Catastrophism and Alternative Cosmologies
"Is the Sky Falling?"
From Volume 21.3, of Skeptical Inquirer May / June 1997
The British Neo-Catastrophist School
The alternative viewpoint is advocated in its extreme form by astronomers Victor Clube and Bill Napier, who interpret historical records as indicating that Earth has been subject to extreme battering from space within the past few millennia. In their popular books The Cosmic Serpent and The Cosmic Winter, they take the position that the emergence of astrology in the western Mediterranean, the association of gods with planets in many ancient cultures, the widespread fear of comets and belief in angels, and many other aspects of our cultural and religious history are a reflection of massive bombardment of the planet a few thousand years ago. They further conclude that more recent historical events, including the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, and even the English Civil War, are related to climate changes induced by exceptional deposition of cosmic dust in Earth's atmosphere. Although their historical analysis is suspiciously similar to that of Immanuel Velikovsky, Clube and Napier adamantly reject the association, arguing that unlike Velikovsky they root their explanations in sound physical and astronomical principles.
Supporting Clube and Napier are British astronomers Duncan Steel and Mark Bailey, who have concluded that the solar system is currently experiencing the aftermath of the break-up of a giant comet some millennia in the past. Our planet still intersects debris from this comet in what they call the Taurid complex of dust, small comets, and asteroids. They term this theory coherent catastrophism. Steel and Bailey estimate that the present lull in impacts will end in about a thousand years, when our orbit again crosses the denser parts of the Taurid complex, at which time the impact risk will rise by at least a factor of a hundred. All of these neo-catastrophists argue that urgent action is required to prevent the collapse of civilization under the next cosmic onslaught.
Most of us find these neo-catastrophist arguments difficult to swallow. Putting aside the issue of the Velikovskian interpretation of history and legend, the impact rate is still constrained by the cratering history of the Moon, which reflects the long-term average. If there are huge "spikes" in the frequency of impacts, produced by the break-up of giant comets, they must be compensated by much lower flux rates between peaks. Yet Clube, Steel, and their colleagues simultaneously assert that the consensus group underestimates the current impact rate, and that a big spike is coming. You can't have it both ways. If they are correct that almost all impacts occur during the spikes, then the present danger must be very low, and we have centuries to prepare to deal with the next peak. But they don't see it that way, and neither do the authors of several of the recent books.
Impact Science and Pseudoscience
While I believe that the British neo-catastrophists are wrong about the threat to Earth, their work is science, not pseudoscience. They are making their case to other scientists, and time will sort out who is right and who is wrong. They do, however, sometimes attract the attention of fringe elements. For example, the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS), a British group that espouses a skeptical philosophy but includes many defenders of Velikovskian ideas, is sponsoring a conference that features Clube and focuses on evidence for cosmic catastrophes in the ancient world. In fact, the work of Clube and Napier attracts many people who were once impressed by Velikovsky, such as Leroy Ellenberger, at one time a member of the Velikovsky inner circle and now one of the most outspoken critics of his current followers.
The technical errors and widespread confusion displayed by .. [two other autors] .. suggest that the filters against bad science writing for the public are not very effective. There seems to be no equivalent of peer review for science books, even at top publishers. Caveat emptor.
-- David Morrison
Dr. David Morrison is a NASA Senior Scientist and the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of the Origin of Life, which is part of the SETI Institute in Mountain View CA. His primary interests are the multidisciplinary science of astrobiology, the protection of Earth from asteroid impacts, and science outreach and education. Morrison was previously the Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and Senior Scientist in the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames Research Center. He has published more than 155 technical papers and a dozen books, including five university-level textbooks. In 2005 he received the Carl Sagan medal of the American Astronomical Society for communicating science to the public. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Asteroid 2410 Morrison is named in his honor.
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