Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Wrong Stuff on the Wright Brothers


April 2015

Research is hard work; copying the work of others is a lazy man’s vice.  In the world of family history, as in many other areas of research, there is a vast gulf between the uncritical copying of undocumented allegations and the critical evaluation of primary sources. 

I recently stumbled across a classic example of the victory of credulity over real research.  While reviewing the family history of Wilbur and Orville Wright I was amused (though not especially surprised) to find multiple undocumented reports of the marriage and descendancy of Orville Wright, including proud claims of living persons to be his direct descendant.  Having already researched the Wrights, with whom I share as common ancestors the 17th century Dutch immigrants Gerrit Wolfertse van Couwenhoven and Aeltje Cornelise Cool, I knew that Orville Wright never married.  Then why do so many family trees posted on Ancestry.com report a wife, children, and even several generations of descendants for Orville?  This question can only be answered by careful research. 

Warning: on Ancestry, many family trees cite no primary sources at all; many others list sources, but the sources they cite actually contradict the information they claim to have found in them.  Citing a reference is no substitute for reading, understanding, and using it!  And remember that the family trees on Ancestry.com are contributed by any interested party, whether they know the rudiments of research or not, and are neither produced nor vetted by Ancestry.

A good place to start is the 1930 United States Census.  In it we find two people named Orville Wright of about the right age and location.  Orville #1, a single male, was born in Ohio in 1871 and lived in Van Buren, Montgomery County, Ohio.  His father was born in Indiana and his mother in Virginia.  Also in his home were his housekeeper Carrie Grumbach and her husband Charles.  At the same date, Orville #2, who was born in Illinois in 1881, was living in Canton, Fulton County, Illinois.  According to the 1930 Census, his father and mother were both born in Illinois.  He was married, and gives his occupation as “farmer”.  His wife, Hattie, was in the same household. 

Which Orville is the “Wright stuff”?  It should be pretty obvious that the Ohio Orville is the better candidate, but let’s go back a decade to the 1920 U. S. Census and check up on them.  In 1920, we find “Orvill Wright”, born in Ohio in 1871, living in Van Buren, Montgomery County, Ohio, with his sister “Catheryn” and the Grumbachs.  His father’s and mother’s birthplaces agree with the 1930 data.  Once again he is listed as a single male.  He reports his profession as “aeronautical research and engineer”.  In 1920 we find Orville #2 living in Illinois with his wife Hattie, occupied as a farmer. 

Pushing back to the 1910 U. S. Census, we find Orville #1 living in Dayton, Montgomery County, Ohio with his sister Katherine, brother Wilbur, and their father Milton, an 81 year old widower.  Lest there be any doubt, the brothers give their occupation as “inventor, aeroplane”: not a married Illinois farmer. Family trees that conflate the two Orvilles are, sadly, quite common: Orville #1 ends up with Orville #2’s wife.

Now that we have seen that the Illinois Orville Wright is really Wrong, let us look at his family and descendants.  Several family trees on Ancestry.com give his wife’s maiden name as Hattie McLoren or Hattie V. (or N.) McLaren; the 1910 U. S. Census says Orville and Hattie married 2 years earlier (1908), when Orville was 27, and other trees say that his wife was Bessie F. Haffner, whom he married at age 59 in 1941.  There is no conflict if Orville #2 remarried after the death of his first wife in 1936.

More interesting are the numerous trees that report that Orville and Hattie had a daughter named Buckingham, born in 1890 to Orville in Montgomery County, Ohio.  Now of course the problem is that Hattie married Orville #2 in Illinois, not Orville #1 in Ohio.  In 1890 Orville #2 was not only unmarried; he was 9 years old.  Other trees allege that Orville #1 had two children with Hattie, Viola Ann (born 1890) and Buckingham (born 1890 or 1894).  But Orville #1 was still single and living at home with his parents in Ohio in 1900.

