Catastrophism and Alternative Cosmologies
Martin Beech's review of Victor Clube and Bill Napier, The Cosmic Winter (1990) from April 1991 issue of Astronomy Now, p. 14 (reprinted with permission of author):
The Cosmic Winter is a superbly crafted book. It has cast its net both wide and deep, and leads the reader through a labyrinth of ancient history, religion, astrology, galactic astronomy, palaeontology and psychology. The list could go on. For all its interdisciplinary diversity, however, the text has been skilfully shaped into a coherent and well argued thesis.
The Cosmic Winter is not a book for the faint hearted or conservative. It is a challenge to orthodoxy, and its pages pull no punches. The central issue of the text is Earth catastrophism past, present and future. This (in the present intellectual climate) is not particularly contentious -- the evidence for terrestrial impacts is now clear and conclusive. Where the authors break away from the norm is in their interpretation of cometary cloud dynamics and comet formation. Their views are not so much physically untenable but simply non-standard. This, of course, makes the authors a target for the orthodoxy camp, whose viewpoint is considered central by the majority count. As the authors correctly point out, however, just because a majority of people support the same idea does not mean that it must be true. Certainly the questions relating to the formation of comets and cometary clouds are far from being answered at the present time. The book, as such, does not dwell on these issues for long, indeed the subject would make a book in itself. Rather, the authors adopt the viewpoint that comets form somewhere in the galaxy (in spiral arms, or molecular clouds) and that the Earth has lost and gained several cometary clouds through its history as a result of passages through spiral arms and encounters with giant molecular clouds. It is the authors' contention that the dynamic building and destruction of these cometary clouds drives a 15 million year bombardment cycle in the inner Solar System. This periodicity is derived from data culled from mass extinctions in the fossil record, changes in the climate and sea level, known crater ages, geomagnetic reversals and galactic dynamics.
The main issue at stake in The Cosmic Winter is the idea that interwoven between the pages of human history is evidence for the existence of spectacular cometary displays and terrestrial impacts. Indeed, it is suggested that human society and religion were organised around celestial displays related to a giant comet which adorned the skies some 4 to 5,000 years ago. The debris from this comet, it is argued, is still with us today, and resides in such entities as the Taurid meteor complex, comets Encke nad Rudnicki, and a whole host of asteroids. All these objects are identified on the basis of their comparable orbital characteristics. In support of their argument, the authors reinterpret several ancient Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian (to name a few civilizations) myths and religious beliefs. Clearly this is not an easy task to perform, but the text does present a consistent and believable argument. If nothing else the authors have opened up a whole new field of research, and one suspects that it could be a rich field of study. Time will tell.
The book begins and ends with a well placed, if not alarming, reminder that there is a one hundred percent certainty that the Earth will be struck again. Some day, it may be today, a large comet or asteroid will darken the skies. Our complacency and complete lack of planning for such an event has indeed to be questioned. Once again, one suspects that the lessons from history will not be learnt. The results of such an impact would be devastating not only locally but globally. It is not too far fetched, as the authors point out, that the consequences of an impact with a large celestial body could trigger the demise of human civilization. Sobering isn't it?
The Cosmic Winter is a very good book. Its thesis may or may not be correct, but it does something very important -- it challenges orthodoxy. I can say little more than read this book and rise to the challenge.
Note: The reviewer is a professor of astronomy who in 1991 was at the University of Western Ontario. Presently, he is at the University of Regina.
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