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Death, Taxes, Mass Extinction

By /dev/niall in News
Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 03:51:11 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

It's controversial, but mass extinction may occur on the Earth every 26 million years. In the past 500 million years, there have been about five giant extinction events. At least two were caused by asteroids and/or comets impacting the Earth.

Why does this happen with such alarming regularity? Richard A. Muller has a theory.

Some summary from the article:

While many scientists disagree with the 26-million year theory, many are hard are work figuring out possible reasons for it. Some theorize that as the solar system revolves around the center of our galaxy, it bobs up and down. The Milky Way is full of gas and dust that has never formed into stars, which has enough gravity (so they speculate) that some might dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud. Another theory is that we have brown dwarf on the distant edge of our solar system, and yet another is that we have a large gas giant (compared to Earth anyway) beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Muller believes our sun, Sol, is a binary star, having a companion red-dwarf start some 1-3 light years away from Sol. As this star passes through the Oort Cloud, it would disturb comets, many of which would travel to the solar system over millions of years pulled by the gravity of our sun.

It's a very interesting theory; no-one has ever found a star orbiting so far from it's companion. Even more promising is the fact that Muller does not seem a fanatic, and if presented with evidence would be perfectly happy to acknowledge his theory is incorrect; very refreshing.


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Mass extinctions caused by...
o Companion star 0%
o Brown dwarf 3%
o Hidden gas giant 1%
o Not-so-hidden Green Giant (HoHoHo!) 15%
o Deity of choice 12%
o There are no mass extinctions 4%
o Signal 11 39%
o Never mind that - The Ringworld is unstable! 23%

Votes: 89
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o every 26 million years
o five giant extinction events
o has a theory
o Oort Cloud
o Also by /dev/niall

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Death, Taxes, Mass Extinction | 30 comments (20 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Best Name Ever (3.50 / 4) (#2)
by HypoLuxa on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 12:48:33 PM EST

What I love about this concept is the name it's been given by the scientific community: the Death Star Theory. It's bandied about often in the discussion over the extinction of dinasaurs, and you can find some google links here.

I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons.
- Leonard Cohen
Very VERY old theory (2.50 / 2) (#5)
by DesiredUsername on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 12:58:10 PM EST

I read a book by Asimov back in high-school that used this theory as a plot device. Note the publication date: 1990. And I remember reading about the theory (in Discover, I think) well before that.

Play 囲碁
re: Very VERY old theory (2.00 / 1) (#6)
by /dev/niall on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 01:07:27 PM EST

I didn't mean to imply that it was a new theory, and the article I link to certainly doesn't... bad selection of "News" on my part. I was going to submit as MLP but somehow it didn't feel right.

In any case, it's interesting to see that so far most K5 folks seem to think Sig11 has something to do with it. ;)

"compared to the other apes, my genitals are gigantic" -- TheophileEscargot
[ Parent ]

Not only that... (3.00 / 2) (#7)
by DoomHaven on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 01:14:38 PM EST

But Asimov actually puts some sound numbers about the possibility of the sun having a dim, distant, binary companion in one of his essays (the one with using icebergs as water sources, and the southward exploration of the Earth by humans). He concludes his essay with the idea that it is very unlikely that the sun has such a companion, but not impossible. I would agree with Asimov's conclusion.

Vote +1 FP for the article.

My bleeding edge comes from cutting myself on Occam's Razor.
[ Parent ]
Addenum... (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by DoomHaven on Wed Apr 04, 2001 at 11:17:16 AM EST

The collection of essays is called "The Road To Infinity".

My bleeding edge comes from cutting myself on Occam's Razor.
[ Parent ]
frequent? (2.00 / 5) (#8)
by Seumas on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 01:21:21 PM EST

26,000,000 years is frequent?
I just read K5 for the articles.
Yes (3.00 / 2) (#9)
by DesiredUsername on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 01:35:01 PM EST

Once every 25,000,000 years is 4 times every 100 million years, and therefore 40 times every billion years. That's 200 times in 5 billion years.

If the Earth were a 50 year old man (18250 days), he would have been hit by a space rock every 3 months (91 days).

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
comparisons (2.50 / 2) (#10)
by Seumas on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 01:51:41 PM EST

Perhaps, but you can hardly compare the age of a man to the age of a planet. I mean, you could just as well say it's like a 1 year old child getting hit by a rock every three or four days -- but that doesn't really mean anything.

There are so many other variables involved and the sheer number of years is incomrehensible. 26,000,000 years may not be a lot as a fraction of the time the earth has been around, but 26,000,000 years between wiping the slate clean is massive.

"Mass extinction" as I understand it, refers to the dominating species. I'm not sure there will ever be anothre mass extinction unless NASA fumbles horribly and can't manage to get colonies into space some time in the next few million years -- planet-wide devastation, perhaps but not extinction...?
I just read K5 for the articles.
[ Parent ]

"dominant species" (3.50 / 2) (#26)
by fluffy grue on Wed Apr 04, 2001 at 02:16:28 AM EST

I don't think that any mass extinction has ever wiped out the dominant species. After all, cockroaches are still around...
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Yeah. (3.00 / 3) (#14)
by ksandstr on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 02:19:37 PM EST

On an astronomic timescale, that is.

[ Parent ]
Your .sig... (3.00 / 1) (#23)
by deefer on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 03:47:32 PM EST

But a true gentleman always carries a null modem in his jacket...


