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Space Science

Sea Life Wiped Out by Neutron Star Collision? 726

Posted by timothy
from the that's-just-like-your-opinion-man dept.
Memorize writes "Scientists report in the Journal of Astrophysical Letters that a mass extinction of marine life 450 million years ago might have been caused by radiation from an exploding star, such as a collision between two neutron stars, or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. Such an event would cause a ten-second burst of gamma radiation, and if it occurred within our galaxy, it could have wiped out many species on earth. At least if astronomers find out that an asteroid is heading our way, we can do something about it, but if there is a gamma burst, we get no warning. And if we did, would there be any way to protect the planet?"
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Sea Life Wiped Out by Neutron Star Collision?

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  • Scary Stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DarkHelmet (120004) * <mark AT seventhcycle DOT net> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:21AM (#12209105) Homepage
    This is pretty scary...

    I remember reading this a while back on the Wikipedia entry for the Permian Triassic Extinction Event (link [wikipedia.org]), but the Wiki entry quotes specifically that an extinction like this would only happen if the star were 10 parsecs, or 30 light years away.

    Dr Melott in the article claims that a star like this would have to be 6,000 light years away, or closer. (That's more than 200 times the distance previously claimed.

    Keep in mind the volume of a sphere is 4/3 pi r^3, so the volume of space that this would take up is increased by a factor of 8,000,000. I'd say, that the chance of this happening to us, therefore is increased by a factor of 8 million.

    As I said before, scary stuff.

    • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

      by LewsTherinKinslayer (817418) <lewstherinkinslayer@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:30AM (#12209171) Homepage
      I've never understood the human reasoning of fear, especially as it applies to something like this. IANAAP (i am not an astro physicist,) but I bet there is a far better chance of being killed in a car or struck by lightning than being wiped out by a gamma radiation burst.

      Granted, this could completely destroy the human race, but either way I'm dead, so my stake in it is over.
      • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DarkHelmet (120004) *
        Sure, but that's just you.

        Something like this, you have absolutely no legacy whatsoever. No kids to carry things on, nobody left to remember you, none of your accomplishments mattering.

        I, for one, don't want to see the human race become extinct, regardless of if it's in my lifetime or not.

        • by LewsTherinKinslayer (817418) <lewstherinkinslayer@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:34AM (#12209199) Homepage
          I'm only kidding. I'm not in favor of any kind of world wide death of humanity either; I think the loss of any life is a tragedy, let alone EVERY life. But still, the odds of this occuring are probably astronomically small. (pun not intended.)
        • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

          by sbaker (47485) * on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:07AM (#12209385) Homepage
          Humans are just the tool that our genes use to make more genes.

          From that perspective, my personal death is NOT as important as the continuation of my children.

          Most parents know this at the instinctual level.

          The argument that says I'm going to die - what to I care about the rest of humanity - is clearly bogus for most humans. All life on earth strives harder to pass on genetic information than to survive as an individual. That's why we age - and why we fall apart much more rapidly after child-rearing age is past.
          • by xav_jones (612754) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @03:35AM (#12209729)
            I thought we fell apart much more rapidly because of child-rearing.
          • by curlyjunglejake (874251) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @04:28AM (#12209923)
            You are confusing what you ought to do with what mathematically represents the general tendancies of your breeding behavior. In doing so, you deprive yourself of all the advantages of humanity. I also read the selfish gene. I was barely a highschooler when I read it: already interested in the field of genetics. At the time, it made a brilliant sort of sense. Our actions encaged by the selfish genes. How brilliant, how pure! When I grow up, I will have harems and seed sperm banks. My sweet sweet genes will survive! Twelve years and a lot of population genetics later I still remember that book quite clearly. I remember it because of how little since it makes in the face of real science. The first major crime committed by your arguement is that of heubris. Genetically, the death of the individual does not matter that much for a given gene pool. Your genes will continue as long as the group's genes continue: every gene in your genome will be represented. It makes heroism make a bit of sense. It opens us up for freedom to die. Quite liberating, actually. The second major crime espoused by your position is that of confusing mathematics with philosophy. Allow to to provide an example. When I was a young lad, after reading that foolish book, I was really concerned: I was brilliant, and it was my duty to insure my brilliant genes would pass on. I could insure this with my brilliance; with the harems and sperm banks previously mentioned. But would this be enough? Would I also have to go on semenary roadtrips across foreign lands, seeding the population like johnny appleseed? That's what Attila the Hun had to do, but I don't know if I could act like that. How would I be able to overcome my moral repugnance to the actions of the selfish genes? I was truly concerned that my moral sense was going to be a competitive disadvantage. Poisoned by memes! For surely nothing so disadvantageous as morality could have a genetic component? You have to forgive me for worrying about such silly things as selfish genes: I was extremely young and uneducated. I don't worry about that stuff any more. My genes aren't anthropomorphic things that define me and dictate my actions. They have brought me where I am, but then leave it up to me to decide what to do with it. Surely you can think of examples of choices that make sense for the individual but not for their genetic legacy? Surely you don't think that becasue genes are passed on, that that becomes more important than the choices you make? Monks make choices; they find those choices to be more important than passing on their legacy. Their genes are still circulating in the community of other humans; it is no loss to the pool. Their genes wouldn't care even if they did have a say. Evolutionary principles may tell us what happens, but they can never justify those choices. Your arguement could equally be used to rationalize male polygamy because of evolutionary tendancies. LEAVE DARWIN OUT OF IT. Mathematics has never been used to dictate morality.
          • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:3, Insightful)