If you think you are descended from either Buckingham or Viola Ann (born 1890), you need to come to grips with several facts.  First, Hattie reports in the 1910 Census that she had never had a child.  There are no children in their household in any Census.  Second, there are no Census, birth, marriage or death records for the alleged daughters Buckingham and Viola Ann.  What sources are cited in the Ancestry family trees that contain these names?  The only sources are references to other trees.  There are absolutely no primary sources cited because there are none.  There is nothing but unsubstantiated rumor to support the claims that Orville Wright #1 (the aeronaut) was married, that he had children, or that he is anyone’s ancestor.  Some of the enthusiasts have conflated Orville #1 with Orville #2, despite overwhelming evidence that they were different people, apparently in order to prove their descent from a famous man.  But even this ploy fails because neither Orville had descendants.  And, by the way, neither did Wilbur.

The bottom line: do your research in primary sources.  Issues of fact are not to be settled by vote or consensus.  Three and a half centuries ago the Royal Society in London took as its motto the epigram “nullius in verbum”.  That means “take nothing on someone’s word”: check the facts for yourself in primary sources.  Do you believe the Apollo program was a fake?  Do you believe in the “hockey stick” temperature graph?  Cold fusion?  Better check it out…

Extraordinary Near-Earth Asteroids I: 2014 PP69


April 2015

 We presently know of about 13,000 Near-Earth Asteroids, including nearly 1000 that are larger than 1 kilometer in diameter.  Typical NEAs range from Earth’s general vicinity out to the heart of the Asteroid Belt on each orbit around the Sun.  Their orbits typically have inclinations (relative to the plane of the Solar System) of 10 to 30 degrees, eccentricities of 0.2 to 0.6, and orbital periods of about 2 to 4 years.  The mean distance of any NEA from the Sun is usually near 2 AU.  But the NEAs are a wildly diverse collection of bodies that originated at widely separated locations in the Solar System.  The outliers of this population include some truly remarkable nonconformists.  One such asteroid is 2014 PP69. 

You will recall that the first five characters in an asteroid’s name tell us when it was discovered, in this case in 2014 in the second half of July.  This provisional name will be used until there is a long enough history of accurate tracking (usually at least one full synodic period, the time needed to “lap” Earth in its orbit around the Sun), to certify a precise, accurately predictable, orbit.  The synodic period is about 2 years for most NEAs.  At that time the asteroid will be given a catalog number such as 155629, at which point it will be referred to as 155629 2014 PP69.  Once an asteroid has been cataloged the discoverer may propose a name for it, such as Eros or Ceres; let’s call this one Egbert.  Then it will be called 155629 Egbert; just plain Egbert to its friends.  But the object of this post is just plain 2014 PP69: in the nine months since its discovery there has been no opportunity for it to pass by Earth again, and therefore no chance to assign it a very precise orbit and enter it into the catalog of numbered asteroids.  Once the refined orbit is determined, the discoverer of the asteroid gets to give it a name.

So here’s what’s unusual about 2014 PP69: its perihelion distance of 1.25 AU, which qualifies it as an Amor asteroid, contrasts sharply with its aphelion distance of 41.79 AU, well outside the orbits of Neptune and Pluto and well into the Kuiper Belt.  Its orbital period is an incredible 99.84 years, longer than that of Halley’s Comet.  But that’s not all: the inclination of its orbit is 93.63 degrees, meaning that it orbits almost at right angles to the plane of the Solar System—in fact, the orbit is slightly retrograde, moving around the Sun in a direction opposite to that followed by the planets.  The eccentricity of its orbit is 0.942, higher than that of the typical short-period comet.  At perihelion, closer to Mars’ orbit than to Earth’s, it is traveling at a whopping 40 kilometers per second.

