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End of the World  @psychohistorian.org

End of the World

posted: 4019 days ago, on Tuesday, 2009 Jan 20 at 14:06
tags: astronomy, meteors.

Olympic gold medallist Roland Schoeman's chiselled features stared at me from the cover of some magazine yesterday while I was searching for torch batteries at my local Pick 'n Pay. I couldn't help thinking about the end of the world.

Lots of people have obsessed about the end-times, and I think it's fair to say that Christian thinking is saturated with this concern. Some scholars have argued that Christianity, with its emphasis on what is to come, fundamentally changed the way people thought about time, thereby contributing significantly to the rapid development of European civilization.

It's no good just knowing the world will end – you need to know when it will happen. Whether its 1844, 1999, or the Sunday before Christmas in 2012, there have been many predictions.

The 1844 prediction was made by William Miller, a military officer who saw action in the War of 1812 (England vs. America, eventually cancelled because of lack of interest). Miller studied the Bible, pouring over Daniel and Revelations, and concluded that 1844 March 21 would be the last day. He convinced quite a number of people who then joined him on a hilltop to await the inevitable. When nothing exciting happened, he revised his prediction and announced that 1844 October 22 would see the final daybreak. Miller died in 1849.

Miller's legacy was the Adventist movement in Christianity. One of its members, Charles Taze Russell, started up (in 1879) what would become the Jehovah's Witnesses. Like Miller, Russell was also fond of predicting the end of the world. He died during the First World War.

Taking over the reins was Joseph Franklin Rutherford with his own series of end-time predictions, all of which he survived, only to be done-in during the Second World War.

Other end-timers have been more shrewd and have predicted final calamity much further into their future. Nostradamus (16th century) apparently said that July 1999 would be the beginning of the end. Of course, when the Cassini space craft (now in orbit around Saturn) passed just 1200km above the Earth's surface in July 1999 (carrying nucular generators aboard), that confirmed for many Nostradamus' prediction that the end "will come from the sky, the great king of terror."

The Maya in Central America are said to have predicted the end of the world in 2012. They were wiped out in the 15th century by the Spanish.

Astronomers are also pretty concerned about catastrophes. The über-catastrophe was surely the Big Bang, the event thought to have kicked off this 'ole Universe some 18 billion years ago.

Much less energetic but equally catastrophic would be the impact of an asteroid with the Earth. The most recent space rock to hit anywhere near where I stay slammed into the ground near Maseru in Lesotho, on 2002 July 21. It was estimated to be about 60-cm across before it struck; some 30kg of rock survived the impact; the rest was devoured by our atmosphere.

If the initial rock had been, say, 100 metres in diameter, it would have been really cool. It would have punched a one-kilometre diameter crater into the ground near Maseru, with the force of a thousand megaton nucular bomb. The resulting shock wave would have super-heated the air to 20 000°C, and everything from Maseru to Kimberley would have gone up in flames. Moments later, when the heat wave reaches East London, it is still hot enough to boil water.

Now imagine the initial rock is 10 kilometres in diameter. The enormous heat of its shock wave causes a global fire-storm. All across the planet, stuff bursts into flame. Molten rock rains down over a large area. At the point of impact, a massive crater is formed as the now jelly-like rock gives way and flows in a land-based tsunami of lava. As it cools down the rock begins to solidify, and in the centre of the crater a 17 kilometre tall mountain is formed.

This is exactly what happened in the Northern Free State. Some two billion years ago, a 10-km diameter rock slammed into the Earth. Today, the towns of Vredefort, Parys and Koppies are nestled comfortably within the resulting 300-km diameter crater.

This life-destroying event also revealed the rich gold-bearing reefs for which South Africa is famous. And in all probability, some of that gold found its way into Roland Schoeman's Olympic medal.

nothing more to see. please move along.

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