            by radtea (464814)
            Humans are just the tool that our genes use to make more genes.

            If so, they've chosen a fantastically inefficient way to do it, haven't they? You could have a dozen kids, and still lose 0.024% of your genes forever. If you have two kids, a full 1/4 of your genes would never be transmitted to posterity.

            Sexual reproduction is a good trade-off for an organism, but a terrible deal for the organism's genes.

            --Tom
        • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

          by CodeBuster (516420) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:25AM (#12209455)
          Most people currently living on this planet will not be remembered even fifty years after their death. There may be some family members one hundred years or so down the line who remembers your name, dates of birth and death, and a few meager facts such as your profession; perhaps your name will be in some government records for a few hundred years. However, once the last person who actually knew you as a living person is gone you will most likely be forgotten. In time even our current civilization will fall and all records written or otherwise of average people will probably not survive the chaos. In the grand scheme of history very few people are destined to achieve lasting remembrance. If empires, kings, tyrants, and conquerors have been forgotten how much less will an average modern person be remembered in the millennia ahead?
          • Ozymandias (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Ironsides (739422) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @09:58AM (#12211301) Homepage Journal
            Ozymandias

            I met a traveler from an antique land
            Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
            Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
            Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
            And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
            Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
            Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
            The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
            And on the pedestal these words appear:
            "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
            Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

            Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
            Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
            The lone and level sands stretch far away.

            Sound familiar?
        • Something like this, you have absolutely no legacy whatsoever. No kids to carry things on, nobody left to remember you, none of your accomplishments mattering.

          That is probably true of 90% of the people reading that post.
      • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @03:56AM (#12209793) Journal
        However, I don't go worrying about being hit by a car continuously, because I can mitigate the risk of being hit by a car, and if I do get hit by a car, the entire human race doesn't perish.

        A random gamma ray burst on the other hand I can do nothing about. [0] Since a big part of our point is the continuation of our race as a whole (we are genetically predisposed to want to do this), we will also be hard wired to fear events that can totally end the entire genetic line of our species. Also, I expect a death by gamma ray burst would be drawn out and deeply unpleasant. Dying of radiation poisoning whilst watching everyone around you do the same thing will be a pretty nasty event.

        [0] No, I don't actually sit around worrying about gamma ray bursts, in fact I give it very little thought. I give much more thought to ways of avoiding being run down by cars.
        • by Neurotoxic666 (679255) <neurotoxic666@h o t m ail.com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @09:14AM (#12210993) Homepage
          No, I don't actually sit around worrying about gamma ray bursts,

          Neither do I. I *know* my tinfoil hat will protect me.
        • by Engineer-Poet (795260) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @09:34AM (#12211118) Homepage Journal
          I expect a death by gamma ray burst would be drawn out and deeply unpleasant. Dying of radiation poisoning whilst watching everyone around you do the same thing will be a pretty nasty event.
          Unless you were in orbit or in an aircraft at the time, you probably wouldn't notice anything directly. Gamma rays are easily blocked by mass, and Earth has about ten metric tons of shielding per square meter. What you would notice is the nitric oxide formed by the breakup and recombination of molecules in the stratosphere; it would probably tint the sunsets detectably. Then ozone would go way down, and UV would go way up; you'd definitely notice that.
          A random gamma ray burst on the other hand I can do nothing about.
          Two things about that:
          1. Supernovae may not be predictable, but mergers of neutron stars may be. If theory of gravity waves is correct, we could detect the orbital spin-ups before mergers using laser interferometers.
          2. If you can stick enough mass in the path of the burst to scatter the gamma rays to lower-energy photons or deflect them entirely, you could prevent this problem. This means having a disc of material at least 8000 miles across in the exact right place to shadow the Earth at the moment of the burst, but I never said it would be a small job.
          From this, it follows that long-baseline laser interferometers and GRB research are good things for now. Aiming for serious space-construction capability is a good long-term goal.
        • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:3, Informative)

          by iwadasn (742362)

          It wouldn't be radiation poisoning. Gamma rays cannot penetrate our atmosphere. It would just remove about half the ozone layer (by converting Nitrogen gas into various nitrous oxides), which in turn would kill off a lot of plankton.

