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Death from the skies: the scariest science-fiction movie ideas are the ones that aren't fictional at all.

The astronomer sat in the chair, fidgeting. He was nervous--he had never pitched a movie to a studio executive before. Frankly, he was amazed that the studio had even agreed to talk to him.

The Exec's office was plush, full of awards and pictures of movie stars. The astronomer was admiring a shot of an asteroid looming over Earth--signed by a star of that famous but horribly inaccurate movie Armageddon--when the Exec walked in.

"Hello, Doctor!" he said, hand extended. His handshake was cold and limp. "So, you're here to tell me why we've been wrong to produce all those science-fiction movies that have made us millions." "Yes! I mean, no. Well, actually, yeah. I guess I am." The Exec smiled. "Relax, Doc. I'm not gonna bust your chops. Just let me know what you've got here."

The astronomer regained his composure. "Let's face it. While they're popular, a lot of movies based on end-of-the-world science are wrong. Sure, asteroids are a danger, but you can't just blow them up! And even if you could, wouldn't it make more sense to send astronauts, not Bruce Willis?"

The Exec laughed. "Well, yeah. But Bruce sells more tickets."

"But I think that it's possible to make a movie that's exciting, sells tickets, and is scientifically accurate. In fact," the astronomer smiled, "it might even sell more tickets!"

Those were the magic words. The Exec leaned forward. "Oh? And how do you propose we do that?"

"Science-fiction movies always get their science wrong. Always. But science--real science--is bigger and scarier than any Hollywood movie."

The Exec leaned back and steepled his fingers. "OK. Show me."

The astronomer took a deep breath and turned to his first page of notes. "Right. Forget comets, asteroids, Martians, and aliens. Instead, picture this...." Illustrations by Michael Witte

SCENE 1: SUPERSTAR

Researchers at the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan are shocked when their detectors light up like a Christmas tree. Normally they might see only a handful of neutrinos per day. There must have been millions of the ghostly subatomic particles detected to make this latest flash! Such an unprecedented event prompts them to look for malfunctions in their hardware.

Almost simultaneously, automated observatories are alerted. Astronomical satellites designed to observe high-energy radiation detect an onslaught of X-rays and gamma rays. As they slew to focus on the target, their detectors saturate with photons. They are literally blinded by the light.

On the ground thousands of truckers, police officers, and night owls notice the starlike light in the sky getting brighter by the minute. Some think it's an airplane, but amateur astronomers realize what's happening. "Get out your scopes!" they e-mail each other. "We've got a supernova!"

Within minutes, the new star is so bright that other stars in the sky can't compete. Like the full Moon, the supernova washes out the surrounding sky. Astronomers are beside themselves with glee. It's been around 400 years since the last naked-eye supernova in our galaxy.

But their joy is short-lived. Suddenly the power goes out. They lose their images, their data, and the computers controlling their telescopes. One astronomer goes outside to see what's going on and finds that the glow of the nearby city is gone. It's ironic: the power is out, the sky is truly dark for the first time in years, and she cannot observe. Alas, the sky isn't really dark anyway because the supernova's fierce glare is staring her down. She eyes it suspiciously. Is the sky actually turning blue near it?

A distant supernova couldn't possibly cause all of this trouble. With growing alarm she realizes the star that blew must be close--dangerously close.

Gamma rays from the supernova hit Earth's atmosphere, ionize the air, and send out cascades of high-speed electrons. The moving charged particles create intense magnetic fields, generating a fierce pulse of energy. This is the so-called electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, commonly associated with nuclear weapons. The pulse can knock out electronics not "hardened" against it.

Circuitry all over Earth fries. Cars die on the road, power lines fuse, cell phones stop working, trains run out of control, airplane and air-traffic-control computers fail in midflight. Within a few minutes of the pulse, tens of thousands of people have died in transportation accidents.

Satellites in orbit fail. Gamma rays ionize their metal parts, sending showers of electrons into their circuitry, shorting out everything. Just when it's needed most, communication fails worldwide.

The gamma- and X-rays causing so much trouble are followed shortly by a wave of protons, accelerated by the supernova to speeds near that of light. They flood Earth's magnetic field, which normally protects us from such interstellar interlopers. Slamming into our atmosphere, the subatomic particles induce chemical reactions that deplete ozone and allow dangerous levels of solar ultraviolet light to reach Earth's surface. Soon after, marine life in the polar oceans begins to die, starting a cascade up the food chain that won't stop until it reaches the top ... us.