Kill the baddies.
Get the girl.
And save the entire planet.

[ Parent ]

Speculation or Theory? (3.66 / 3) (#12)
by AzTex on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 02:06:11 PM EST

This sounds more like late-night speculation than a theory.

Sure, there has been more than one mass extinction in Earth's history.  But upon hearing this hypothesis, the sceptic in me immediatly asks:

  • Is there any evidence for the existance of the brown dwarf?  The articles do not mention any.
  • Are there any comet or meteor impact sites other than the one in the Yucatan?  The articles say "no".

I can offhand think of a number of astronomical or geological events that could effect Earth's ecosystem.  Why complicate things by assuming the existance of a brown dwarf?  Sure, it sounds cool, but...

solipsism: I'm always here. But you sometimes go away.
** AzTex **

Hypothesis (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by Biff Cool on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 02:48:37 PM EST

It does explain fairly simply the periodicity of the extinctions, that coupled with the number of binary star systems (article's claim not mine) makes it a plausible hypothesis.

My ass. It's code, with pictures of fish attached. Get over it. --trhurler

[ Parent ]
Meteor Strikes (3.00 / 1) (#30)
by ucblockhead on Thu Apr 05, 2001 at 12:53:43 PM EST

I don't really buy the theory myself, but I do want to point out that you don't necessarily find evidence of all large meteor strikes. It makes a huge difference where they hit. The ocean floor gets pulled down into the mantle fairly regularly, so any obvious craters make by meteors that hit in open ocean are going to be destroyed fairly quickly, geologically speaking.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
500/5 != 26 (2.00 / 3) (#15)
by jynx on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 02:30:26 PM EST

If there have been 5 of these events in the last 500 years, how can they be happening every 26million years?


re: 500/5 != 26 (3.66 / 3) (#16)
by /dev/niall on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 02:33:55 PM EST

There have been five giant extinction events in the past 500 million years. See the article for more details...

"compared to the other apes, my genitals are gigantic" -- TheophileEscargot
[ Parent ]

String of Comets & Other Crazy Thoughts (3.66 / 3) (#22)
by fsh on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 03:47:30 PM EST

Read a scientific paper once that suggested that the Meteor Crater in Arizona was actually one in a string of about 7 craters in different spots all over the world. They used various half-lifes to date them, and iridium content as well. This crater dates from one of the earlier extinctions, not the relatively puny Dinosaur killer. The interesting part about the paper was that they used a computer model to simulate the backtrack of the tectonic plate drift. There were five in an exactly straight line, and three more that were extremely close to a straight line. The inference was that it was a broken up comet, similar in form to Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which strung out before colliding w/ Jupiter.

The Death Star idea is a very good one, and many of the new huge telescopes are being designed with the idea of looking for such a nearby, dark, cold star. Very tough to do, however. Theoretically, such a star would still produce neutrinos, as well, and our neutrino detectors are showing a great deal more than we were theoretically supposed to find from the sun and the known nearby stellar sources. Just a thought....

One last bit, the explanation I heard about the galactic dust explanation wasn't that we wobbled up and down through the disk, but rather that the sun orbited the galaxy faster than the arms of the glaxay did. Between the arms lay vast stretches of interstellar gas and dust, which would necessarily constrict the heliosphere (ie, the boundary between the edge of the solar wind and interstellar space) to inside the Oort cloud. This means the Oort cloud would be given extra energy in the form of collisions with dust and gas particles, which can result in many of them colliding and being ejected from, or falling towards, the solar system. The infallers being the big problem, of course. And, again, our progression through the bands of the galaxies seem to work on the same time scale as our major extinction events.

Finally, the extinctions don't always happen every time we hit one of these bands, but they do almost always occur with the same period; this is why there's a discrepancy between the number of extinctions and the amount of total time between them.

Or, at least, as I understand it.


Solar neutrinos (4.33 / 3) (#25)
by sigwinch on Tue Apr 03, 2001 at 05:47:18 PM EST

Theoretically, such a star would still produce neutrinos, as well, and our neutrino detectors are showing a great deal more than we were theoretically supposed to find from the sun and the known nearby stellar sources.
Unless I'm mistaken, the neutrino detectors are showing a deficit on the order of 2/3rds. Regardless, though, if they had any directionality, they would probably be able to detect a nearby star.

That gives me another idea: would the Nemesis magnetosphere/stellar wind produce a significant effect on cosmic rays? Would it appear as a large shadow that could be more easily detected than in the visible spectrum?

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

five mass extinctions means five mass revivals (3.50 / 2) (#27)
by daevt on Wed Apr 04, 2001 at 08:41:12 AM EST

if life has been brought to its knees five times, this implies that it has been on its fett six times. does this mean that life is resilient enough to be less rare than people would think? if it can happen here, that an entire strand of life (e.g. the big lizards) could be knocked into dust, and be replaced by more strands of complex life forms, it only makes sense that it could happen else where.
Alien Life in our solar system (2.00 / 1) (#29)
by captain soviet on Wed Apr 04, 2001 at 12:16:01 PM EST

If, which scientists suppose to be possible, there is some kind of life on europa or there are traces of former life on mars, we can be sure there is a lot more life than we currently think.

[ Parent ]
Death, Taxes, Mass Extinction | 30 comments (20 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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