Today, we wait for a star to fall upon us. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Donne once wrote a cynical poem with the words,
"Goe and catche a falling starre." Don't look for
honesty or fidelity, he said. It would be easier to
catch a falling star.
Falling stars, or meteorites, are bits of cosmic
junk -- kin to comets and asteroids. They run into
our planet all the time.
We give these objects star names -- falling star,
shooting star. The word asteroid means shaped like
a star, even if real asteroids are lumpy and
amorphous. The asteroid belt lies outside Earth's
orbit. But much of its flotsam reaches us.
When meteorites pass into our atmosphere they burn
as brightly as stars. Few reach the ground. They
are food for poets. Yet that filigreed imagery
could turn into our worst nightmare. Some of that
orbiting iron is big enough to do terrible damage.
The last big object hit Earth in 1908. We're lucky
it fell over empty Siberia. We think it was 90 feet
in diameter. Maybe it was a comet -- mineral
particles bound together in ice.
It came in over the Tunguska River, 600 miles north
of Irkutsk. It exploded with a 50-megaton blast,
30,000 feet in the air, and left no crater. It
flattened trees in a 13-mile radius. It roasted
whole herds of reindeer. The human death toll was
small. Tunguska was a very remote place.
The Tsarist government in Petersburg shrugged off
the news. It had to be the raving of crazy
peasants. Yet the blast covered Earth with a
silvery dust. The next few nights were lit with a
ghostly glow all over the world.
This became the stuff, not of poetry, but of
science fiction. In a book titled Cauldron of
Hell, an author suggests it wasn't a comet
or meteorite at all, but an alien space probe.
Maybe it'd been a meeting of matter and
But the event holds a more dire and concrete threat
than that. Far larger objects ride in the edge of
the asteroid belt. As many as 2000 small asteroids
intersect Earth's orbit. Some are a mile wide. And
even the small Tunguska object would've upended
human history if it'd come in over Moscow or New
Now high-level groups in NASA, and worldwide, are
studying the problem. We might have 20 years'
warning for a big object -- far less for a
Tunguska-sized impact. Maybe we can vaporize a
patch on a large body with a neutron bomb. The
resulting gas jet could then nudge the orbit enough
to save us from extinction.
So what becomes of Donne's cynicism now? Maybe we
actually will goe and catche a falling starre,
after all. Once more the world, and our grasp of
it, has to outrun our dreams. And that is both the
joy and the great terror of the creative process.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wasson, J.T., Meteorites, Classification and
Properties. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1974.
Matthews, R., A Rocky Watch for Earthbound
Asteroids. Science, Vol. 255, March 6,
1992, pp. 1204-1205.
Stoneley, J., Cauldron of Hell:
TUNGUSKA. New York: Simon and Schuster,
The full text of Donne's poem, here so neatly
Of course Donne had no way of knowing
just what strange sights -- what things invisible to
see -- really lay ahead. I hope he underestimated
Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing
Or to keep off envies stinging,
Serves to advance an honest minde.
If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Loves a woman true, and faire.
If thou findst one, let mee know,
Such a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
Though at next doore wee might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
For more on the Tunguska explosion, see the
following website: http://www.psi.edu/projects/siberia/siberia.html
For more on meteorite impacts, see Episode 1102.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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