          The effect on terrestrial life would probably be substantially less. Terrestrial plants are more resistant to UV, and terrestrial animals tend to have fur/clothes, so they are more resistant as well.

          I'm not saying it isn't a bad thing, but we've pretty much achieved the same e
      • by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @06:32AM (#12210277) Journal
        From my limited observation, most people tend to have a "compressed" (for lack of a better word) perception of large distances, weights or times. Sort of like Terry Pratchett's trolls, whose counting skills went "one, two, lots", but on a larger scale. Beyond a limit, for the vast majority of humans anything is just "lots". I mean, picture one human in your mind. You can do that. 10 humans? No problem. 1000 humans? How about one _billion_ humans? It's, uh, "lots". Do you know how long a day is? Not just theoretically, I mean. Well, yes, you experience that time interval every day. How about a year? It still works. How about a _billion_ years? Try to really imagine that interval in your head. It's, uh, "lots" of time. In practice, for most humans the "lots" limit is even lower. E.g., people have no trouble treating intervals like 20,000 years of a SF universe's history as a blip where nothing noteworthy happened. Yeah, sure, for 20,000 years noone designed a new ship or generally invented anything new. Now think that in half that time RL humans moved from living in caves to launching spaceships. (The first known city is less than 10,000 years old.) So in fact, that "20,000 years" interval is perceived as a _much_ smaller one. Once you've reached the "lots" limit, everything above that is the same. If someone's "lots" limit for time is, say, 20 years, anything over that will be the same. Be it 20,000 years or a billion years, is in fact perceived as the exact same as 20 years. Hence our fascination with stuff that could happen in a billion years or several billion years. (E.g., that our sun will eventually kill us all.) Because instinctively we perceive it at a much closer point in the future. It's in the same "lots" range a your kids' going into retirement. (Incidentally, and just for the sake of a tangent, most people's inability to comprehend evolution. Stuff like billions of billions of billions of organisms, over billions of years, gets compressed to the same "lots" range as 100 cows on a farm over 20 years. And, duh, noone saw those evolve into something else.) Well, it's just a wild hypothesis. I could well be wrong.
    • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:5, Informative)

      by Astro Dr Dave (787433) <dwhysong AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:54AM (#12209321)
      Gamma ray bursts are an area of active research; we now believe that they emit radiation along some polar axis, rather than isotropically in every direction. That probably accounts for the difference in distances you've seen quoted; for some fixed power level, an anisotropic GRB is dangerous from a greater distance if you happen to lie in the beam.
      • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:3, Informative)

        by mbrother (739193) *
        Gamma ray bursts are likely a heterogeneous class. Some, surely, appear to be beamed radiation associated with supernovas. Some portion of them may well constitute isotropic sources, and would only be dangerous within some distance within our own galaxy. As an active area of research, and with SWIFT now flying, we should be getting better answers about the population demographics in the next couple of years.
    • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Guppy06 (410832) * on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:06AM (#12209383)
      "Keep in mind the volume of a sphere is 4/3 pi r^3, so the volume of space that this would take up is increased by a factor of 8,000,000."

      Exept that our galaxy is a disc, not a sphere. Also, don't forget that we're towards the edge of that disc.

      Personally, I see 6000 lt-yr still being pretty "close" (and probably "unlikely") when you consider our galaxy is roughly 100,000 lt-yr in diameter. If it happened often enough for us to be worried about, we'd see more such collisions within our galaxy beyond the 6000 lt-yr theoretical safe distance.

      Besides, what are the odds of two stars colliding such a manner, anyway? It seems the odds of a binary star becoming a pair of neutron (or denser) stars seem to be slim to none: you'd think the creation of one neutron star out of one would consume/destroy the other before it had the chance to follow suit. So we're really dealing with an intersection of two previously unassociated stars. And it's called "space" for a reason.

      I'd worry more about comets and asteroids at this point and put this one in the category of "When we have to start worrying about it, we'll probably be advanced enough to do something about it," kinda like the sun going nova.
    • by Lighterup (754199) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:25AM (#12209456)
      For a limited time I am offering heavy gamma screen lotion. This specially formulated lotion can provide you with protection for up to 12 seconds. Our lotion has been formulated with special serpentin oils and thus is guarented to work. We offer full money back after neutron star event,if your not satisfied.
    • by jesterzog (189797) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:44AM (#12209540) Homepage Journal

      Keep in mind the volume of a sphere is 4/3 pi r^3, so the volume of space that this would take up is increased by a factor of 8,000,000. I'd say, that the chance of this happening to us, therefore is increased by a factor of 8 million.

