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A Book Review

The Cosmic Connection, How Astronomical Events Impact Life On Earth, by Jeff Kanipe, Prometheus Books, 2009.

by Duane Dunkerson

(Mr. Kanipe is a well known and able science writer who has worked for Astronomy magazine, StarDate magazine, and His books include Chasing Hubble's Shadow, The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, and A Skywatcher's Year. His has been co-author of Astronomy: The Definitive Guide, and Advanced Skywatching. His writing has appeared in Nature, Sky and Telescope, New Scientist, and USA Today.)

Astrofear is a term that did not originate with me. I have used it to describe a condition that a solitary amateur astronomer observing from a new place could experience as the unpleasant unknown approached or the unknown could interfere with the known. For this book, the term can be expanded to include all of us, past and present, for which the astronomical known and unknown could be most unpleasant.

Mr. Kanipe mentions that on the blackboard of the universe we are not more than a chalk jot. If I may expand on that notion, I imagine supra-natural beings are writing about the universe and its details on a gigantic blackboard. Someone asks about us, where should our pertinent account be written? They debate the space on the blackboard to be allotted to us. They decide no space can be granted to us. One of them notes we, after all, are of the universe. So then where to put us? Ah, thinks one, let us put them there - the being points to writing on the blackboard. The being points to chalk on the board. The being points to a particle of chalk that is on the board. Lastly, the being points to a subparticle of chalk nearly fallen. This book is about how that chalk could fall.

The nearly fallen have been assured by Darwin of their Earthly positive aspects as a species but, as Mr. Kanipe makes plain, we need to realize that Earth itself has been impacted, sometimes literally, by interactions with asteroids, comets, the Moon, the Sun, the Galaxy, stars, and the universe. Stars are not friendly to life. It's all about location, location, location for a planet in relation to a star and a star in relation to other stars. These interactions occur over much time. For us, in an astronomical sense, not enough time has passed to matter but all that matters to us is in such a span. As Mr. Kanipe states, "A civilization that lives long enough won't have to go to the stars; the stars will come to it." In any event, don't put out the welcome mat.

Mr. Kanipe begins with the Ice Ages. Adhemar (1842) thought the Ice Ages originated in changes in the earth's orbit, specifically in its eccentricity. Croll in 1885 also got the Ice Ages from eccentricity. But Adhemar and Croll were like prophets without honor in their planet. He who came later, Milutin Milankovitch, had more data and a mathematical treatment to boot. He had the Ice Ages as an interplay of Earth's orbital eccentricity, inclination, and precession. Mr. Kanipe would have us realize that aspects of Earth's orbit and its axis of rotation are constantly changing.

Also changing is the Sun. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a decided cooling of the Earth. Rasping glaciers are prominently featured in the text. A Mt. Blanc glacier, Mer de Glace, overcame the village of Le Bois. It was part of the Little Ice Age which is an expression for something more than what it was and perhaps "neoglaciation" is a better term. The former term was restricted to glaciers but it got expanded into a characterization of climate for an era.

What was the cause of the cooling? Most likely it was the Sun. Its energy output can vary. Thus it is a variable star. Compared to most variable stars, some with manic changes of output, the Sun varies very little. But it is enough. It is enough because we are in a delicate balance that has lasted thousands of years. Mr. Kanipe reminds us that in some aspects, the situation has been precarious for much more time. As for a lesser time frame, sunspots occur or fail to be present in correlation with climate changes on Earth. These climate changes are marked by lesser or more carbon-14 in tree rings.

The angry Sun can bother us in other ways. Solar flares that send harmful particles flying at Earth to harm astronauts aloft and disturb electric power grids below are a threat. Still worse are coronal mass ejections. The author - "Simply put, a coronal mass ejection is a piece of the Sun ejected into space." Lost to use would be computers, cell phones, GPS, and disoriented satellites so that, "we could end up deaf, dumb, and blind to anyone not in our immediate vicinity." Then too, the eventual Sun will heat the Earth too much millions of year from now.

If these are not enough for attention getters, then consider the asteroids and comets on "Earth's cosmic shores". Some of these we have known about for a long time. Others we have found out about recently and are of no concern. But then there are those we haven't found out about and they may be of grave concern. If one of those blasts us, we could be all gone or wished we had gone. As Mr. Kanipe notes, "Scientists repeatedly warn that a collision with an asteroid is inevitable."

The "civilization killers" and the species extinction types that rock evolution from its moorings are out there. They can produce air blast pressure, tsunamis, firestorms, earthquakes, poisons let loose, drought, famine, and plague. In other words they are, as Mr. Kanipe quotes a scientist - "a major perturbation" and having "consequences for anatomically modern humans." The author adds there remains the possibility of "a multiple Tunguska-like strafing run."

