Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Large Airburst over Iran (?)

Last summer, on 30 July 2015, a spectacular airburst occurred over northern Iran, in the mountains west of Tehran.  The site of the reported fall is near the town of Avaj, in Qazvin County.  Press reports mention shattered windows and light structural damage to buildings.

There are reports of recovered meteorites, complete with plausible, if not wholly convincing, pictures.  I even received an email from someone in Iran offering to sell me a stone from the fall, accompanied by a putative analysis that claims 20% carbon and doesn’t mention silicon.  At least, that what the message appears to mean: it bears all the earmarks of a machine translation from low Martian.  So what hard facts do we have to work with?  Virtually none.

Perhaps the most notable fallout from this event has been the fuss kicked up on the internet.  There has been the most astonishing display of ignorance, prejudice, millennialist vitriol, and bigotry, liberally salted with insane conspiracy theories.  I have seen the following charges: 1) it’s a lie by the Iranian government, 2) a cover-up by NASA, 3) a harbinger of the end of the world, 4) a divine portent of unknown significance sent by Allah, 5) evidence of the God of Israel’s intent to destroy Iran, 6) a stray Russian missile, 7) an Israeli missile, 8) a baseless rumor denied by the Iranian government, etc.  A number of comments appear to have no content, simply serving as vehicles for incoherent rantings, misspellings, tortured grammar, and severe mental confusion from which no meaning can be extracted.  It’s a paranoid madhouse.  I have read close to 50 such comments, of which two show evidence of both knowledge and sanity. 

So, dear reader, here is my summary: we don’t know diddly-squat about this particular event.  Statistically, however, airbursts are not rare and reports of minor damage have many historical precedents.  As for using this natural event as an omen, well, any idiot can make up some such nonsense.  There is overwhelming evidence that they can—and do—exactly that.  Many such predictions of the end of the world have been issued, none of which have come true.  For your amusement, read

The question of why something happens is enormously interesting, but these examples of “man’s search for meaning” show our pathetic incompetence in this task.  It is wonderful to contemplate why something happened, but any explanation beyond physical causality is often simply baseless speculation, rarely testable by observation, and, when tested, almost invariably found to be wrong.  We would be far better engaged in studying the how, what, when and where of events, where physical evidence can be brought to bear. But speculation about underlying causes is fun!

Test yourself: The (true) given fact is, “The first German artillery shell fired on Leningrad in World War II landed in the zoo and killed the only elephant in Russia.” 

Now, propose an answer to the question, “Why?”

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