      If the 6,000 LY limit is justifiable, I don't think it's quite as bad as you make out... at least not without some much more definitive research.

      6,000 Light Years is practically next door on the galactic scale. It's certainly not infeasible (for someone qualified) to simply look at a survey of what's in our local space and determine immediately if we're at risk based on anything that looks unstable. (I'm not a professional astronomer, so someone's welcome to correct me if they know otherwise.)

      The most obvious potential threat that's relatively close is probably Eta Carinae [seds.org], which is about as massive as it's possible to get, and it's been hypothesised in the past that there's a small chance we might be at risk from a sudden gamma ray burst from it. But it's still about 8,000 light years away and there's still not enough known about it to have any accurate idea of when it's going to blow itself apart, either tommorrow or millions of years from now.

      If there's still a reasonable chance that it could happen at some point in the future, this doesn't mean that there's any chance at all of it happening tommorrow. Stars orbit move a lot relative to each other sa they orbit the galactic centre. Our Sun does that in about 226 million years, but in the space of hundreds of thousands of years, galactic material barely moves relative to each other at all. It's feasible that at some time in the next few million years or more we will be close to something dangerous for some period of time. If we're not close enough to it now, though, the chance of that happening is still zero.

      This is all dependent on that 6,000 Light Year limit being correct, of course. Clearly it's still all subject to change as we learn more about the Universe, which we still know next-to-nothing about. I don't think there's much point worrying about the great unknown, though, at least until we know enough to know that there's actually a risk. Otherwise it would just lead to paranoia.

    • Re:Scary Stuff (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nick Barnes (11927)
      The Wikipedia article that you link to discusses the possibility of the PT mass extinction being caused by a supernova within ten light years of earth. The present article, on the other hand, is about gamma-ray bursts. Not the same thing. A gamma ray burst produces something like 1e47 Joules of gamma rays (actually 1e46 Joules per steradian; we don't yet know whether bursts are focussed or otherwise directional); a supernova only produces something like 1e41 Joules per steradian of gammas (a lot more tha
      • Consider this:

        As I'm sure you know, neutrinos very rarely interact with matter, but they do interact. Now, currently we are bathed with a flux of approximately 5,000,000 neutrinos/cm^2/s (could be off by a factor of 3, and depends on what kind of neutrinos you're talking about). At this flux, interactions are extremely rare and we have to set up huge tubs of water or cleaning fluid in order to detect them. However, what if the flux was not 5 x 10^6, but was on the order of 10^10? Well, I don't know, but I

  • Where's the science? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by suso (153703) * on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:21AM (#12209110) Homepage Journal
    From reading the article, it didn't seem like there was any evidence of this other than speculation. They talk about using computer models to show how it would have wiped life out, but what about the evidence that brought them to this model to begin with? They could at least start with evidence in rocks or something. I wish that every time I speculated on something, that they would 200 million dollar probe. I speculate that this comment will be modded up to +5 interesting, we should launch a probe to see if this is indeed the case.
    • As per your instructions, we've launched the probe.

      Good luck sir, and Godspeed!
    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @03:28AM (#12209700) Journal
      A pre-print of the research article [arxiv.org] is available. The impression that I get is that they don't claim to really "prove" the idea, but rather pose it as a very interesting hypothesis which is compatible with the evidence and deserves further investigation. In particular, I think their claim is that gamma ray bursts can explain the evidence of rapid cooling from the extinction period. Of course, the popular press claims this tentative hypothesis like it was already a concrete fact, but that's what the press does.

      Here's the basic info:

      Title: Did a gamma-ray burst initiate the late Ordovician mass extinction?

      Abstract: Gamma-ray bursts (hereafter GRB) produce a flux of radiation detectable across the observable Universe, and at least some of them are associated with galaxies. A GRB within our own Ggalaxy could do considerable damage to the Earth's biosphere; rate estimates suggest that a dangerously near GRB should occur on average two or more times per billion years. At least five times in the history of life, the Earth experienced mass extinctions that eliminated a large percentage of the biota. Many possible causes have been documented, and GRB may also have contributed. The late Ordovician mass extinction approximately 440 million years ago may be at least partly the result of a GRB. A special feature of GRB in terms of terrestrial effects is a nearly impulsive energy input of order 10 s. Due to expected severe depletion of the ozone layer, intense solar ultraviolet radiation would result from a nearby GRB, and some of the patterns of extinction and survivorship at this time may be attributable to elevated levels of UV radiation reaching the Earth. In addition a GRB could trigger the global cooling which occurs at the end of the Ordovician period that follows an interval of relatively warm climate. Intense rapid cooling and glaciation at that time, previously identified as the probable cause of this mass extinction, may have resulted from a GRB.
  • Yet another reason (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Janitha (817744)
    Yet another reason why the space program(s) in the whole world shout be given a high priority. Not just for technology, but ultimately for human survival in such occasion.
    • by Dr. Spork (142693)
      Sorry to break it to you, but the radius of the harmful effect is supposed to be 6000 light years. I doubt we can disperse the population that much before we see this happen again.

