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Feb 15, 2013

Call Me Diogenes

Diogenes: Also known as Diogenes the Cynic, this Ancient Greek philosopher was a controversial figure who criticized the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt society. He was a renowned Cynic and Stoic. Many anecdotes of Diogenes refer to his dog-like behavior, and his praise of a dog's virtues. Diogenes believed human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth. Diogenes stated that "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."
Today's topic: The meteor impact in the Russian mountains near Chelyabinsk. Or...Why scientific evidence should not be tweeted.
This is a magnificent event, displaying the awesome power of the universe. It reminds us how small we truly are in the grand scheme of all existence. I am fascinated by celestial events, even those that come in direct contact with our planet, and I don't consider this happening a bad thing or any sort of ominous portent.
Unfortunately, when brought back into scope from the immense cosmos to the small planet where we live, the result is thousands of people were mildly injured by this impact. Fortunately, the number of serious injuries were minimal.
More bad fortune came from the European Scientific Academy's announcement, who stated the meteor impact was in no way connected to DA-14, which will be passing only 17 thousand miles from the earth within the next few hours. Their official twitter statement said: ESA experts confirm *no* link between #meteor incidents in #Russia & #Asteroid #2012DA14 Earth flyby of tonight #SSA #NEO. A bit later, they clarified that by stating this meteor was not fragments from 2012DA14. This statement seems very unscientific; plus, the ESA has offered no explanation of their analysis. Perhaps better answers will be revealed in the near future.
I believe it is possible they are not connected and merely a coincidence, but I don't want a statement that is a case-closed declaration without telling us how we know that. I think such claims hurt the credibility of the ESA and the whole scientific community. This is how conspiracy theories get started. (Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not claiming one now.)
My problem with it is not whether they are right or wrong. It might not be connected, but science is about evidence not guessing correctly. The asteroid 2012DA14 was discovered less than one year ago, and is miniscule in size compared to other objects in our solar system. The truth is we (the ESA and other astronomers) know very little about it. But we do know that asteroids "drag" smaller asteroids and alter their space flight. Because this morning's impact over Russia was not a predicted event, it is not believable the ESA has enough evidence to make a claim about whether or not it is connected to this other near-earth object.
I would guess, not having any evidence either, that the two events are mildly connected. That's my official statement and I don't have to offer any analysis to support it either. (Again, this is tongue-in-cheek, not a conspiracy theory.)
In the end, the ESA can probably calculate from the speed and trajectory that this was unrelated to 2012DA14, but give us the reason behind why it is known not to be connected. Or tells us this was a leading object hidden from view; we missed it, but the "big one still isn't gonna hit us." Tell us something more than a 140-characters in a tweet.
I believe non-astronomers are more likely to panic from such a "nothing to see here; move along" statement rather than a more detailed explanation why they are not connected. It's a bad PR-move, and appears like bad science. This is one reason science is accused of being too political.
Hopefully, during the time it took to write this post, the ESA, NASA or some credible astrophysicists will have made a more robust statement. Feel free to post links to statements from the scientific community. My criticism isn't blind to the truth of course.


  1. Yep-I totally agree with you.

  2. In this article, a short statement about trajectory helps to clarify. That said, they also mention the odds of the two events being completely unrelated.