What do we know about the asteroid itself?  Almost nothing.  The discovery images show that it has a visual (H) magnitude of 20.17, which, by the crude “rule of thumb” used for newly discovered NEAs (an assumed average albedo of 0.14; 14% reflectivity in visible light) corresponds to a diameter of about 330 meters.  However, the orbit is cometary, suggesting that a more realistic albedo would about 0.035.  If it’s that bright and that black, then its cross-section area must be four times as large, and its diameter twice as large, as this crude guess would suggest.  That implies eight times the volume and about eight times the mass, raising the question of its impact hazard.  The good news is that, despite its large size and kinetic energy, the point at which it crosses the plane of Earth’s orbit is far outside our neighborhood. 

The body is almost certainly of cometary composition, similar to the Centaurs and the Kuiper Belt bodies and to short-period comets.  A reasonable guess would be that it is about 60% by mass ices and about 40% rock, which in turn contains perhaps 5-10% of organic matter, mostly complex polymers.

Sending a spacecraft to visit 2014 PP69 would be extremely difficult because of its very high relative velocity.  And then there is the problem that the next optimal launch opportunity is a century off.

How soon will 2014 PP69 qualify for a catalog number?  On its next pass through the inner Solar System we will have an opportunity to track it again with such a long span of observations (a century!) that a very accurate orbit can be calculated.  That will be in the year 2114.  The bad news is that the discoverer will no longer be alive to exercise the option of naming his baby!

The Hyperloop Supersonic Train: the Hot New Idea of 1909


May 2015

Some people are just way ahead of their time.  Leonardo drew plans of helicopters and submarines in 1515; Konstantin Tsiolkovskii wrote of exploiting asteroid resources in 1904.  Now another visionary, Elon Musk, has proposed a supersonic train operating inside an evacuated tunnel, serving the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor.  This technically demanding scheme seems fated for development many years in the future.

But let us turn to the November 1909 issue of Scientific American.  (No, not 2009!)  In that issue we find an editorial, “The Limits of Rapid Transit”, based on an essay written in 1904 by an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and submitted to Scientific American earlier in 1909, advocating the building of a supersonic rail system serving the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor.  High speeds are achieved by running the hermetically sealed train inside an evacuated tunnel.  Sound familiar?  If Musk is a certified visionary for proposing this concept in 2012, what would we call the lad who advocated the same idea in 1909?

The precocious lad in question was none other than Robert Hutchings Goddard, father of American rocketry, the first in the world to build and fly liquid fuel rockets.  He was also the first to discuss putting astronauts in suspended animation for prolonged space voyages, and the first to propose the use of gyroscopes to stabilize aircraft—and all of these visionary ideas originated while he was still an undergraduate.

One other coda to append to this story: the website “Russia beyond the Headlines” attributes the origin of the supersonic train idea to one Boris Weinberg of Tomsk, who published the idea in an article entitled “Motion without Friction” in 1914.  The website reports that Weinberg carried out tests of his device in which speeds of 6 km per hour were achieved.  (Six km per hour is 3.6 miles per hour, the speed of a brisk walk.)  Only in Russia is 1914 earlier than 1909, and only in Russia is walking speed supersonic.  Oh, by the way, in 1914 it wasn’t Russia, and certainly not the Soviet Union: it was the Russian Empire.  For your amusement, the puff piece can be read at:
 http://rbth.com/news/2013/08/19/russian_ideas_inspire_californias_hyperloop_plan_29029.html

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dawn at Ceres


March 2015

 

The Dawn spacecraft, having completed its lengthy survey of the asteroid 4 Vesta, and having survived the interplanetary cruise from Vesta to Ceres, is now safely in orbit around the largest asteroid in the Belt, 1 Ceres.  One of the first results from Dawn’s survey of Ceres is the discovery of small, intensely bright spots on its surface.

