New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
The sun intermingling with a scattered array of clouds provided Larry Scott with a particularly splendid feeling. For this late October day was his favorite kind. There was plenty of sun to give a sense of warmth as one walked about; there was the random shifting of clouds which diffused the light and provided varieties of shade and color; there was the gentle breeze distributing the aroma of trees and earth; and there was that last remnant of flowers promising the return of spring. It was gloriously comforting.
Gazing out of the window of his fourth floor office, Larry felt the genuine pleasure of the moment. His was a pleasant life. It was orderly. There were no routine, traumatic events to upset the stability. And perhaps more importantly, his state in life allowed Larry Scott the opportunity to enjoy his science and his academia. He could avoid confrontations as well as critically important decisions and could, in effect, choose precisely and unilaterally which matters of importance to which he would devote his attentions. He could be a sovereign majesty in a world acquiesing to external authority and every imaginable stripe of leadership.
If there was little excitement from unforeseen and adventurous events, then there was also something pleasant about routine. The “same old, same old” possessed an orderly and predictable quality which was totally non-threatening. It completely complemented Larry's highly organized and scientific mind. At the same time, the intellectual and mental stimulation -- none of which ever hinted at being a threat to his survival -- could be relished without externally imposed limits.
Being a newly tenured professor, Larry Scott could well afford to feel contentment. For he had begun to relish and enjoy the enviable position of not only being well paid for something he particularly enjoyed doing, but having legal guarantees to this condition for the rest of his professional life. This tenure thing, he constantly noted, was fantastic!
It was to his credit that he recognized the great advantage which was his and felt an obligation to occasionally act as if his station in life demanded a sense of gratitude, or at least respect for his good fortune. Coupled with his practical attitude of duties and obligations, Larry had developed and achieved a reputation for fairness and simple honesty. And inasmuch as he also possessed a sense of diplomacy and worldliness, he had become a very likable fellow.
It seems he had always possessed an unsought ability to get along easily with other people and seemed to accomplish all of his objectives with little or no effort. Admittedly, he often appeared to have little emotional drive, almost to the point of apathy. But this factor, apparently enhanced by a strict non-political nature, was not altogether true. Rather, Larry had a precise set of values which determined about what things he might get excited. Political ideas and motivations seemed to him very temporal and therefore of no great concern. This was fortunate from his perspective, because he had no control over what he considered to be the mindless passions of those consumed by greed, incompetence, and power at all costs.
Larry's world was smaller and less complicated. In fact, his passions might have been considered to be limited to three: His science (astronomy), his vocation (teaching), and, to a lesser extent, his wife (Linda). If his wife was a distant third in his priorities, it was because she provided considerably less excitement to his world. She was instead wonderfully content in her life, and was never moved to produce stimulation in Larry's.
Larry strongly suspected that his wife could, if necessary, be pleasantly rewarded by watching the grass grow. He had to admit that she was an ideal hostess. Of course, the fact that Larry had minimal use for such talents was only marginally relevant. But his job did allow for her talents to be occasionally utilized, such that their marriage was a convenient if somewhat uneventful pairing. In the end, however, it seemed to work.
On the other end of his priority scale, Larry Scott was, at an early age, already considered one of the top theoretical astronomers in the field. His reputation had been established primarily by his innovative ideas and unique methods for finding precise solutions to apparently mute questions. Scott's technique was that he never approached a problem head-on, nor for that matter from the rear. Instead he outflanked it. If some scientists could be said to have entered through the front door in a formal fashion while others apparently sneaked in the back door, Scott's technique was to knock down the side wall with a blithering array of precise mathematical techniques, all of which were presented unemotionally and as a matter of fact. Emotion was in fact a hindrance to his often brilliant logic.
If, by his colleagues' standards, Scott was a research scientist, to Larry his vocation was teaching. In his typical logical fashion, Dr. Scott rationalized that the university, a professional teaching organization, paid Larry as a professor of astronomy and that the primary purpose of the time devoted as a researcher was to maintain a high level of teaching ability. Were his profession purely research, Larry reasoned that the university would title him as such. Since, on the other hand, his appointment was "Professor", his job was teaching. Q.E.D. [“Thus it is conclusively proven.”]
For this reason and others, Larry was an excellent teacher. He worked hard at it and would not tolerate a questionable performance on his part. From one students' viewpoint, the one who had just left his office, Professor Scott was an oasis in a sea of sand. His lectures were inevitably enjoyable and educational. Out of class he could be approached easily for aid and discussion. A student never sensed that the professor's time spent with him was an infringement of Larry's research time and, in fact, was right. The student who had just left Professor Scott's office on that day in late October would never have even considered the possibility.
