth in millions of light-years. And now you’ve stated how fast everything is racing away in this epic cosmic booming.
Let’s do one quick example. Say a galaxy cluster is 100 million light-years distant. It must then be moving away at a speed of 100 multiplied by 14, so 1,400 miles per second. Fast enough to cross North America in two seconds.
To ponder the past, you simply trace everything’s motion backward (or deflate the balloon), and it all converges, making it obvious that everything must have originated from a single spot 13.8 billion years ago.
That place of the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere in the universe. Rather, it was itself the entire universe, back when the cosmos was the size of a mustard seed. The Big Bang occurred wherever you happen to be right now, since all locations were in a single spot, which has since become everywhere.
Since the Big Bang is still banging, and at an ever increasing speed to boot, we could indeed consider it an ongoing explosion in which we are part of the hurtling debris. But as we’ll see, a far more violent event was embedded within the main one, and this is what will win our special-effects Oscar, especially since it fashioned the cosmos we now see around us.
But first, let’s really understand the Big Bang once and for all, since scientists are actually quite sure the universe started out astonishingly tiny, dense, and hot some 13.8 billion years ago. We’ll tackle this step by step, as there are multiple aspects to consider, and each is an important piece of the puzzle.
Item one: The average density of the cosmos is one atom for every cubic inch of space. This is close to the critical density that will keep it expanding forever under its own momentum.2 If there were more material, the stronger overall gravity would have made everything collapse long ago, before stars and planets and life could form, and that obviously didn’t happen. Also, more matter would make space itself visibly curve. Instead, we observe a large-scale space-time structure that is flat, meaning distant stars are just where they should be if no distortion is altering their positions.
Conversely, if there were less material, the weaker overall gravity would show itself as a runaway inflation and a negative saddle-shaped curvature of space, neither of which is observed. So we’re embedded in an oddly precise and perfectly balanced life-friendly cosmic density. This critical evenness we see today had to have been present from the beginning, since the act of inflating for billions of years would have exaggerated any discrepancy.
The first takeaway: We live in an extremely peculiar universe in which the distribution of matter hangs right on the razor’s edge of allowing things to continue to unfold without any imminent reality-ending large-scale cataclysm of sudden collapse or sudden expansion into cold black emptiness. And it was this way from the get-go.
Item two: Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider show how matter and energy behave in extremely hot conditions, so we know that when the cosmos was only one and a half minutes old, it would have had a temperature much hotter than the sun’s core that would have created matter out of energy in a specific ratio of light elements (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) and with exactly the abundances now seen throughout the cosmos.
Item three: When the universe was a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, it must have suddenly but briefly inflated far faster than light speed. This wild frenzy is the only possible explanation for why, today, the temperature and curvature of space are the same everywhere and in all directions. We’ll return to this frenzied inflation shortly.
Item four: About 379,000 years after the Big Bang, the subatomic particles that had formed from the intense hot energy had cooled enough to simultaneously create ordinary atoms everywhere, mostly simple hydrogen. At this moment, the dazzling omnipresent photons of light were no longer absorbed and scattered. Space was suddenly transparent for the first time. The fog cleared and now light could fly freely.3 This light is still present because, in terms of the universe, nothing ever leaves to go anywhere else. Because of the continued expansion of the cosmos, all these light waves were stretched out and weakened as they traversed space for eons, and they now emanate from the entire sky as uniformly wimpy microwaves. We call this radiance the cosmic microwave background, or CMB.
Item five: The impressive evenness of this glow—unvarying to one part in eighty thousand—nonetheless has slight temperature knots or bumps where stars and galaxies later formed. So the CMB’s overall evenness and its tiny irregularities, called anisotropies, explain the eventual structure of the cosmos using the known laws of nature.
Item six: The expansion of everything, with speed increasing with distance, means that anything farther than 13.8 billion light-years from us is flying away faster than light speed. That’s the vast bulk of the cosmos. It’s at least 99.999 percent of everything. So we cannot observe or learn anything about virtually all of the cosmos because light emanating beyond that point will never get here. Everything we see or can ever hope to see, which is everything nearer than that, might be called the visible universe or the observable universe.
Thus the visible or observable universe has a precisely defined size with a sharp cutoff 13.8 billion light-years from Coney Island. But the actual universe, which is far larger, is of unknown dimensions. It might extend infinitely.
Review these aforementioned six items and you’ll understand the Big Bang better than anyone else around you (unless you’re currently living in a Caltech dorm with astrophysics grad students).
The Big Bang theory accounts for the visible universe’s elements, motion, construction, density, and omnipresent CMB, those microwaves coming at us from all directions. It is specific and successful. But it is silent about one or two little details. It does not try to explain why an entire universe as small as a mustard seed abruptly materialized out of nothingness one morning. Or how, hotter and denser than anything we can imagine, it briefly inflated faster than light. This “origins” business is thus a very strange situation in which we know all the details, including temperatures, sizes, components, and dates of events, to an accuracy of several decimal points, and yet it all surrounds a logically impossible occurrence whose antecedent conditions are an utter mystery.
Praise for Zapped
"An enthusiastic account of all the light we cannot see from a science popularizer with a knack for presenting hard facts clearly and stylishly.... A guide for laymen written with gusto and assurance."—Kirkus
- "The narrative is briskly conversational: We're on the porch, shooting the breeze with a knowledgeable neighbor. Mr. Berman's avowed goal in writing this book, he says, was 'to open a window onto the enormous universe of omnipresent energies.' Once that window is thrown open, it is hard to look at the world the same way."—Wall Street Journal
- "Nimbly busts common myths... Berman writes with enthusiasm and clarity, making this an informative and digestible read for the science-curious."—Booklist
- "Captivating... fear not the long-winded scientific discourse: Berman zings through historical and scientific adventures."—American Scholar
- "Astronomy writer Berman runs through a fascinating history of the rainbow's invisible bands in this breezy, accessible read.... In the style of a favorite professor, Berman injects bits of odd humor and captivating tangents into this complex but familiar topics."—Publishers Weekly
- "Berman writes with verve and vigor ...Berman's book is a pleasing excursion into the hows and whys of how the universe-our universe, anyway-took shape and how it works-except when it doesn't. Just the book for a bright teenager interested in astronomy and geosciences."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Feb 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company