Comet catastrophe

Stein already took the better title. I only mention this because we had that Mike Baillie at BAS a week ago, talking about his theory that comets caused a couple of notable events – the black death amongst them – and not only that, but they caused a “corruption of the air”; by which he meant not just clouds of steam but, in some way, toxic vapour. And then along comes the Peruvian meteorite causing a mystery illness. It all fits I tell you…

[Update: I've read a bit more into his book and its hard going. Meanwhile, colleagues at work were not impressed. Its getting less plausible as time goes by -W]


  1. #1 H. Casey

    With all the things out there in space, who’s to say that biorganisms do not lay dormant in the frozen meteors as they travel through space. When they come into contact with the atmosphere and heat up, they may spread whatever is frozen into them into the air.
    Of course it just may be the Loc-Nar from Heavy Metal the Movie. Ironically it was on my tv when I first read about this.

  2. #2 guthrie

    What planet is he on?
    How on earth would a comet cause the black death? And poisonous miasmas could be easily explained by sulphur compounds or others that would be released by impacts. Unfortunately people are notoriously poor witnesses.

    [You need to buy the book and then read it :-). He doesn't think the black death was bubonic plague -W]

  3. #3 maksimovich

    “What planet is he on?
    How on earth would a comet cause the black death?”

    In 1991, as Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad reviewed the transcripts of his conversations relayed from the moon back to Earth, the significance of the only known microbial survivor of harsh interplanetary travel struck him as profound:

    “I always thought the most significant thing that we ever found on the whole…Moon was that little bacteria who came back and lived and nobody ever said [anything] about it.”

    Microbes one of the simplest organisms in the biosphere. Having evolved over billions of years they retained the mechanisms to retain life in the harshest environments ,and to “resurrect” when environmental conditions and adequate nutrients become available.

    “Space historians will recall that the journey to the stars has more than one life form on its passenger list: the names of a dozen Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon and one inadvertent stowaway, a common bacteria, Streptococcus mitis, the only known survivor of unprotected space travel.”

  4. #4 Adam

    “Stardust” by John Gribbin (which I recommend) discusses the possibility of life on Earth being started by the arrival of various organisms or amino acids or suchlike on meteors, ice balls etc. I suppose it’s not a huge leap from that to newer stuff arriving. Whether anything actually arrives in a state to have an immediate effect – rather than then requiring some geological timescale to develop in the right conditions – would be my biggest question.

    NB of course, the jury’s still out on whether this was even a meteorite let alone the origin of the fumes.

  5. #5 guthrie

    Yes yes, I know all that. But unfortunately speculating wildly on plagues etc without any evidence beyond garbled survivors from hundreds of years ago is exactly the same stuff used by everyone from Von Daniken to the various modern pretenders. I read such books for entertainment purposes, if you like I’ll dig a couple out when I get home.

    [Indeed. Much ancient evidence is hard to interpret (at least in part because it has been translated from a certain viewpoint). He comes to all of this from the tree-rings, of course -W]

  6. #6 Adam

    I see your point, but without having read his stuff, I can’t really cast any judgement. Anyone who has willing to comment?

  7. #7 guthrie

    I have here in front of me “Prehistoric germ warfare” by Robin Collins. (59p from Oxfam a number of years ago)
    It’s full of argument by relation, suggesting that there was ancient germ warfare because scientists in the 70′s were swapping DNA around in E COli and other bacteria, and that could lead to germ warfare and pandemics etc. Or that Polio and viral encephalitis “actually used the DNA protective enzyme components in the host cells to replenish their own energy. This is a factor which could indicate an artificial creation of these and similar micro-organisms in prehistoric laboratories.”

    Of course as Adam says, you really need to read his stuff to see what his argument is.

  8. #8 bigTom

    Of course as Adam says, you really need to read his stuff to see what his argument is.

    I think I can detect psuedo-science bunk w/o wasting my time reading the contents!

  9. #9 SteveF

    Mike Baillie taught a little part of my MSc course; fun guy. He recently published a paper on meteor impacts:

    Baillie, M. (2007) The case for significant numbers of extraterrestrial impacts through the late Holocene. Journal of Quaternary Science, 22, 101-109.

    When astronomers tell us that there should have been numerous impacts from space during the last five millennia, when impact craters exist on land and more impacts can be assumed over the oceans, why are historians, archaeologists and palaeoecologists not diligently seeking evidence for these impacts, and their effects? This article reviews just some of the relevant evidence for impacts. In turn this suggests that ablation material, background material from space, and micro-tektites, should all be present in ocean cores, ice cores, peat, and lake sediments. It seems that almost no efforts have been made to find evidence that might link to the known crater journal of Quaternary Science fields, or to identify and date periods of enhanced cosmic activity. The question must be, why?

  10. #10 Hank Roberts

    > … impact craters exist on land and more impacts
    > can be assumed over the oceans ….
    > material … should all be present in ocean cores,
    > ice cores, peat, and lake sediments

    How large an impact is required in the ocean to eject more than a splash? We’ve been reminded with the Peru story that most meteors are carbonaceous and indistinguishable from terrestrial material, a few are metallic and easily identifiable and persist, and that by the time they reach us they aren’t even particularly hot because the surface ablates so effectively during high speed entry up high and the final fall is long enough to cool down.

    So, ocean “impacts” aren’t going to make much of a layer in the ice or sediment cores, now are they? Unless they make a big enough splash to hit the bottom of the ocean at speed and vaporize that. And, well, those we do know about.

    So to land. Any crater big enough to notice on Google Earth is going to be found fairly soon — quite a few have been just this past year since someone started noticing big round shapes on Google Earth photographs and some were checked. Sure enough, those were undiscovered meteor craters. So it’s true that not every crater big enough to stumble into had been put on record by someone.

    Consider the volume of material ejected by a known, identified volcano (with a chemical/elemental fingerprint that can be detected in ice or sediment cores).

    Consider the the volume ejected by a known, identified impact, which as mentioned before is probably a dull thud and a dust cloud, not a huge flash and mushroom cloud of vaporized rock that moves worldwide.

    Why aren’t the people who don’t know where the craters are telling the sediment scientists what to look for in their cores? Because, well, they don’t know what site, so don’t know what chemical fingerprint to tell them to look for, nor when to look for one, nor have much reason to expect any worldwide fallout from most unidentified meteor impacts, because they’d have been too small to raise a mushroom cloud of vaporized material. Even relatively big ones.

    Like this one:

    I guess this is recreational typing, because I can’t see how the argument makes sense.

  11. #11 guthrie

    Off the top of my head, I would imagine that people aren’t looking for impact craters for several reasons:

    1) It costs money and has no expectable payback that I can think of.
    2) People who are looking through peat samples etc aren’t aware of the possible signs of meteor impact.
    3) Insufficient sampling across the world- do you know how much in the way of peat bog etc there is to search?
    4) As Hank suggests, insufficient material evidence available.
    5) Simple overload- insufficient researchers to tackle it, other questions taking priority.