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Can't Anyone Get it Right?

On Sunday, March 23rd, the television "superstation" TBS aired a show called "Fire From the Sky", yet another in a long line of documentaries about imminent doom from an asteroid collision. Now don't get me wrong-- this is a very important topic. They aren't kidding when they say it's a matter of global life and death, and it's terrible that there isn't enough money being spent on searching for Earth crossing asteroids.

So I'm all for lots of TV exposure about impacts. What I'm against is the Bad Astronomy used for ratings. Again, don't get me wrong-- there was plenty of good astronomy in the show, including one bit I'll mention later. But the show started with a ten minute dramatization about a series of impacts first over Scotland and Ireland, and then over the US. Unlike in the abomination "Asteroid" shown a while back on NBC, they actually got that part right. Rocks can line up due to tidal forces from the Earth, much like Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a long string of chunks when it impacted Jupiter (although the chance of it happening with the Earth is smaller-- the Earth has much less tidal force than Jupiter). That part of "FftS" was actually quite good (as was the effect of Washington DC getting flattened-- the reporter that got blown away was only about half the distance to downtown DC that my house is! Yikes!). No, what made me unhappy was the assertion in the dramatization that the rocks were from Hale-Bopp.

Hale-Bopp, currently gracing our evening skies, will never get closer then several tens of millions of kilometers away. We are at a comfortably safe distance from it, and from any debris it may have around it. The "astronomer" in the dramatization also said we are passing through the tail of the comet, which is also untrue.

Am I being unfair? After all, it was only a dramatization, right? I think I am being completely fair-- they tried to make the account as real as possible, including some very good special effects. Hale-Bopp is a beautiful, rare sight in the sky, and it is needless Chicken-Littling to blame it-- even fictionally-- for a globally catastrophic series of impacts. That is simple ratings-grabbing through sensationalism, and is inexcusable. All they needed to do on the show was say it was from an old comet that was no longer outgassing, for example, or just from a broken up asteroid. Using Hale-Bopp is simply Bad Astronomy.

Incidentally, they made another mistake as well. Like "Asteroid", one of their animations showed a cloud of asteroids very close to each other. Actually, asteroids in the main belt are very far apart, and major collisions are pretty rare.

However, I was interested with their account of a small town named Peshtigo that was wiped out by fire at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The descriptions of the survivors were eerily similar to what happened in Tunguska in 1908. Was the Chicago fire started by explosions from meteors? I find it hard to believe no one in Chicago saw the incoming fireballs, but the other evidence is certainly fascinating. However, I did a quick web search on "peshtigo" and "fire" and found a reference that said that Chicago was suffering through many fires that season, and did seem to be getting worse right up to the Big One. It was a very dry season, evidently. The Peshtigo fire also may have had more mundane causes as well.

The TV show interviewed a man named Robert Couvillion, a Peshtigo historian, who presented the evidence for a meteoric cause. He said the survivors talk about a horizontal tornado, with tremendous winds blowing fire everywhere. That does sound like a meteor blast, but take care: a large fire draws in air from around it, heats it up and blows it upward. This can create a huge horizontal draft, which is also consistent with the survivors' stories. He also said there were reports that sound like meteor activity before the fire, but this could simply have been embers being blow around. I've been fooled by chimneys before!

My point: I wish the show had presented someone else's view rather than this one man's. My first impression was one of amazement when this story unfolded, but now my skepticism has returned. It would be of tremendous historical significance if these fires were extraterrestrial in origin, but I need to see more research on it.

For more about the Peshtigo fire, take a look at a page from the Industrial Strength Woodworking site. Another excellent page is from a fireman looking into the cause of the Peshtigo fire. Also, my thanks to Bad Reader Russel Gowen for finding the name of the Peshtigo historian, and also for mentioning that CNN reaired the documentary on June 28, 1998.

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