Vesta and Ceres, though nearly at the same distance from the Sun, are not twins; in fact, they are very different creatures.  Vesta is unique among the large (>100 km diameter) asteroids in the Belt: it is a thoroughly reworked body, having undergone extensive melting and differentiation into layers with different composition and density, with a surface dominated by rocks closely similar to terrestrial basalts.  Ceres, in contrast, is a modestly altered body that is genetically related to the very dark, volatile-rich C-type asteroids that dominate the outer half of the Belt.
Back in 1977 Larry Lebofsky studied the infrared reflection spectrum of Ceres and found an absorption feature near a wavelength of 3 micrometers (┬Ám).  This is a region in which water, in all its many chemical forms, is a strong absorber.  Articles in the press tend to assume that any mention of “water” means liquid water, which equates to a well-watered Eden for life.  But the 3-micron feature is simply due to excitation of the stretching mode of the O-H chemical bond: water vapor, liquid water, solid water-ice polymorphs, clay minerals, micas, and hydrated salts such as gypsum all have broad absorption bands in this same spectral region.  Liquid water, if present today, could not occur stably close to the surface (too cold; hard vacuum), but might persist at modest depths if some solute is present to lower the freezing point and depress the vapor pressure.  A plausible candidate for that role is ammonium chloride, NH4Cl, which I regard as a far more plausible solute than the often-quoted ammonia.  Many years ago (Low-Temperature Condensation from the Solar Nebula, Icarus 16, 241, 1972) I pointed out that chemical synthesis of ammonia is strongly favored by high pressures, suppressing ammonia synthesis in the Solar Nebula.  My colleagues Ron Prinn and Bruce Fegley showed that the higher pressures in dense protoplanetary nebulas favored ammonia formation there: ammonia should be an important constituent of ices in planetary satellite systems but not in asteroids, because they are formed in the low-pressure regime of the Solar Nebula.

Indeed, the freshly fallen Orgueil CI chondrite, which contains all the minerals mentioned above, as well as veins of soluble salts deposited from solution in water, was reported to give off a strong odor of “smelling salts”, ammonium chloride. 
And what about the bright white spots on Ceres?  Liquid water released from the interior of Ceres would boil well below the surface, producing a jet of rapidly cooling vapor.  Water vapor vented from a warm interior into the frigid vacuum of Ceres’ surface would expand irreversibly to produce a jet of snow, which would fall to the ground near the vent.  This would happen whether the source of the water vapor is a shallow layer containing liquid water or deep, hot rocks containing –OH minerals.  Linking water venting on Ceres to the local origin of life is sufficiently far-fetched to deserve skepticism.

Hayabusa 2: On its Way to an Asteroid


March 2015

 
Japan’s second asteroid sampling mission is under way.  Hayabusa 2 was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in January on its 6-year trip to the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) named 1999 JU3.  The mission is a follow-up to the ambitious but trouble-plagued Hayabusa 1 flight of 2003-2010, which aspired to grab a substantial sample of the NEA Itokawa, but suffered several failures, including malfunction of its sampling equipment.  Hayabusa 1 nonetheless returned successfully to Earth bearing traces of asteroid dust on its surface.

Hayabusa 2 carries, in addition to a sample-acquisition system, four small probes, one of which is patterned after the Philae probe that recently landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  These probes are capable of “hopping” about on the asteroid surface; indeed, the main spacecraft is intended to land and collect samples in three different places.

The present target asteroid, despite its uninteresting name, has particular attraction for people interested in the discovery and use of the native resources of space: it is a very dark rock, similar in its reflectivity and spectrum to the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.  These meteorites contain up to 20% water by weight, plus about 6% of tarry organic polymers and interesting amounts of many other compounds of the volatile elements hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen, chlorine, and so on.  The dominant minerals are water-bearing clays, magnetite, and a variety of metal sulfides loosely cemented by the organic gunk that coats the mineral grains.  The CI chondrite meteorites also contain veins of various water-soluble and water-bearing minerals, mostly sulfates and carbonates, that run through the otherwise very black groundmass.  Moderate heating releases water vapor; strong heating drives off a rich variety of gases and causes the organic matter to react with the oxygen-rich mineral magnetite to “burn” the organic matter and release copious amounts of carbon oxides and water.  All told, strong heating of CI material drives off ~40% of the total mass of the meteorite as gases of H, C, O, N, S, and Cl compounds. 