As the student closed the door, Larry glanced at his watch. It came as a pleasant surprise that he would have time to get to the gym for noon volleyball. Scott enjoyed all his sports, but the volleyball games for faculty at noon time were particularly enjoyable. He was only a moderately good player, but the companionship and sociability of the game was something to which he particularly looked forward. And there were just enough female faculty members to keep the game civilized. (Larry had long ago decided that men playing with only men -- even in a game as social as volleyball -- tended to emulate the running amuck and often deadly youngesters from The Lord of the Flies. It was sad but true aspect of life.)
The logic of his now being free of other responsibilities suddenly clear, Scott fairly bolted out of his office and headed for the elevator. But the vertical conveyor was already below him and heading down. He again referenced the clock in his cell phone (he had avoided wearing a wrist watch almost all of his adult life), and wondered if he should take the stairs; he did not want to be late. One of the disadvantages of noon volleyball was that latecomers would not get a chance to play -- the early birds would already have chosen up sides and filled the available courts.
Scott decided on the stairs. As he left the elevator door, he briefly pondered why universities always located astronomy departments on the top floors of their buildings. There was not a single telescope or other experimental apparatus in the building or on the roof. All the experimental research was done at the foothills campus). In fact, the astronomers were specifically prohibited from going out on the roof of their building. Such excursions were expected to result in a leaky roof or, worse yet, large man-size holes in the ceiling. The building was, as they say, mature and the fact that it was being maintained on a land grant university's budget did not promote confidence in its ability to withstand undue shocks or stress.
Scott was almost to the top of the stairs when the door to Professor Voulers' office opened and the senior astronomer of the department looked out. “Oh, Lawrence! Damn! I'm glad I caught you.”
Professor George Voulers was one of those charming throwbacks to the old European school: opinionated, brash, a trifle foul-mouthed, and an absolute terror to his graduate students. He gave the impression of being precisely what a university scientist was popularly thought to be: Absentminded, totally dedicated to his science without a thought to the outside world, totally unconscious of his dress, and lacking utterly in any concept of manners or accepted behavior in modern society.
Actually, George Voulers seldom forgot even the most trivial events (a fact to which his graduate students would attest). He was radically anti-political and mistrustful of anyone in authority (other than himself). His view of religion was sufficient for him to be declared heretical and bounties placed on his life by at least three major faiths. He enjoyed fine clothes and was thoroughly knowledgeable on standard rules of etiquette.
It should be noted, parenthetically, that he typically chose to ignore the latter and act contrary to "accepted behavior" -- if only to illustrate his contempt for the unknown "authority" who had established the rules of behavior in the first place. Such a facade also aided in his efforts to accomplish things outside the normal modes of diplomacy.
Today, however, his lack of manners was unintentional and due instead to some unusually intense emotions. "Quick, come in my office! We've got a problem!"
Scott stood rigid for just a moment. The idea of a delay with Voulers endangering his noon volleyball was only a fleeting question. Rather, he was a bit surprised at the senior professor's manner. Voulers had always been extremely blunt, but he had also normally tempered this with a hint of diplomacy when he addressed people for whom he had considerable respect. And Scott had always assumed his place among the chosen few.
Then Scott realized the senior scientist's excitement and answered, "Sure, George." His voice tended to trail off, since Voulers was already back inside his office.
Scott entered the long, narrow room with its wall-to-wall bookshelves, professional magazines and papers strewn about, and multiple stacks of astronomical prints. Voulers was by the door, waiting to close it, but already absorbed in his thoughts. Then Larry saw that they were not alone: one of Voulers' Ph.D. students was already sitting by the desk. Scott tried to recall his name.
Voulers, recovering from his momentary absent mindedness, shut the door and announced, "Lawrence, Kirk here has been working on some data we compiled on a comet that was discovered last month. And the answers are...” For a moment he trailed off. Then with a heavy sigh, "Well... incredible."
For a brief second Scott was amused by Voulers' apparent difficulties – Voulers was not known for relishing uncertainty. But then Scott took a closer look at the student. His name was Kirk Masters and Larry had had him in one of the first year graduate astronomy courses. Masters was dressed in faded blue jeans, sandals, and a crumpled sweat shirt. In his hands he carried a large sheaf of papers, which he unconsciously twisted, tearing the outer sheets. Scott noticed that the student was sweating profusely.