      Besides, all this does is strip off the ozone layer, which would mess with the marine food chain for a few years. It's not like it would bake people or anything. I'm sure we'll collectively do more damage to the sea than this sort of thing ever could. How fast will we destroy 60% of the ocean's species? I'm guessing something on

      • by dgatwood (11270)
        Flip side of that is that if we develop sufficient technology to terraform Mars or some other planet (ideally some planet a little closer to Earth gravity), we should have no trouble fixing something as simple as the ozone layer on our own....

        Normally, I'd say travel to other worlds is largely useful to protect against man-made disasters, but some of the technology needed to make other worlds livable without special habitats could actually help in this case.

        Wait... did I just say that our President isn'

  • No. (Score:5, Funny)

    by DreamerFi (78710) <john AT sinteur DOT com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:24AM (#12209127) Homepage
    And if we did, would there be any way to protect the planet?"

    No.

    Gee, I wish all "Ask Slashdot" postings were this easy..

    • Oh come on! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Chuck Chunder (21021) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:30AM (#12209174) Homepage Journal
      A giant tinfoil hat is what's called for.
    • Geez.

      You're counting things out waaay too easily. I mean, NOW is the time to construct your house out of tin-foil.

      All you have to figure out now is how to get 20 of the world's prettiest supermodels at your house, and some animal specimens, during the time of this burst, so you could repopulate the earth later.

      It'd be just like Noah's Ark, only... well... not...

    • Re:No. (Score:3, Interesting)

      by voisine (153062)
      From the wikipedia entry on gamma rays, it would appear that your garden variety fallout shelter would do the trick:

      Shielding for ? rays requires large amounts of mass. The material used for shielding takes into account that gamma rays are better absorbed by materials with high atomic number and high density. Also, the higher the energy of the gamma rays, the thicker the shielding required. Materials for shielding gamma rays are typically illustrated by the thickness required to reduce the intensity of the
      • Re:No. (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sterno (16320)
        If that's the case, then the radiation burst would only be sufficient to harm a portion of the planet. Anybody on the opposite side of the burst would have the entire planet to absorb it. Anybody inside of a relatively solid structure like a city building should also be relatively shieled if it's coming down from above. If you're anywhere else, yeah you might be screwed. But it's not the end of civilization. Very bad, but not game over.
      • by devphil (51341) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @05:36AM (#12210126) Homepage


        Surviving the first 10 seconds is not the problem. Surviving the next 30 years is the problem.

        There have been many articles and papers and whatnot published over the last several years, all proposing different models of what happens when Earth gets hit by a gamma-ray burst. They all point to Very Bad Things happening to the atmospheric layers, which then has a cascading effect.

        Fine, you survive the first 10 seconds, but none of the crops did. Growing new crops in time to feed anyone is problematic when the UV shielding is gone. Reactions in the lower atmosphere would likely form a fair deal of the chemicals that result in "acid rain", so once you're wearing 100% UV sunscreen and can go outside, you still can't grow anything. Etc, etc.

    • Re:No. (Score:3, Interesting)

      by eadz (412417)
      If it only lasts 10 seconds, then just hope you are on the other side of earth.
    • Re:No. (Score:5, Funny)

      by constantnormal (512494) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:39AM (#12209236)
      And if we did, would there be any way to protect the planet?"

      Consults Homeland Defense Handbook ...
      ... it says here to "Duck and Cover".

      I guess all that duct tape and plastic wrap will not be useful.

  • by dirtsurfer (595452) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:25AM (#12209133) Journal
    On the bright side, gamma ray exposure is what brought us the Hulk, and his hot cousin She-Hulk. So hey, what's few million flavors of fish, give or take?
  • by Grayden (137336) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:25AM (#12209134) Homepage
    Tinfoil hats for everyone!
  • by Chairboy (88841) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:25AM (#12209135) Homepage
    I can confirm the veracity of the theory, I've actually reproduce it through experimentation. My partner and I set up a live and a control group and did a sequenced build up until... well...

