Reasons to be careful

Asteroids strikes, radiation and Rio+20.

So, yet another thing to worry about. It might not sound like news, but something big hit earth back in the 770s. Researchers looking at the radioactive carbon traces in tree rings from that period have discovered evidence of a burst of intense radiation between 774 and 775AD. It might seem churlish to worry about something that happened 1,200 years ago, given the problems that the Rio+20 summit this month clearly was not even going to begin to address. Yet warning us of potential danger is part of the scientist’s job description. What we do with that information is up to us.

The source of that 1,200-year-old radiation burst – potentially the harbinger of a much bigger catastrophe than climate change – is a mystery to scientists. A burst of radiation of this sort would normally come from a spectacular solar flare or a supernova. Taking the second option first, the exploding star in question would have been bright enough to be visible in daylight – a second sun that would have been recorded by contemporary historians. It should also have been spotted by today’s astronomers: the explosion would have created what looked like a new star. Stellar explosions recorded in 1006 and 1054 weren’t big enough to cause a spike in radiation but we have spotted the remnants in the sky.

The solar flare explanation has been ruled out, too. A flare occurs when the sun spits out a gob of plasma, a roiling gas of charged subatomic particles. If that is composed largely of protons and fired towards earth, its interaction with particles in Planet Earth’s atmosphere creates a burst of intense radiation. But it also creates the Northern and Southern Lights and, again, a radiation spike of this intensity would have produced a show spectacular enough to be recorded by historians.

On the downside, it would also have wiped out much of the ozone layer, causing biological chaos. The extra radiation and intense ultraviolet light usually absorbed by ozone would have mutated genomes and led to significant extinctions. There is no evidence that this occurred.

Why does it matter? Until we understand the source, we face a significant unknown. If it is somehow a threat from the sun, the threat is far bigger than we have known. Such a spike in radiation could be associated with the kind of solar activity that could melt many of the world’s power grids, sending civilisations howling back to the Stone Age.

We already know that things from space could hurt us badly. There’s about a one-in-five chance that, in the next 100,000 years, an asteroid strike will do as much damage as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. There is no reason for complacency: it’s highly likely that, in the same time frame, a chunk of space rock roughly 400 metres in diameter will hit earth. The impact will be significant enough to devastate an area the size of France.

Too much in the sun

The tree-ring work, published in the journal Nature this month, suggests that scientists don’t yet have a handle on all the threats to humanity. But it will almost certainly be dismissed as another curiosity, not worth following up.

Maybe that is the right response. The conclusions were a result of interpreting the amounts of radioactive carbon – created by collisions between particles in the upper atmosphere – trapped in the tree rings.

Anyone with responsibility to act over threats to his or her citizens can choose to find weaknesses and uncertainties in the data, the extrapolations and the conclusions and thus justify a non-response. Just as our political leaders (or, rather, their delegations) will do in Rio. l

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is out now in paperback (Profile Books, £8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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An alternative Trainspotting script for John Humphrys’ Radio 4 “Choose Life” tribute

Born chippy.

Your mole often has Radio 4’s Today programme babbling away comfortingly in the background while emerging blinking from the burrow. So imagine its horror this morning, when the BBC decided to sully this listening experience with John Humphrys doing the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting.

“I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Radio 4?” he concluded, as a nation cringed.

Introduced as someone who has “taken issue with modernity”, Humphrys launched into the film character Renton’s iconic rant against the banality of modern life.

But Humphrys’ role as in-studio curmudgeon is neither endearing nor amusing to this mole. Often tasked with stories about modern technology and digital culture by supposedly mischievous editors, Humphrys sounds increasingly cranky and ill-informed. It doesn’t exactly make for enlightening interviews. So your mole has tampered with the script. Here’s what he should have said:

“Choose life. Choose a job and then never retire, ever. Choose a career defined by growling and scoffing. Choose crashing the pips three mornings out of five. Choose a fucking long contract. Choose interrupting your co-hosts, politicians, religious leaders and children. Choose sitting across the desk from Justin Webb at 7.20 wondering what you’re doing with your life. Choose confusion about why Thought for the Day is still a thing. Choose hogging political interviews. Choose anxiety about whether Jim Naughtie’s departure means there’s dwindling demand for grouchy old men on flagship political radio shows. Choose a staunch commitment to misunderstanding stories about video games and emoji. Choose doing those stories anyway. Choose turning on the radio and wondering why the fuck you aren’t on on a Sunday morning as well. Choose sitting on that black leather chair hosting mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows (Mastermind). Choose going over time at the end of it all, pishing your last few seconds on needlessly combative questions, nothing more than an obstacle to that day’s editors being credited. Choose your future. Choose life . . .”

I'm a mole, innit.