Want to be frightened? Read this blog post, then this longer New Scientist feature that it partly draws upon. There, you will learn that a threat we barely even bother to discuss–space weather, and more specifically, solar storms–has the capacity to quite literally shut down modern society, to throw us almost back to the Stone Age. To quote:
It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma – charged high-energy particles – some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see “When hell comes to Earth”). If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.
The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer’s magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer’s copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts….
According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people. From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.
One has to wonder: Are President Obama’s science advisers reading this? I sure as hell hope so.
If there’s one single reason that we wrote Unscientific America, it’s that we feel so desperately the need to forge a more scientifically literate culture. There are many science-related dangers that most people have never even heard of, but that we simply cannot ignore–or rather, if we ignore them, the consequences could be literally catastrophic.
How do you get a presentist, entertainment-addled society like ours to take real, science-centered risks seriously, and more generally to see how science will transform the future that lies ahead of us?
I’m not positive that we have a full answer to that question, though I think we do have a partial one. But we’re sure of this: If we can’t think about, plan about, and pay serious attention to things like space weather, then we are not going to fare well as a people, or a country, in the future that’s coming.