    So anyways, we put Sea Monkeys in a microwave oven.
  • by Leontes (653331) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:28AM (#12209161)
    I've been fascinated by these kinds of events for a while. We live in a huge cosmos, full of billions and billions of stars, the fact is that we really could at any point be wiped out by thousands of chance events at any moment, that we wouldn't even see coming, that we right now know nothing about. If our reality as we know it suddenly got deleted for whatever reason, and we had no idea that it was coming, there would be no hindsight to be twenty-twenty about. Just another reason to live life well, while we still have the chance to. Now I feel like eating ice-cream.
  • Greg Egan's Diaspora (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Nova Express (100383) <lawrencepersonNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:29AM (#12209163) Homepage Journal
    Ganna Ray bursters play an important role in Greg Egan's far-future SF novel Diaspora. Unfortunately for us, we don't have the option available to the novel's post-human conscious software characters of escaping an impending gamma-ray burster by migrating to a higher spacetime geometry...

    • Unfortunately for us, we don't have the option available to the novel's post-human conscious software characters of escaping an impending gamma-ray burster by migrating to a higher spacetime geometry.
      Speak for yourself.. I am out of here. Love, AI@askjeeves.com
  • No - we're doomed. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sbaker (47485) * on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:29AM (#12209169) Homepage
    Since gamma rays are travelling at the speed of light - we can't possibly get any warning of them without figuring out some kind of faster-than-light transportation or message transmission.

    I suppose we could make a REALLY good predictive model of when astronomical objects are likely to do this - and predict the arrival of a gamma ray burst in time to do something about it. But what could we possibly do?

    It takes a good few inches of lead (or a good few feet of concrete, dirt, whatever) to significantly attenuate gamma rays - and if the ones were are talking about were powerful enough to get through the full depth of the earth's oceans and still kill things when they got there - then you'd need to wrap the earth in a few feet of lead - or hide down some amazingly deep mine-shafts.

    Since gamma rays are electrically neutral, you can't deflect them away with magnets or anything like that.

    We'd have to get out of the way - but this radiation will be expanding out equally in all directions from the source. Unless we had thousands of years of warning, we'd have to high-tail it outta here at close to the speed of light in order to get far enough away for the inverse-square law to have an effect. If we're 100 light years from the source (say) and a mile of salt water doesn't attenuate the energy enough - then we'd need to be *way* more than 200 light years away if we could carry a quarter of a mile of water as a shield, 400 light years away if we had a sixteenth of a mile of water....for any reasonable amount of shielding, we need thousands of years notice of the problem happening.

    In all likelyhood, we'd just sit back and let our great, great, great grandchildren deal with the problem.

    We're basically doomed unless we have some kind of science-fiction technology.

    • by a1ok (250188) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:55AM (#12209332) Journal
      Any gamma burst from a single point will only fall on half the Earth's surface directly. What stops us from just hopping across to the other half, instead of needing scifi tech to survive?

      For that matter, even without warning around half the world population would automatically be shielded - well if China and India were on the exposed side that might be much less than half though ;)
      • by boldra (121319)
        And Earth's south pole points towards galactic center, meaning there are more candidate for GRBs that direction. Most likely a GRB would just wipe out the Aussies and the penguins.
      • Loss of ozone (Score:5, Informative)

        by erice (13380) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @03:06AM (#12209626) Homepage
        Any gamma burst from a single point will only fall on half the Earth's surface directly. What stops us from just hopping across to the other half, instead of needing scifi tech to survive?

        Short Answer: RTFA
        Long Answer:

        The Gamma rays would destroy the ozone on the unlucky side. Once the ozone redistbutes, you are down to 50% everywhere. That is, aparently, enough to kill plankton. Probably would kill land plants, too.

        So, on the unlucky side everybody dies. On the lucky side, crops fail for several years. Very bad news, though I doubt it would actually exterminate the human race. Plants would still grow in UV filtered green houses.
        • Re:Loss of ozone (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Moraelin (679338)
          Consider that most of the oxygen you breathe comes from the sea. "Probably would kill land plants, too" just makes that problem worse.

          Additionally, last I've heard about the other gamma-ray based extinction, the problem wasn't just wiping out the ozone layer, but replacing it with a brown layer of nitrous oxide. It caused, if I remember right, a massive glaciation that lasted a million years.

          Think the "nuclear winter" theories. Same idea here, except that instead of a layer of dust blocking the sun, you h
    • by Roger W Moore (538166) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @03:17AM (#12209665) Journal
      I suppose we could make a REALLY good predictive model of when astronomical objects are likely to do this - and predict the arrival of a gamma ray burst in time to do something about it. But what could we possibly do?

      According to the article the burst has to originate within 6,000 light years...so if we work out what causes them all we have to do is scour the near vicinty for the pairs of neutron stars required (if that's it). Not trivial but not impossible either. Once we've done that we will likely be able to predict when the burst will occur.

      ...but this radiation will be expanding out equally in all directions from the source.

