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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Hand Over the Grant Money or the Planet Gets It

Bill Ardolino surprised me by mentioning the radiation bath we got from SGR 1806-20 back on December 27. (And he got up at 6:50am to do it. Ugh. Man has no sense of decency.)

He links to this article in which astronomer Bryan Gaensler says, ""Had this happened within 10 light-years of us, it would have severely damaged our atmosphere and possibly have triggered a mass extinction." The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (where Gaensler works) is apparently shopping the screenplay:

Forget "Independence Day" or "War of the Worlds." A monstrous cosmic explosion last December showed that the earth is in more danger from real-life space threats than from hypothetical alien invasions.

The gamma-ray flare, which briefly outshone the full moon, occurred within the Milky Way galaxy. Even at a distance of 50,000 light-years, the flare disrupted the earth's ionosphere. If such a blast happened within 10 light-years of the earth, it would destroy the much of the ozone layer, causing extinctions due to increased radiation.

"Astronomically speaking, this explosion happened in our backyard. If it were in our living room, we'd be in big trouble!" said Bryan Gaensler...

Uh huh, and if a volcano erupted across the street from me, I'd be in big trouble, too. But since volcanoes aren't really known to plague southeast Texas, I won't be staying up nights worrying about it.

There are only eleven stars within ten light years, and none of them are ticking magnetar timebombs. Sirius is the biggest, and it's only a little over two solar masses. Gaensler's own research suggests that a star has to be tens of solar masses before it'll form a magnetar.

Now this is embarassing:

"Fortunately, there are no magnetars anywhere near the earth. An explosion like this within a few trillion miles could really ruin our day," said graduate student Yosi Gelfand (CfA), a co-author on one of the papers.

Yes, well, I think we'd have noticed a massive star that was less than a light year away. (A light year is six trillion miles, already more than "a few".)

I'm not quite sure what makes people say these things. OK, yes I am. It's the possibility of getting more grant money. It's apparently not enough these days to say, "Hey, here's some interesting science. Give us more dough." No, in these tight-belted times, you have to put the entire planet in peril.

That must also explain this:

Still, scientists were surprised that a magnetar so far away could alter the ionosphere.

"That it can reach out and tap us on the shoulder like this, reminds us that we really are linked to the cosmos," said Phil Wilkinson of IPS Australia, that country's space weather service.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," said Rob Fender of Southampton University in the UK.

Huh. That's what people said the last time a magnetar blowed up real good, back in 1998. It, too, reached out and touched the atmosphere. (Hey, maybe we can title Harvard's screenplay Revenge of the Magnetar.)

I heard about this most recent burst later the day it happened, and Niles and I tried to figure out whether the timing was right for the burst to have triggered the tsunami (no). (Not that it would've.) We can still probably pin it on George Bush, though. (It was 19 years between the 1979 and 1998 bursts, but only six years between the 1998 burst and this most recent one. Global warming is affecting the magnetars!) I'll see if jkrank wants to work on a screenplay.