As if to ease the atmosphere of tension that Scott was beginning to feel, he asked, in what he hoped was a casual manner, "Some sort of problem?"
Voulers stopped short of his desk and for a moment looked at Scott. The apparent ease of the younger professor brought Voulers down to a controlled level of excitement. With particular effort, he began an explanation.
"About three weeks ago, an amateur astronomer in southern Europe discovered what he claimed was a large comet. A couple of other observations by other amateurs suggested that the object might be located as far out as the orbit of Neptune. But by the time it was reported to the Central Bureau and most any professional observatories heard anything about it, we were having this run of lousy weather. We were thus prevented from checking it out. And for some reason I have yet to fathom, there were no confirmations from any other observatory. For a while we had begun to doubt the sighting. Last week, though, we got lucky and the weather broke long enough that we could get some good data points, enough to establish a rough guess at its orbit."
Scott looked almost amused. “Come on, George. You know I have no sympathy for the problems of experimental astronomers.”
Voulers smiled at their common and long-standing joke. Then he became serious again. It's not an experimental problem. We should have enough data for reasonable confidence. The difficulty comes when we put the trajectory data on the comet into our SOLSYS program – the one where we can determine the closest point of approach of any comet, large meteor, of any other object to all the various major bodies of the solar system. It's an offshoot of the Near Earth Objects program. For our purposes, we're interested to know if we can expect any favorable observation opportunities. This is Kirk's area and he's been waiting for just such an opportunity.”
For a moment, Voulers hesistated, taking a long deep breath before continuing. ”We've used this program for some time now and the results have been good. The predicted and actual trajectories have been in excellent agreement."
“So what's the problem?”
In a low voice, Masters spoke for the first time, “We're gonna get hit.”
Scott glanced at the student, more surprised at the interruption than the content of the words. Voulers leaned back against the desk and with his eyes intent upon Scott, continued, "Kirk put the observational data on the comet into SOLSYS. According to the computer, the damned thing's on a collision course with Earth!"
Scott made no reply, his mind not yet comprehending the statement. Kirk's hands had gone to his face, the balls of each hand covering a sweating eye. Voulers continued to measure Scott's reaction. Then Larry said, his voice laced with laughter, "Collision?"
Voulers, letting out a heavy sigh, said, "If we can believe the computer program, yes."
"You're kidding?" Then the look on Voulers' face told him it was no joke.
Voulers continued, "That's why I said we have a problem. If the computer program is correct, we're about to get hit like we've never been hit before!”
Scott immediately grabbed for the only straw available. “If! If the calculations are correct!” Then he almost smiled. "Besides, what makes you think you can accurately predict the trajectory of a comet? If a comet is made up largely of frozen gases, then the differential melting as it approaches the sun could change its orbital path."
Voulers grimaced. "The problem is that the damn thing isn't acting like a comet. In the first place, it's too big, more like an escaped moon. In the second place, it has thus far exhibited no tail to speak of. This may be due to its current distance from the sun, of it may imply that there may be little, if any, gases vaporizing off. All of which make me suspect that its trajectory is pretty damn well fixed!”
Scott frowned but did not relent. "Then the calculations have to be rechecked."
Voulers looked at him, amazed that he was remaining calmer than his very steady colleague. "Of course. But the computer program has been used for some time and I doubt that it's a simple programming error. As far as the data go, I've gone over that myself and I can't find any mistakes."
"And the theory?"
"That's why I need you, Lawrence: To go over the whole thing in detail. And Fred Smith can look over the computer aspects. I know that you and Fred are not big fans of one another, but he's the man to go to for computer details."
No one spoke for several moments, as each tried to bring himself to struggle with the problem. All but Masters. Kirk had already accepted the fact. The Earth was going to be rammed by an errant comet. The world was coming to an end. Kirk knew in his mind that there was no question of this. The only question was: What does one do in the interim? How does one prepare to die? Worse yet, how does a species prepare to die?
Scott, his mind churning, turned to Voulers. "George, do you really buy this?"
Voulers studied his colleague for a moment. "Lawrence, one hell of a lot of effort has gone into the theory and programming of this type of data. The Near Earth Objects program has had some of the best minds in the business at its disposal. Frankly, I have no reason to doubt the results".
Glancing down, he added, “It's just that the results are so unbelievable." Staring back at Scott, he continued, "I can't honestly say that I buy this, not completely at any rate. Hell! How can anyone accept it?" Barely pausing for breath, "But neither do I dismiss it. It's just incredible enough to be possible."