      Not neccessarily - it depends on the source.

      we'd have to high-tail it outta here at close to the speed of light in order to get far enough away for the inverse-square law to have an effect.

      Actually you don't need to worry about the inverse square law if you are going that fast. Red shift will make the gamma's harmless.

      ...and a mile of salt water doesn't attenuate the energy enough

      If you actually read the article (but this is Slashdot so what am I talking about!) you'll see that the effect is caused by interaction between the gammas and the ozone layer. If the gammas had enough energy (or intensity) that a significant dose penetrated 1.6km of water the heat load would actually be what would kill you and not the radiation itself! Such a massive heat load would have melted rocks etc and, I would guess, leave a significant geological record. In any case there is no way the burst could penetrate the earth and affect life on the otherside directly which you scenario would require - otherwise no more than 50% of the earth could be affected and the seas far less than the land due to the water shielding.

  • by the pickle (261584) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:31AM (#12209184) Homepage
    1) Send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to break the gamma ray in half...wait...

    2) Make a gigantic lead planetary Dyson sphere [wikipedia.org]

    3) In the immortal words of David Levinson [imdb.com], "Uh, hide."

    4) PANIC!!!

    5) Seven words: Journey to the Center of the Earth [imdb.com].

    6) Profit!!!

    7) Seriously, did you just ask what we could do? Of course there's nothing we can do, you rhetorical-question-asking moron. We hope to Darwin that we can evolve.

    8) Natalie Portman naked in hot grits. (If the world was about to end in a giant gamma ray bath, that is.)

    p
  • by Crazieeman (610662) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:34AM (#12209201) Journal
    Alok Jha, science correspondent
    Monday April 11, 2005

    Next month, Nasa will launch the £138m Swift probe, which will sweep up to one sixth of the sky at a time, looking for sudden bursts. If all goes well, the probe could catch two three explosions a week.

    Swift was launched almost 6 months ago.

    Slashdot Link [slashdot.org]
  • by soulrider2k (678396) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:34AM (#12209204) Homepage
    And if we did, would there be any way to protect the planet?

    I dunno, a massive pair of Blue Blockers?
  • The novel Aftermath by Charles Sheffield is about a supernova explosion of Alpha Centauri, and possible ways to protect the Earth. It's been a long time since I read it, but I think the solution they came up with was to build a shield between Earth and the nova- a giant metal mesh in space. Basically a one-sided Faraday cage.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553577387 / qid=1113283784/sr=2-3/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_3/104-8393393 -6164737 [amazon.com]
  • Blowing up an asteroid with an a-bomb may make sense in Hollywood, but doesn't work in real life [washingtonpost.com]. The B612 Foundation [b612foundation.org] has a more practical solution -- but not sexy enough to attract funding.

    Greg Egan [netspace.net.au] has a simple solution to the neutron bombardment problem -- convert everybody into software [sfreviews.com]. I think he underestimates the technical issues...

  • Whenever something goes wrong with the computer or something (but usually a someone) really screws up at work, we would say that the cause was gamma radiation. It came, it went, and we have no idea where it gone. Now we have proof... Go figure.
  • Science.... fiction (Score:3, Informative)

    by John Seminal (698722) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:35AM (#12209212) Journal
    I am not buying any of it.

    From the article:

    Gamma ray bursts are thought to be caused either when two neutron stars collide or when giant stars collapse into black holes at the end of their lives.

    Then you get this:

    Black holes do not exist

    http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/apr112005 /snt108532005410.asp [deccanherald.com]

    So which one is it? Do black holes exist, or do they not?

  • I wonder... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MagicDude (727944) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:36AM (#12209219)
    Would radiation blanket the entire planet? The neutron stars colide at point A and send off radiation in all directions. Some of that radiation travels in a straight line towards earth and irradiates the half of the planet currently facing the collision site. However, would the other half of the planet be spared from massive irradiation? Just like the half of the planet not currently facing the sun receives little of the radiation from it at night, could the same principle apply here? Would the critters on the "day" side of the earth relative to the collisioni be the hardest hit and instantly wiped out, and the "night" side critters spared, or does gamma radiation wrap around the planet and consume everything?
    • Re:I wonder... (Score:4, Informative)

      by LurkerXXX (667952) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:12AM (#12209409)
      Didn't you read the article? The "day" side would get fried by the gamma burst. The "night" side would be screwed in the coming years by having most of the ozone layer destroyed by the blast.

      Half the planet (almost) instantly dead, the other side gets insta-sunburn the moment they walk outdoors for the next few years.

