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No. 107: Sep-Oct 1996

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"NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER"

Poet T.S. Eliot speculated that life on earth might not after all be terminated catastrophically, as in the impact of a large asteroid (today's popular doomsday machine). Rather, we might depart slowly, quietly, and mournfully. Of course, Eliot was not thinking of asteroids -- no one foresaw impact havoc in his day. But, his use of the word "whimper" can be attached to another, much slower astronomical agent of planetary death: cosmic dust and gas. Here's the current situation:

"For the most part of the past five million years, the Solar System has been moving through a rather empty region of interstellar space between the spiral arms of the Milky Way. But a few thousand years ago, it entered a diffuse shell of material expanding outward from an active star-forming region called the Scorpius-Centaurus Association. Such 'super-bubble' shells of gas and dust result from the formation of massive stars, or the explosion of those stars as they become supernovas, and contain gas and dust clouds of varying densities."

The density of matter in this solarsystem-engulfing shell could well shroud our planetary system with dust and gas a million times more dense than that we now encounter. If this happens, the sun's rays would slowly dim and life forms dependent on photosynthesis would expire. P. Frisk, a University of Chicago astronomer, forecasts a "bumpy ride" for earth dwellers during the next 50,000 years; but we think Eliot's "whimper" is more expressive of what might happen.

(Jayawardhana, Ray; "Earth Menaced by Superbubble," New Scientist, p. 15, June 22, 1996)

Comments. A possible precursor of things to come was the enigmatic "Siberian Darkness" of September 18, 1938. (See our Report #7, xeroxed classics series. Also: Chapter GWD in Tornados, Dark Days, etc.) Science fiction writers have not neglected the "whimper-death" idea: F. Hoyle's The Black Cloud and H.G. Wells' In the Days of the Comet.

From Science Frontiers #107, SEP-OCT 1996. 1996-2000 William R. Corliss