1999 JU3 is about 920 meters (0.6 miles) in diameter, with a total mass of about 1 billion tonnes, which upon heating would release some 400 million tonnes of volatiles.  By way of comparison, a fully-fueled Saturn V rocket or Space Shuttle contains about 2000 tonnes of rocket propellant: 1999 JU3 contains enough hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen to fuel 200,000 such flights.

Deep Space Industries (deepspaceindustries.com) is presently studying processes for turning the volatiles extracted from carbonaceous asteroids into fuels and oxidizer for future space missions, and into air and water for life-support and agricultural uses by future spacefarers.  The byproducts from extraction of volatiles, including metals, are also of great economic interest. Plans to manufacture these products await the successful return of samples to Earth.

Return of Hayabusa 2 from the asteroid will commence in late 2019, with entry into Earth’s atmosphere and recovery of the return capsule scheduled for December 2020 in the interior of Australia.

Hayabusa 2 is a difficult and challenging mission.  The Japanese Space Agency JAXA is to be congratulated for learning valuable lessons from their earlier asteroid mission and designing an ambitious and well-conceived successor.  I wish them the very best of luck.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Franklin Law


February 2015

 

 I was awakened abruptly by pounding at my door. “Mr. Croft! Mr. Croft! Come quickly!”

 I struck a lucifer and touched it to the wick of my bedside lamp. By its light I could see that my alarm clock read a few minutes after 1 AM. I had been late falling asleep because of the evening’s ferocious thunderstorm. Two hours of sleep would not leave me at my best.


 The pounding resumed. “Mr. Croft! Fires are burning in Brooklyn!”


 I hurried to the door in my nightshirt to let him in before the people in my neighboring apartments would become annoyed.  It was Jack Harris from the Tribune.  He was flushed and trembling. He must have run here from the office, fully ten blocks--not a safe thing to do in New York at this time of night, when heavy, poorly-lit delivery wagons fill the streets. “There have been many lightning strikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. There are at least a dozen fires visible from the Tribune tower, from the Bronx to Coney Island. The fire brigades are out, but of course the streets are congested and they’ll be slow to respond.”


 “What do I need to do?  And who’s on the night news desk? Curtis?”


 “Yeah, Curtis—he wants you to check out the situation in Brooklyn. He wants you to write a front-page story about it.”


 I sent Harris back to the Trib with word that I was on my way to Brooklyn. I dressed quickly, choosing a rainproof overcoat against the cool, blustery October weather and the threat of continuing rain.


At the curb I looked about for a carriage, but at this hour there were none to be seen. The streets were nearly filled with heavy horse carts and ox carts laden with coal, perishable foods and ice, coming in from farms in Jersey by ferry, and down the roads along the Hudson from the train terminus. I decided that the only way I could get about was on foot, and I could walk as fast as these carts were moving. I headed for the Brooklyn Bridge, crossing the streets with care, skirting the business district at the tip of Manhattan with its towering skyscrapers of ten to fifteen stories. Except for the Tribune tower, they were all dark and unoccupied, the stokers for their steam elevators having retired for the night. The streets were left to the carts and animals.


The evening’s rain had made a foul soup of the horse and ox ordure that coated the streets. The wind was at my back. The smell was overwhelming, without even a hint of smoke from the fires ahead. I could not see any fires because my view was blocked by the tenement blocks and warehouses that lined the East River, but an eerie orange glow flickered on the low clouds overhead.


As I approached the bridge I found all of Manhattan at a standstill. Traffic came only from the Brooklyn side, the entire Brooklyn bridge blocked by a river of citizens and carts surging into Manhattan. Wails, sobs, even screams pierced the background rumble of carts, but the general tide of humanity flowed on in silence, grim-faced and bowed under loads of household goods. Flames rose from the opposite side of the East River, no more than a block or two from the water's edge. How could I cross the bridge to Brooklyn as I had been assigned to do?


