The meteor shower that brought Tunguska is due in June

That disastrous rock may now looks to have been a Beta Taurid passenger

  • Analysis of the Tunguska tree-fall patters suggests a familiar source for the asteroid that caused it
  • Its timing also fits perfectly with a late June annual meteor shower
  • Nonetheless, it's more interesting than dangerous. Put down that helmet.

It's just after seven in the morning on June 30, 1908 as a man sits on the front porch of a trading post in Vanavara, Siberia. That is, until a sudden blast of heat at 7:17 hurls him from his seat. It comes from a huge asteroid exploding about 28,000 feet above the Podkamennaya Tunguska River 40 miles away.

Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire… At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash… The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.

Such asteroids are not that rare — scientists estimate they happen about every 300 years. There was one over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, and though smaller at 11,000 tons than the Tunguska rock, it nonetheless injured 1,200 people and caused damage to buildings up to 58 miles away.

It seems like we now know how the Tunguska asteroid got here. Physicist Mark Bosloughof Los Alamos National Laboratory recently presented, at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting, a new analysis of the tree-fall pattern in the Tunguska area. It suggests that the rock may have arrived during the annual Beta Taurid meteor shower. The next one's in June 2019. (There's another Taurid shower each October.) A quote from the presentation: "If the Tunguska object was a member of a Beta Taurid stream … then the last week of June 2019 will be the next occasion with a high probability for Tunguska-like collisions or near misses."

The Tunguska event

(Wikipedia)

The Tugnuska asteroid , a 220-million-pound space rock, is believed to have been traveling at about 33,500 miles per hour, heating the air around it to 44,500° Fahrenheit before it exploded, flattening trees for about 800 square miles. As NASA puts it: "Eighty million trees were on their sides, lying in a radial pattern." The timing for being a Beat Taurid is about right, too, since it arrived in their typical late-June window.

The first scientific investigation occurred 19 years after the event, led by Leonid Kulik of the St. Petersburg Museum. Don Yeomans, of NASA's Near-Earth Object Office describes what Kulik found when he arrived in the area: "At first, the locals were reluctant to tell Kulik about the event. They believed the blast was a visitation by the god Ogdy, who had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing animals." Kulik was able to follow the flattened trees to identify "ground zero. "Those trees," according to Yeomans, "acted as markers, pointing directly away from the blast's epicenter." And eventually, "when the team arrived at ground zero, they found the trees there standing upright — but their limbs and bark had been stripped away. They looked like a forest of telephone poles."

The Taurus

(Big Think/NASA)

The Taurus' elliptical orbit

The Earth encounters the Taurids twice a year due to the belt's odd orbit, which is roughly on the same plane as ours. We pass through it twice a year, as the belt carries Taurid materials toward the sun in October, and away from the sun in June. It's also a very elliptical orbit that gets as close to the sun as Mercury, but also stretches far beyond Earth's orbit.

The October encounter is visible in our autumn night skies, but the June visit occurs during daylight so it's not as visible. Its passengers are primarily spotted via radar.

Some years we encounter denser regions of the Taurid stream than others, and 2019 is one of those years, with scientists saying we'll be seeing more incoming material than any year since 1976. That year, Apollo-mission seismometers installed on the moon's surface recorded an unusually high number of Taurid impacts.

The odds of another Tunguska blast early this summer

(Allexxandar/Shutterstock)

Neither Bosloughof of anyone else predicts a Tunguska-style event in June, but if the new calculations are correct, it's just the meteor shower in which it probably arrived back in 1908. According to physicist Peter Brown, who presented the new analysis with Bosloughof, "This is not something that should be keeping you up at night." Paul Chodas, of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, says, "There are no objects in our catalogue that have any significant impact probability in the next 100 years."

In fact, if there are any near misses this summer, as Bosloughof says, our best odds of finding out if the Beta Tarids did, in fact, carry any Tunguska-sized asteroids would be to spot them in telescopes them as they streak away through space from a much-relieved Earth.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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