Two recent reports in the mainstream media highlight a new awareness of the threat meteors pose to our modern civilization. CBS News program 60 Minutes and Wired.com both ran stories in the past 48 hours highlighting the real dangers of this meteor threat. Yet 2500 years ago, the great Greek philosopher Plato revealed in his writings that they were already aware of both the threat from space and its severe consequences for mankind.
Sunday night the 60 Minutes news program ran a segment entitled "Dangerous game of 'cosmic roulette'?" This segment highlighted the NASA program aimed at finding and tracking asteroids whose orbits cross Earth's thus placing them on a collision course with us. The NASA administrators at first bragged about how they knew with confidence about 95% of all the "major" threats to our planet and were currently tracking these threats. These administrators were clearly trying to convey to the public an attitude of "don't worry, we have it all under control."
Yet as with most statements by government bureaucrats the devil is in the details. The "major" threats were defined as asteroids large enough to destroy all life on Earth. Thus asteroids large enough to merely wipe out a continent and destroy "life as we know it" were simply not being tracked yet. And asteroids large enough to wipe out a major metropolitan area were also not being tracked. And meteors the size of the one that blew up over Russia earlier this year were also not being tracked. And when confronted on these facts the NASA administrators were forced to concede the point that we could get hit tomorrow by a devastating asteroid without any warning whatsoever.
Yet this was not the most shocking admission. That award was reserved for the factoid that to actually create a system that could track all of these threats and give us sufficient warning to do something about the threat would cost about the same as one highway overpass. Yet the NASA administrators assured the viewer that these were low probability (although high consequence) events and thus, not to worry.
Yet an article Monday on Wired.com suggested that these events were nowhere near as rare as these NASA administrators would have you believe. The article, "Russian Meteor Explosion Might Mean Earth Gets Hit More Often Than We Think," notes that the meteor that exploded over Russia was not the first such incident in the past 100 years. Another such meteor airburst occurred over Tunguska, Russia in 1908 that was much more powerful than the Chelyabinsk event. This explosion flattened trees across an area over 2,000 square kilometers in size! As the article notes:
"Tunguska and Chelyabinsk are thought to be among the most powerful asteroid impacts in recent history. That both would come within about 100 years of one another is slightly worrying to scientists like [Mark] Boslough [of the Sandia National Laboratories.] That’s because current estimates are that an impact the size of Chelyabinsk should happen roughly once a century while a Tunguska-level event should happen once every millennium. To see two such once-in-a-long-while events within close succession makes 'you wonder if you’ve got your probabilities right,' said Boslough."
This article quoted another scientist, Peter Schultz of Brown University, who calculated that our predictions have underestimated the number of impact events by a factor of five to ten. He notes,
"Earth experiences an airburst explosion similar in energy to Hiroshima almost every year, but they are more likely to happen over the ocean or uninhabited areas and go unnoticed by people other than the scientists who track them. Geological evidence also suggests that larger asteroids that hit the Earth’s surface strike more frequently than we think. In Argentina alone, scientists have found glass that was formed in impacts from about eight or nine large events that occurred in the last 10 million years. This is about a factor of five to 10 higher than what has been predicted"
The Wired.com article concludes:
"As with anything relying on probability, we will simply have to wait and see. The longer we observe asteroid impacts on Earth, the better we will be able to estimate their frequency."
Yet somehow several ancient civilizations appeared to have better knowledge of the frequency of such events than even our own modern science. For instance, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote in 500 BC that Earth experienced regular threats from space that had the ability to wipe out advanced civilizations and would throw humanity back to the stone age. Plato wrote in his Timaeus and Critias:
"There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals;... Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times...”
This passage represents a very sophisticated, even modern, view of not only the threats from space and their regularity but also their consequences for humanity. It appears even more so when one realizes that, as one of the scientists in the 60 Minutes segment noted, our own advanced civilization has only become aware of this impact threat over the past 50 years and it's only been in the last few years that we have systematically begun searching for these threats and discovered that such threats appear far more common than scientists had always assumed. Thus how did Plato writing over 2500 years ago have this same knowledge?
Plato claimed the Greeks knowledge of these past events came from Egypt and that the Egyptians had records of several previous such destructions of civilization. In fact, many ancient civilizations had such records. The Aztecs and the Maya also believed that civilization had been destroyed at least four times in the past and after each such destruction humanity was left in an almost animalistic state of bare survival. In fact, one climate scientist, Maike Baillie at the Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, found that the Mayan calendar appeared to be engineered to track these impact events. Baillie noted in the article "Why the Mayan Calendar Starts in 3114 BC":
"peaks in ammonium and nitrate in the ice core record, signatures of comet impacts with Earth, occur on or near baktun endings in the Mayan calendar. (The 13th and final baktun of the current calendar cycle ends on December 21, 2012.) This discovery suggests that the ancient Maya were aware of a cycle associated with repeated impacts of comets with Earth and that they engineered their calendar to track these cycles."
The book Mayan Calendar Prophecies: Predictions for 2012-2052 noted that not only did the Mayan calendar track these smaller impact events but it also tracked a longer 5,000 year cycle between civilization-ending events. This book noted that inscriptions at a Mayan temple at Palenque in Mexico appears to record the exact date of the last such major event: 3300 BC. Coincidentally, evidence from multiple fields including climate research, ice core records, and tsunami records show that something catastrophic actually did happen on Earth in 3300 BC and the evidence is consistent with a major impact event. Coincidentally, 3300 BC is the date that most scientists say civilization first arose on Earth yet new archaeological evidence has found evidence of advanced stone age civilizations in Turkey and Indonesia dating as far back as 10,000 BC. Thus did civilization really arise in 3300 BC or did it simply re-emerge after a devastating impact event at that time wiped out all evidence of previous civilizations?
Mayan Calendar Prophecies also noted that the "end date" of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 coincided neatly with modern predictions made by astrophysicist Victor Clube and astronomer Bill Napier back in 1984 that Earth repeatedly passed through the debris of an ancient comet that broke apart millennia ago and would again pass through this debris starting after the year 2000. They calculated it would take four hundred years to completely pass through this debris and during this time Earth would be subjected to an increased risk of meteor impacts of all sizes including very large ones. According to Mayan Calendar Prophecies the Maya, despite all media accounts to the contrary, never predicted anything catastrophic on this "end date" but rather this date marked the beginning of a new, more dangerous cycle where civilization-ending impacts were likely.
What can account for these sophisticated ideas from ancient civilizations we consider primitive? It should be remembered that western civilization was subjected to a 1500 year dark ages where science, especially astronomy, was actively suppressed by the Church. The Maya and Egyptians never had such a dark ages and thus it should not be surprising that they were more advanced in these areas than us. As the Wired.com article concludes, "The longer we observe asteroid impacts on Earth, the better we will be able to estimate their frequency." Thus all one needs is to be both good observers of astronomical events and good record-keepers over a long period of time in order to make these discoveries. And both the Maya and Egyptians were incredibly good at both. Thus we would be wise to take their "mythological" accounts more seriously.