Tag Archives: Astronomy

Google Earth as Harbinger of Doom

Researchers are using Google Earth, the New York Times/IHT reports, to look for evidence of giant tsunamis, signs that the Earth has been hit by comets or asteroids more regularly, and more recently, than people thought:

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

Chevrons are huge deposits of sediment that were once on the bottom of the ocean; they are as big as tower blocks and shaped like chevrons, the tip indicating the direction from which the tsunami came. 

I love the idea that academics use a tool like Google Earth to — possibly — puncture one of the greatest myths of the human era: that comets only come along once every 500,000 years.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

There are a couple of other quirks to this story. The working group of misfits is cross-disciplinary — there’s a specialist on the structural analysis of myth in there — but only formed when they bumped into each other at a conference. How more efficient it would have been had they been blogging; they might have found each other earlier. (Perhaps they met before the blogging age; there’s a piece on the subject here from 2000.) 

The second quirk for me is that the mythologist (actually Bruce Masse calls himself an enviromental archaeologist) reckons he can pinpoint the exact date of the comet which created the Burckle Crater between Madagascar and Australia using local legends: 

Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

I love the idea of myths; I see them as a kind of early Internet, a way of dispersing knowledge using the most efficient tools (in those days, this meant stories and word of mouth.) We tend to think of myths as superstition and scare mongering, but in fact in many cases they are the few grains of wisdom that get passed on from generation to generation.  They often get contorted in the telling, the original purpose — to warn — sometimes getting lost. 

Like the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, most of whom were spared the 2004 tsunami because they “knew from their tribal lore that this was a warning sign to flee to higher ground”, according to Reuters. On the Acehnese island of Simeulue, similar lore, dating back to the 1907 tsunami, tells islanders that “if the land is shaking and shoreline is drained abnormally, they have to go to very high land.” Only seven people out of 80,000 islanders died. 

Based on this, the idea of trying to pin down the comets, the craters and the chevrons by exploring local myth makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that is being done alongside using something as modern, and as freely available, as Google Earth. I guess I’m just not happy about the implications for us current planet dwellers. 

Source: Ancient crash, epic wave – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune (graphic here)

Google Earth — So Impressive, So Depressing

Google Moon is now up and running. Is it only I who finds Google Earth electrifying and yet somewhat depressing, and disturbing?

The idea of being able to zoom into street level is amazing. The technology is extraordinary. Wonderful. It’s one of those moments when you get a real buzz, as if life has just been jolted a yard or two down the track in one second. But now I can’t go outside without thinking how many satellites might be tracking me, or wondering whether there is any place on earth that can’t be visible from space.

It’s awe-inspiring to put little markers in the map and then zoom from one corner of the world to the next, from my family home in the UK to the hotel I’m in in Hong Kong, to the actual rock on Lamma I was sitting on last week. Amazing. But at the same time seeing a journey that takes a day or two reduced to a zippy flyover is somewhat deflating. What happened the mystery of travel? Why travel the globe if you can zip around it on your computer?

The whole zooming out into space and then back is fun, too. But at the same time all it does is remind us how insignificant we are. Little blips. And yet, zooming over the planet from my house to your house also seems to make the planet a lot smaller, and not necessarily in a nice way.

I guess part of me hoped the planet would still be big enough to satisfy a couple more generations’ wanderlust, but now technology is, brilliantly but relentlessly, making everything smaller, easier to find, easier to reach. You’ve got to wonder whether traveler Michael Palin and his ilk (and he still has a few ilks) are a dying breed. Have Google and GPS buried the intrepid explorer?

I hope not.