INTERMISSION

The Exec was visibly shaken. "You're kidding, right? Something like that can cause a mass extinction, like the dinosaurs? Kill us all off?"

The astronomer watched the man in the suit, wondering if he should press on. Momentary pity overtook the scientist. "Well, to be honest, it can happen, but it's unlikely."

"How unlikely?"

"I guess the odds aren't that great. First, supernovae in the Milky Way are somewhat rare. One goes off only about twice per century in our galaxy. And for the effects I described to occur, the blast would have to be very close --maybe only a few dozen light-years away. There are no suitable stars close enough to cause concern.

"The bright massive stars in the sky, like Betelgeuse in Orion, are far enough away to produce a spectacular light show, but no lasting damage. If Betelgeuse blew, the effects would most likely be on par with what happens when we get a big solar flare, and those don't cause mass extinctions."

"So, in reality, there's nothing close enough to really hurt us?" asked the Exec.

The astronomer suppressed a smirk at the idea of a Hollywood producer using the phrase "in reality."

"That's right. We'd get a pretty light show, but that's about it."

The Exec looked relieved and just a little smug. "Doc, we can't sell tickets with a light show. But I like the visuals on this exploding-star thing. Do you have anything else like your super whatchamacallit?"

The astronomer hesitated. "Well, there is something else. Before, I was assuming that the explosion's energy went out in all directions, in a sphere. But if it's all pointed right at us, things get pretty bad."

The Exec leaned forward. "Define 'bad.'"

SCENE 2: DEATH RAYS

Sure, astronomers had been keeping their eye on the incredibly massive star called Eta Carinae (S&T: October 2004, page 42). It emits millions of times more energy than the Sun, and even at 7,500 light-years away it's visible to the naked eye. In 1843 astronomers watched it undergo a violent outburst, ejecting twin bubbles of gas that outweigh the Sun. Recently, however, the star has been relatively quiet.

But the heart of Eta Carinae is another matter. Deep down in the center of the star a tipping point has been reached. Suddenly--in just a few milliseconds--the core collapses. When it does, nothing can stop it and it shrinks all the way down, compressing into the universe's ultimate dead end: a black hole.

The energy released in this collapse is beyond imagination. And somehow--astronomers still aren't sure exactly how--that fantastic energy is channeled into twin beams that blast outward like colossal searchlights with billions of times the Sun's total energy. Violent turbulence within the jets create gamma-rays in quantities that make a regular supernova look like a wet firecracker.

The confined energy in the beams is staggering, unfathomable. The jets from Eta Carinae are essentially cosmic blowtorches. Their maws slowly expand to be light-years wide, cones of death packing the energy of entire suns. By dumb luck, one of them hits Earth. Our planet is flooded with gamma rays, as if thousands of nuclear weapons had detonated above the atmosphere at once. The radiation alone kills every exposed plant and animal. The wave of energy washes over in just minutes, but its devastation is complete. Earth is dead, sterilized by the cosmic catastrophe.

INTERMISSION

The Exec stared at the astronomer, his jaw literally hanging open. "But can that really happen?"

"Certainly," the astronomer replied. "NASA launched the Swift satellite in 2004 to detect gamma-ray bursts. We see one or two every week."

"Every week?!" The Exec squirmed in his chair. Seeing the man's disposition, the astronomer relented a bit. "Well, they're only dangerous if they go off in our own galaxy. But all of the ones we've seen so far are in distant galaxies billions of light-years away. They don't harm us. Even one in a nearby galaxy probably wouldn't affect us."

"'Probably'? That doesn't make me feel much better."

"Well, what makes them dangerous is that the energy is beamed, focused. But that's also their saving grace. Since the energy is focused, it's unlikely to hit us. An expanding sphere is impossible to avoid, but a beam has to be aimed right at us. Eta Carinae is pointed in the wrong direction."

The astronomer managed to look faintly guilty. "So really the movie scenario doesn't quite work. In fact, in all of recorded history there haven't been any bursts like that in our galaxy."

"Never?"