The first responsibility of a reporter is to interview those who know what was happening. I stepped in front of a man with a heavy load of clothes and household items. “What is going on over there? Do you know how widespread the fire is?”


 He grimaced and shook his head. "Gone, all gone" he seemed to say.


I could see converging fires cut off access to the bridge on the other side of the river, staunching the stream of foot traffic coming across the bridge. I ventured to walk against the flow on the narrow northern sidewalk, leaving the wagon lanes to the refugees. I tried to interview a dozen of them, but they had no heart or mind to share more than a sentence or two about the horrors they had seen. Bundles were abandoned, children lifted up, as the crowd pressed on to safety. 


As I finally neared Brooklyn the flames seemed to grow higher, towering hundreds of feet into the overcast sky, dwarfing the 5- and 6-story wooden tenements. The clouds reflected the glow of the fire, turning the heavens a sullen red. And as the flames pulsed and roared, the wind picked up ever more strength.  Soon I could feel the intense heat of the blaze on my face and found myself being impelled toward the flames by the ever-strengthening wind. 


The last stragglers of the exodus were passing me now. It was a heart-wrenching sight, for many were burned or were carrying victims of the flames in their arms or on their backs. So strong were the winds by this time that some could make no headway against them. Many simply collapsed in the roadway, barely able to crawl into the wind. One last refugee staggered along at the end of the line, terribly burned, the back of his coat smoldering, and collapsed in front of me.  I went to him and found him still alive, but too weak to arise. I beat out the embers in his coat, but there was nothing else I could do for him. I left him there and continued cautiously, the wind propelling me toward the fire.

A gust knocked me off my feet, and I fell on my face on the pavement.  The wind was enough weaker at road level that I could crawl on toward the fire. I was well past the east pier of the bridge, still far above the level of the river. I could see far up the Brooklyn shore, a vista of the most utter devastation. The separate fires I had seen only minutes earlier seemed to have merged into a roaring single wall of flames, whipped by its own winds into a hellish frenzy. I suddenly had the thought that there was nothing left living in front of me; that I, if I wanted to live, should go no farther. I crossed the bridge to the south sidewalk on hands and knees, and there also I saw utter destruction. All approaches to the bridge had been blocked by intense fires and the glowing rubble of collapsed tenements. All that remained standing were masonry chimneys and the occasional iron fire escape, heated red-hot and stretching into the flaming sky. There was indeed nowhere for me to go except back.

 
The enormity of the tragedy struck me so profoundly that I lost all strength. Exhausted, devastated, in despair, I collapsed in the roadway to collect my wits. I must have lain there for an hour before I could muster the strength to continue.


 Rather than return directly to my apartment, I made my way to the Tribune to write my story. The paper was published hours late because of the shortage of press workers, many of whom lived in Brooklyn and normally arrived by streetcar. But Brooklyn was gone, and so were the streetcars.
 I went home to a fitful sleep, haunted by the most gruesome dreams. When I finally awoke, I was obsessed with the idea of writing an op-ed piece on the tragedy. I sat down at my desk and wrote it out in a single sitting. Here it is:


The Franklin Law: Seed of Tragedy, by Arthur Croft
 
Every schoolchild knows the story of Benjamin Franklin, back in 1751, flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and of the tragic lightning strike that killed him. This promising young man, editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, organizer of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments, inventor of the Franklin stove, had just begun the study of lightning in the atmosphere and in the laboratory. Notes found among his personal effects laid out a scheme to protect buildings from lightning by means of metal wires or rods.  