"So we have to verify all of this. Or find the mistake." Larry turned toward Masters and then said, to no one in particular, "Gripes, we may have a virus in the computer program."
"Which is another reason I want Fred Smith. But there's more to the problem than that. And we'll have to get on this right away," Voulers said. “It could be just some horrible mistake. Or an incredible joke." He glanced at Kirk before quickly dismissed the latter possibility. “The effort now must be to make absolutely sure that there is no computer error or equipment malfunction or flaw in the theory of... whatever."
Scott seemed to shift into high gear. "I can start calling around to get some people on this. The more brains available, the better.”
"Wait a second, Lawrence. This is too big. We can't let this monstrosity out until we're a lot more certain of our conclusions. I think we should limit it to only a few, preferably the cooler heads among us.”
"Well, for now, you may be right." Scott glanced over to Masters, "How long do we have, anyway?" Kirk looked up, not quite sure that he was expected to be in the conversation. "Before the collision," Scott prodded, "how long before we get hit?"
Kirk was silent for only a moment then answered, "A little less than eight months."
Larry Scott glanced at his cell phone time: 8:40. He was a little early for the meeting, but he doubted that it would make much difference; time had lost much of its meaning in the last few days. Since George Voulers had told him of Kirk's incredible discovery, all the normal, day-to-day cares had become almost irrelevant. For Scott, life was suddenly held up in escrow and it was this morning's meeting that was to provide the first definitive answers. The possibility still existed that the confrontation between worlds might be only a near-miss or a close call. With luck, there might still exist some hope.
And it was hope that Scott required. He had to have at the very least the chance to build an opportunity for survival. For Scott this was the necessary and sufficient condition. The possibility of controlling his own destiny with a finite probability for success was all that his instinct for survival would require. But he had to have that chance.
Philosophically, Scott was capable of accepting even a cosmic catastrophe as a part of life, with no more importance to it than a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Life would not end with the discovery, nor the diagnosis; rather the fact of existence would intensify and gain added meaning. Life might very well find itself shortened in the dimension of time, but Scott sensed that he could live as much in the eight months allotted as in his normal two score of additional years.
Suddenly, Scott was at Voulers' door. His emotions flared for a brief moment. Then, without knocking, he opened the door. As he stepped into the office, he saw them scattered about the room, their faces with varying mixtures of shock and depression. They were all there: Tom Griffith, the head of the physics department, Voulers, Masters, John Ryker, another astrophysicist, and Fred Smith.
When he looked at Voulers, the senior astronomer shook his head as if to say yes, picked up a piece of paper, and handed it to him. Larry slowly closed the door and looked at the computer-drawn figure in Voulers' hand, the result of an intensive effort over the last two and a half days. The figure showed two curves, one curve of the Earth's orbit and the other marked "Ketuohok". The figure showed the comet crossing the Earth's orbit on “6/13". On the 13th of June the Earth would be at the same location.
Today was the twenty-eighth of October.
Larry studied the drawing for an indeterminate time. Finally he asked, "A direct hit?"
Voulers answered, his tone low, “For all practical purposes, yes.”
“Then it's all over!”
Voulers looked at him but said nothing. An acknowledgement of the nature that Scott was groping for would have been too final, sealed the fate of too many too completely. A numbing silence followed Larry as he slowly moved to a chair by the wall and began to think on the unspoken answer. This could not be right he thought; this finality allowed for no hope.
Softly someone cursed, “Damn!”
A more tentative voice asked, "And there's no chance that the comet's angular momentum might keep it at a safe distance?"
Voulers, his fingers at his temples, massaging the gray and brown strands of hair, heard the question but said nothing. Then he looked up and glanced around the room. When he realized that no one was willing to accept the responsibility, he answered, "No. With the comet coming from perihelion, the two bodies have almost the same direction. Even if there wasn't the immense gravitational forces between them during the closest point of approach, the comet would still sideswipe us.”
Kirk Masters was almost oblivious to the question. Only Voulers' resigned statement reached him. 'No hope' in any language, in any mode of expression, still carried the same meaning. Everything and anything was now futile. There was no point in going on.
Then Kirk thought of his young wife, Joanne. An unworldly, unsophisticated, small-town girl, Kirk had assumed an attitude of protection over his mate. In the face of cosmic catastrophe, his final and best contribution to her welfare would be, in his mind, a pledge of silence. If he could not shelter her from death, he would at least deny her the agony of knowing of its imminent arrival.