"Well, some scientists think a nearby burst may have caused the Ordovician mass extinction. Half of all marine species died in that one." He brightened. "But that was 450 million years ago. And there aren't that many stars in the Milky Way capable of producing gamma-ray bursts anyway. Probably fewer than 100. Maybe zero."

The Exec sat back and sighed. "OK then. Do you have something else? Something more likely? Something scarier?

The astronomer flipped to his next page of notes.

SCENE 3: DARK STAR

Somewhere in rural America, a backyard astronomer looking for Uranus using an automated telescope has difficulty finding it. When it finally appears in the eyepiece, it is far from its calculated position.

Saturn, located on the other side of the Sun, appears unaffected. But Jupiter appears off-kilter as well. Rumors start to spread.

Then the situation gets really weird. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, parked in an orbit where the Sun's and Earth's gravity balance, starts to drift. Other deep-space probes go off course too. But this turns out to be the least of our concerns.

Solar astronomers detect that the Sun's position is also wrong. What could move an entire star? But they quickly realize that the trouble is not with the Sun--it's with the Earth. Like the other planets, Earth is wandering off its usual path around the Sun!

As panic spreads, scientists come to a frightening conclusion: some massive object is approaching. They use the data on the other planets' motions to determine where this interloper should be, but they find nothing at this location.

Ironically, seeing nothing confirms their worst fears: it's a black hole, 10 times the mass of the Sun, and it's barreling toward us at 500 kilometers per second (1.1 million miles per hour). As it nears, it tugs on Earth with ever-stronger force, first pulling our planet only slightly off its orbit, then changing our course through space with accelerating effect. Earth no longer orbits one star; it obeys the gravity of two. Our planet, and everyone on it, is heading out into deep space.

Making matters worse, the black hole produces tides on Earth the same way the Moon does. When lunar tides stretch Earth, it's relatively gentle. The black hole, however, has 250 million times the Moon's mass. Even from millions of kilometers away, the tidal force from the collapsed star is causing floods and earthquakes on a global scale.

When the black hole reaches a distance of just 12 million kilometers--30 times the distance of the Moon--someone standing on Earth feels as much gravity upward from the black hole as downward from the Earth. But the black hole is destined to win this cosmic tug-of-war: within minutes, the force upward from the black hole is stronger. A rising hurricane of air now draws weightless people up, along with rocks, cars--even the oceans (see page 39).

An hour later, it's all over. The dead star's immense gravity rips Earth to pieces. The debris falls toward the hole, swirling around it ever faster, forming a disk of million-degree plasma before taking the fatal plunge.

Without a hiccup, without a stumble, the black hole sails on. Slightly heavier and larger than it was on its way in, it now heads out of the solar system, leaving behind chaos, scattered planets, and death.

EPILOG

The Exec was clutching his chest, straining for breath.

"You're kidding me. Tell me you're kidding me! Something like that exists, it's real?!"

The astronomer's eyes gleamed. "Oh, yes. There are probably millions of black holes in the Milky Way."

"Millions?!?" The Exec broke into a cold sweat.

"Sure, but space is really, really big. Most people think that black holes wander the galaxy looking for objects to devour, but that's not really the case. The odds of Earth getting kicked out of the solar system by a passing black hole are more than a million to 1."

"But people win the lottery with odds longer than that every day." The Exec sat up abruptly, shaking his head. Then he glared at the astronomer.

"Get out," he said, pointing at the door. "Now!"

The astronomer was taken by surprise. "Look, I know it sounds scary, but really, wandering black holes are extremely rare. How many people do you know who have been killed by one?"

The Exec looked him right in the eye. "I make movies for a living. Comedies so people can laugh, romances so they can fall in love, and horror movies so they can be scared. But you're not proposing horror movies. You're proposing snuff films. It's too much--they'll scare my audience to death!" The astronomer knew better than to argue. He got up, shared a final limp handshake, and left.

Once he was gone, the Exec took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. He looked at the scripts piled up on his desk and opened the one on top.

Give me fantasy every time, he thought to himself. The universe is too scary.

In addition to conducting public outreach for the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) and moderating his Bad Astronomy Web site (www.badastronomy.com), Phil Plait pens the Straight Talk column for S&T's sister publication, Night Sky.
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Author:Plait, Phil
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:2461
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