But because of the manifest hazard of studying lightning and other “electrickal” phenomena, and reinforced by the deaths of Franklin, the Russian physicist Georg Richmann, and other imitators of Franklin’s experiment, Parliament passed, in 1753, the well-known “Franklin Law” forbidding further experiments with lightning in all its manifestations. The law was an effective deterrent that doubtless saved lives throughout the Empire. The law was strictly enforced and few dared challenge it. Historians tell of the prosecution of Joseph Priestly in 1767 upon his attempts to publish a book entitled “History and Present State of Electricity”. The first few hundred copies of this book, printed in Leeds, were confiscated and burned by the authorities by order of the Court, and Priestly narrowly averted prison by abjuring the contents of his book, destroying his notes and personal copy of the manuscript, and paying a heavy fine. In Catholic countries, the 1757 encyclical Against Meddling with the Powers of God by Pope Benedict XIV specifically defined the study of lightning as impious, and effectively extended the ban on electrickal research throughout the rest of the Christian world.


Yet now, in the wake of yesterday’s tragic fires, in which the death toll may well exceed one million souls, the value of protection against lightning has become manifest. Had it not been for this well-meaning Law, might not Franklin, or others following in his footsteps, have perfected the means to protect structures against lightning?

It is not the purpose of this writing to incite disobedience to the law and expose this journal to prosecution; however, it may be time to rethink the ban on electrickal research, which has in recent years been conducted with care and safety in Japan and the Netherlands. The benefit of saving one or two lives can scarcely outweigh the cost of the loss of a million.
 
This Law, and this tragedy, are not a legacy that Franklin would have wanted to bear his name.

Published on the op-ed page of the New York Tribune
New York City, Crown Colony of New York, October 11, 2015
 

Monday, June 3, 2013

“The Size of Nine Ocean Liners”: Asteroid 1998 QE2


The sky is falling!  And it’s full of ocean liners!

On 30 May 2013 the press reverberated with the news that the Near-Earth Asteroid 1998 QE2, a monster “the size of nine ocean liners”, was going to sail by Earth (without docking).  This is a terrifying image: picture nine ocean liners falling from the sky!  What a splash that would make!  And some sources say it is long as nine ocean liners, and some say the width of nine ocean liners, and some say as big as nine ocean liners…well, whatever.

Of course the comparison of an asteroid with an ocean liner was motivated by the asteroid’s moniker (QE2), and should be understood as poetic license, or at least as unlicensed poeticism.  But is an asteroid of this size really a big threat?  True, it missed us by 5.8 million kilometers THIS time, but its orbit will bring it back across Earth’s orbit over and over again.  We can’t guarantee we will always be so lucky! 

The realists among us will appreciate that the news media routinely push the envelope of truth in order to generate scary headlines.  This is usually done by means of liberal use of adjectives (huge, gigantic, etc.; strangely I haven’t seen anyone refer to it as Titanic) rather than numerical facts.  So, assuming we know about the existence and usefulness of numbers, does QE2 represent a real threat?  Good question… and thanks for asking!

1998 QE2 is in fact about 1.7 miles in diameter, a pretty decent piece of rock, and has a 2000-foot satellite in orbit around it.  Now, let’s see: 1.7 miles is about 2700 meters in diameter, or a radius of 1350 meters and a volume of 10.3 billion cubic meters.  At an average meteorite or asteroid density of 3 tonnes per cubic meter, this is 31 billion tonnes.  Now let’s compare it to a big ocean liner—for example the Queen Elizabeth II:  displacement 44,000 tonnes.  So, by the difficult mathematical operation known as long division, we see that this asteroid (never mind its satellite) would deliver a mass equivalent to 700,000 ocean liners onto our unsuspecting heads.  WHAT?  The sensationalist media have underplayed the story by a factor of 80,000?

Why the disconnect?  Because of the vague use of the word “size”.  Some people use it to mean length, or area, or volume, or mass.  The length of an asteroid tells little about the size of a threat it presents—unless, of course, we know how to do arithmetic. 

But the real measure of its potential for wreaking havoc is its total kinetic energy.  Let’s take an impact speed of 16 kilometers per second as an example (many NEAs are moving a lot faster than that).  That puts it in the million-megaton  (1 teraton) league.  That would be comparable to 100 World War IIIs. 

Nine ocean liners?  Get real!