  • by Aximxp (857275) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:42AM (#12209251)
    I think it's great how preoccupied so many people are about these completely obscure hypothetical apocalypse events. If life has been ticking for hundreds of millions of years without a hitch you can be damn sure that the least of our worries are going to be random gamma radiation. How about the fact that we've lost almost 50% of all types of tropical, mediterranean and temperate forests as well as 30% of deserts over the past 100 years. Stop staring at the sky waiting for asteroids and mythical dragons to swoop down and annihilate the human race, the SUV in your driveway is a much more likely candidate people...
    • How about the fact that we've lost almost 50% of all types of tropical, mediterranean and temperate forests as well as 30% of deserts over the past 100 years.

      Do you happen to have a citation for that?
    • I think it's great how preoccupied so many people are about these completely obscure hypothetical apocalypse events. If life has been ticking for hundreds of millions of years without a hitch you can be damn sure that the least of our worries are going to be random gamma radiation. How about the fact that we've lost almost 50% of all types of tropical, mediterranean and temperate forests as well as 30% of deserts over the past 100 years. Stop staring at the sky waiting for asteroids and mythical dragons to
  • Hat
    Reynolds
    Wrap
  • Easy answer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rainwalker (174354) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:42AM (#12209253)
    "And if we did, would there be any way to protect the planet?"

    Uh, no? First, how would you propose we detect a gamma ray burst, which travels at the speed of light (of course), before it gets here? Second, you're talking about a pulse of energy strong enough to destroy life on a planetary scale from 6,000 light years away! How the hell are you going to protect against that?! Tin foil can't help you now!

    On a side note, this was a plot device in a book by Stephen Baxter, although I can't remember the title. Every couple million years, two stars in the center part of the galaxy would collide, and knock all life in the galaxy back to single-stage or before; species would struggle back up the evolutionary ladder, and just as they achieved spaceflight, the next stars would collide. Great book-
  • From TFA: (Score:3, Informative)

    by DrJimbo (594231) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @01:58AM (#12209342)
    First, this isn't just theory, they've measured gamma ray bursts from other galaxies:
    For around 10 seconds, intense pulses of energy are fired off, which can be detected right across the universe. All the bursts recorded by astronomers so far have come from distant galaxies and are therefore harmless to the Earth.

    Second, for all those posting that a 10 second gamma ray burst won't be lethal to all of us:

    Such a burst would strip the Earth of its protective ozone layer, allowing deadly ultraviolet radiation to pour down from the sun.

    They don't RTFA, and they don't read all the other posts saying the same stupid thing. What do they think this is? Slashdot?

  • by cahiha (873942) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @02:00AM (#12209349)
    Given a number of confused responses to this, let's just remind everybody: it's not the gamma rays that kill (they would only get half of the globe anyway), it's the stripping away of the ozone layer followed by intense UV radiation. That's why it's a global effect.

    While that would cause huge famines and disease and kill almost all humans, it is something that our species could survive given our technology.
  • Neutrino Detector... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by orn (34773) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @04:45AM (#12209964)
    Actually, there might be a way to get a little bit of warning, depending on the source of the gamma ray burst.

    Photons (gamma rays) take a long time to get out of a star. But neutrinos, because of their physical properties, pass right through most of the star. Most nuclear reactions that generate photons also generate neutrinos. They're just very hard to detect (because of that same physical property).

    Well, I'm working on a neutrino detector at the South Pole right now. http://icecube.wisc.edu/ [wisc.edu]

    It could, when it's complete, pinpoint the source of the neutrinos. Given the energy level of the neutrinos and the sudden, large burst of them, a whole lot of scientists are going to be woken up - and I mean that literally.

    An earlier version of the project, AMANDA http://amanda.wisc.edu/ [wisc.edu], already has a supernova detector. It hasn't gone off yet, but when it does it will start a sequence of events that ultimately steers a lot of telescopes to point at that supernova.
    • by Vo0k (760020)
      How long between the neutrino and the photon waves do you estimate? Once in space they both run at speed of light, so only the period inside the star would matter... difference of speed of light in void and speed of light in plasma doesn't seem to be VERY big...
      • by orn (34773)
        I can't estimate that as any useful number. But the reason it takes photons so long to get to the surface of a star is because they keep hitting things. It takes about a million years for a photon from the center of the sun to get out. Here's a link: http://www.astronomynotes.com/starsun/s7.htm [astronomynotes.com]

        The neutrino gets out pretty much at the speed of light.

        The problem is, you're talking about a different reaction. It's dependent on whatever reaction is causing the gamma-ray burst. Ask a physist how long the
  • by Lonewolf666 (259450) on Tuesday April 12, 2005 @06:04AM (#12210195)
    If the GRB only lasts for a few seconds, the opposite side of the planet will be protected from direct irradiation.
    Of course, side effects like a damaged ozone layer could spread to that side, but I fail to see how all life could be suddenly wiped out.

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