The long bomb

By Sean Carroll | October 13, 2005 2:42 pm

Here at Cosmic Variance we’re all about the football/physics crossovers. But even we have our limits.

These limits have been emphatically violated by Gregg Easterbrook, commenting at about the weekend in football and gamma-ray bursts. Easterbrook doesn’t even attempt to actually tie his occasional science musings into the subject matter of his football columns; he just sticks them in there because nobody would ever read anything he wrote about science by itself. (Well, pot, kettle, okay.) His unfortunate track record along these lines includes weird statements about cosmology, particle physics, and extra dimensions.

gamma-ray burst Now he’s on about gamma-ray bursts. These are mysterious events that don’t last very long (minutes down to milliseconds) but are very bright, much brighter than supernovae. Astronomers have recently put together a convincing story about short-duration bursts: they arise from the collisions of two neutron stars with each other.

This story was assembled from such old-fashioned techniques as making observations with actual telescopes, and comparing to the predictions of theoretical models that involve equations and all that. None of which is necessary in the great Easterbrookian scheme of things. He has a better idea: that gamma-ray bursts are “the emission lines of horrific weapons being used by civilizations that have acquired fantastic knowledge compared to us, but no additional wisdom.” Aliens blowing themselves up! Of course, is a publication aimed at the general public, so Easterbrook wasn’t able to show us his calculation of how the spectrum and time-series data from the Swift satellite and ground-based followups are better fit by the suicidal-aliens hypothesis. But I’m sure he’ll be submitting his findings to the Astrophysical Journal any day now.

Thanks to Kriston for the pointer.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Pah, this was of course on the “300 best theoretical models for GRBs” list that was assembled 15 years ago before CGRO flew. (All the models were essentially incorrect, btw, although 2-3 of them were conceptually on the right track).

    We know better now of course.

    But, it is still distinctly possible that the rapid x-ray burster is actually a Klingon warbird in “rapid fire” mode. Or not.

  • Clifford

    Hmmm, methinks maybe both Greg Easterbrook and astrophysicists might be right. Has anyone considered this possibility? Maybe the advanced civilzations use neutron star collisions as weapons of mass destruction!…. 😉


    P.S. Oh, and Greg Bear’s excellent novel “Forge of God” for smaller scale, but still astrophysical, means of destroying planets.

  • Clifford

    Sean, don’t forget the baseball/physics crossovers. (Not that I know the first thing about baseball.)



  • Robin

    Clearly, it’s Galactus, devourer of worlds . . . well, the post-prandial flatulence of Galactus, devourer of worlds. Ask Giblets, he’ll confirm.

  • hack

    This is great! Now we have an airtight rationale to invade any country in possession of a telescope!

  • spyder

    Thor pounding his Mjolnir?? Zeus tantrums? Mangog throwing Thoth between galaxies? The Silver Surfer portalling between dimensions???

    Well at least the ID community hasn’t leaped forward to claim that these are the visual clues of the intelligent designer’s kitsch creating behavior.

  • Astronomy Grad Student

    quote: Well at least the ID community hasn’t leaped forward to claim that these are the visual clues of the intelligent designer’s kitsch creating behavior.

    yup, and i hope they don’t see this and make some claims along those lines too…

  • Jack

    I heard that they have already found S. Hawking’s initials in the CMB. But basically I think that the Creator had a bad case of astigmatism, hence the lack of quadrupole power in WMAP…or maybe he just has a really lousy TV.

  • KenL


    Considering that he always shoe-horns in something about Star Trek or (this year) Battlestar Galactica or Stargate, I figured this was just tongue-in-cheek musings on a SciFi vein…

    Of course, it’s not terribly original. I remember stories from the sixties with the concept of “dying stars as a sign of (hostile) intelligent life”.

  • JO’N

    Let’s remember that Easterbrook not only seems to be a ID creationist:

    Intelligent design is a sophisticated theory now being argued out in the nation’s top universities….today’s evolutionary fundamentalism is not so much about the theory but about sustaining a new status quo in which people are not supposed to question scientists.

    …but he also has a quibble with modern physics:

    Speculation about other dimensions is interesting, but there isn’t the slightest evidence—not a scintilla, as lawyers say—that other dimensions are genuine…. Yet if…you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension—the plane of the spirit—and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you’d be laughed out of the room.

    Combined these with a few other interesting perspectives, and I guess I’m not entirely surprised that’s he thinks Star Wars was a documentary.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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