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Brains on Vacation

SETI Logo A monthly segment on the SETI Institute's "Are We Alone" radio show, dealing with synaptic lapses in scientific thinking.

Brains on Vacation Archive


Current Episode: August 7, 2005

Runaround, Sue

Sometimes brains take vacations, and other times it's more like they go AWOL.


Pow! Zoom! To the Moon, um, er, to Comet Tempel 1! On July 4th, 2005, NASA made a cosmic hole-in-one: they slammed a small probe into a comet at 10 kilometers per second. The resulting flash blew a plume of gas and dust off the comet, revealing the composition of the underlying layers. It was an incredibly difficult mission, but NASA pulled it off without a hitch.

Well, maybe not totally hitchless. Several news accounts at the time told of a Russian woman named Marina Bai who they said is an "astrologist" (one assumes they mean astrologer) who was not happy with Deep Impact. As an astrologer, she felt that the mission was going to tamper with the cosmic balance of Nature, upsetting Forces Beyond Human Ken.

So she sued.

"My client believes that the NASA project infringes upon her spiritual and life values as well as the natural life of the cosmos and would disrupt the natural balance of forces in the universe" said her lawyer, whose name is (seriously) Molokhov. He goes on to say that the destruction of the comet would cause great stress among humanity (not to mention his client, though, I imagine, not his wallet so much).


Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! What can you say to such nonsense? Well, for one, we could start with astrology being garbage. That's a fair place to begin. Also, NASA didn't destroy the comet, they just blew a big crater in it. Third, comets disintegrate all the time; Comet LINEAR did back in 2000. Heck, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smacked into Jupiter in 1994, leaving stains on the jovian face as big as Earth. I'm not sure how Ms. Bai missed that one.

Anyway, shocker, NASA didn't stop the mission. When the comet was not destroyed, interestingly, Bai changed her tune somewhat. In another new report, her lawyer said, "This impact could have altered the orbit of the comet, so now there is a chance that the Tempel may well destroy the Earth some day!"

I suppose that's true. But given that the comet's velocity was altered by 0.0001 mm/s (about one-thousandth the width of a human hair), it ain't likely. The comet undergoes changes billions of times larger when it gets near Jupiter.

Unfortunately, this saga may not be over. The court is still weighing her case, and we may hear more from her soon. If we do, I might sure her. She's infringing on my life values.


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