Mr. Kanipe adds still more dangers in the form of supernovas, hypernovas, and magnetars. Supernovas give themselves up to the space around them in "a single thermonuclear whoosh!" Stars that could go supernova are not near us now. But we do, in our orbit around our galaxy's center, move into regions where supernovas are more frequent. An isotope of iron, 60Fe, is produced by typical supernovas. There are deposits of this isotope in the Earth. This represents the possibility of intense cosmic rays from supernovas killing earthly creatures in great numbers. A nearby supernova is bad enough but the hypernovas offer worse outcomes due to the gamma rays thrown out. Death, genetic damage, and climate changes await. The hypernovas have a longer reach than supernovas but are rarer. They also can be further away and be worse for us. Eta Carinae, at 7,600 light years, may be close enough, "something unique and diabolical will emerge." Another stellar oddity is the magnetar. These stars are neutron stars with intense magnetic fields. They pose another threat - "if a magnetar strayed into the solar system, its magnetic field could very well scramble the atomic and molecular structure of the solar system."

The author does not overlook objects much smaller than stars. That is, dust making up massive galactic interstellar clouds have been encountered by Earth fifty to sixty times. Most recently in terms of millions of years, the Earth has been in an extremely sparse region of our Galaxy. At other times Earth has gone above and below the galactic plane. When "north" of the plane, some think the amount of extragalactic cosmic rays could increase by five times. That increase spells big trouble for Earth's biology.

In one of Mr. Kanipe's chapters appear the possible consequences of encounters with other biologies, those of aliens. For a time it was widely thought that intelligent life in the universe was quite close - as close as Mars. The intelligence of beings on Mars was demonstrated by the canals that had been seen by astronomers here. Some astronomers had telescopes that showed to them those canals. Percival Lowell found more than 500 canals in a 15 year period. Others also saw them. Others did not see them. The Martian canal "kerfuffle" ended without scientific acceptance of benevolent canal builders.

Interest in aliens was sustained by the immediate fearful post WWII sightings of UFO's - the flying saucers or cigars. Frank Drake's 1960 Project Ozma started the double kerfuffle of radio listening for life that is now SETI and the hunt for exoplanets. There were found to be no canals on Mars despite a great longing for it to be so. Intelligent life on other planets has not been found despite a great longing for it to be so. As for the canals, they weren't there. Spacecraft in orbit around Mars and on its surface have definitely eliminated the existence of canals. Enrico Fermi's single question regarding the universe seemingly teeming with life was, "Where are they?" Their existence is not definitely eliminated but their presence is not definitely evident. Mr. Kanipe quotes Jill Tarter in regard to SETI - "The searches… will cease when some societal threshold of pain gets passed and we are willing to accept the incredibly important negative…"

So now the author has covered the bases? Oh no, not yet. As they shout on the TV ads, wait, there's more. He has a chapter entitled exotica and they most certainly are. Could we inhale bad vibes from a comet's tail? Mr. Kanipe mocks the anti-comet pills that were sold in 1910 when Earth had a brush with the tail of Halley's Comet. No pills are even contemplated for what to do about the 95 percent of what's out there that isn't much like us. The universe is mostly something else. In the universe, galaxies collide and ours could become Milkomeda (Andromeda galaxy + the Milky Way) and we might meet a black hole. Lastly, we could suffer from a vacuum metastability event. Particles, virtual or otherwise, bubble about in vacuum and there could be a spilt between the false and the true vacuum and then, "the deletion of the universe" would happen.

Whoa! No lightness of being here. Mr. Kanipe has pulled no punches. Heavy duty blows have been landed. We struggle to get along as human beings. As human beings, we are not an Earthly requirement; we are in, "a universe that is not only dispassionate, but dangerous and random." Once we thought and now we can only hope what is out there stays out there. Fat chance. The author proposes that evolution operates on the scale of the stars and the universe. When has evolution, via natural selection, offered us any comfort above the level of a bucket of warm spit?

Well, putting it plainly, never. Mr. Kanipe tells us he wanted to get away from the we-are-star-stuff patter and avoid the textbook approach. No "astronomy-speak" for him. This he has done. He plainly, without star stuff, and not bound into a textbook, has written of our lucky, lucky plain vanilla region of the Galaxy. Without it we would be without any and all flavors of existence. He makes this point again and again. He thinks dumb luck has accumulated into an improbable scenario. There we were. Here we are.

Some want to make a science out of our mere presence, then and now. Mr. Kanipe implies we must take the controls of the Universe to assure our continued reality. Nevertheless, he does relate how thermonuclear war could end all discussion. He relates its planetary alternations to the similar effects of massive objects colliding with the Earth. We could redline ourselves without a comparator. This suicide could be the most common answer to Fermi's question. The awesome power we already have is more than enough to have all scientific activity as beside the point. Dostoevsky asked did they want their religion or the mathematical truth. Do we want our science or wherever mathematics can take us? Should astrofear be a part of mathfear?

Mr. Kanipe doesn't put it this way. It is my elaboration on his theme. If you acquire his book and I urge you to do so, you will find more information on the theme. He does not traverse the wild blue yonder in his accounts. He is a science writer of the first rank. He has some personal experience to tell you about in some parts of his book. They help you understand why he is a science writer and can help you understand his theme. Trust Mr. Kanipe, he knows what he is doing.











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by Duane Dunkerson

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