His resolve was therapy. The remaining seven and a half months could be borne, albeit with a silent, back-breaking weight. But it could be borne. Life still had a semblance of meaning for Kirk Masters. He could devote himself to this final cause.
Over and over Kirk's mind repeated and enlarged upon his plan to live those last few months. With each reiteration, his body responded to the miracle drug of purpose. The psychological lifted the physiological and Kirk gathered his strength. Soon he was able to walk slowly from the room.
The hallway was deserted but for a few students. But Kirk hardly noticed. His mind required a minimum of exterior sensing in order to concentrate on his purpose. Walking through the double glass doors was reflex, as was angling down the steps to the sidewalk. The brilliant blue sky and the slight chill to the late October breeze could not pass the raised threshold to his mind. Kirk simply walked as he formed and reformed the pattern of his remaining days.
John Ryker had been oblivious to Kirk's departure, his whole mind devoted to the stunning news. Innumerable possibilities of errors or discrepancies had appeared in his thinking, only to be dismissed by his reserves of cold, hard logic. John was after all a highly competent astrophysicist. In addtion, the three intensive days of evaluating, analyzing and studying the observational and mathematical details had provided a library of possible objections and arguments to refute the computer's output. Each had not met the test of physical reality, and the computer had stood by its results. All the efforts to find an error in computation or the data had failed.
As his mind began to accept this fact, it allowed for another thought to enter: his wife. Sarah Ryker was much loved by her mate. There had always been a sense of admiration on John's part, for a woman who seemed so uncommonly practical and with such an exceptional understanding of life. Sarah had raised their child with great skill and never expected from John more than he could have provided. She knew his interests and the intensity of his love for astronomy and physics and there had never been a conflict between them. She had absolute assurance of her place and his in a world of home and family.
John felt a sense of peace as he realized that, for Sarah and himself, the news of the collision might never affect their relationship. They would be able to remain as one through anything. With no thought of hesitancy, John knew that he must tell his wife the new without any further delay. As he sat there, he realized that he could not tell her anything over the telephone. In fact, she probably already knew that something was up. Her sense of understanding her husband had insured against her insisting on the “real” reason for his heightened activity of the past few days. Her patience and desire not to push him into a premature discussion had tempered her natural curiosity. She had known that John would eventually tell her.
In fact, John eventually told her most everything. Theirs was an original relationship, for John Ryker always talked to his wife about everything -- in particular, his work. Not that Sarah had the mathematics or background in astrophysics to fully understand what he was talking about, but John would nevertheless discuss his research with her and in great detail. Sarah understood perhaps less than ten percent, but John found it useful. She would ask simple questions, trying to clarify and simplify the problem that John described. And, in trying to answer her, John found that he had to simplify and rethink his points. Inevitably this exercise prompted new and different viewpoints for John to consider in attacking the problem. John truly believed that a few of his ideas (hailed at “brilliant” by his colleagues) were the result of his explanations to his wife. Not that the ideas were hers, only that her requirements for better understanding (however meager) would lead John to fresh approaches to a problem.
As John sat in the chair, he began to think of ways to explain their discovery to his wife. He knew that he would have to answer all of her probing and yet very basic questions. John would have to present everything in a logical and irrefutable manner. There was to be no alternative: the world was to be utterly destroyed.
Curiously, and in his own mind it was indeed curious, he was not overly distressed by this alleged end of the worldt. In many respects his sense of calm should not have been surprising. Ryker had always been less impressed with survival than with a desire to remain busy. Even with a fait accompli, he would carry on with little deviation. For John was, above all other things, a scientist. He would have been at home as a Renaissance man as easily as a twentieth century astrophysicist. Even as he sat there, he thought in terms of the scientific observer. This was going to be one Helluva astrophysical event. He almost smiled.
But then, perhaps, his lack of distress was due to another reason. Perhaps his calmness owed its existence to a single idea tucked away in his mind. Maybe a thread by which to soften the reality of discovery, perhaps there might somehow lie in a narrowed, seldom-used corridor of his mind a key. Then he thought of it.
At first the specifics eluded his grasp. But he sensed the importance. In his mind he began to struggle logically toward his goal. Framing the initial thought in his mind, he stated the first assumption. According to Immanuel Velikovsky, the Earth had already had near-collisions with both Venus and Mars. Then quickly he thought, "And in historical times. And, in both cases, civilization survived despite the catastrophe."
Now… With this preposition, how was he to refute the obvious counter argument? John had never been quite able to really seriously consider the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, they were simply too radical and too at odds with mainstream and established historical founts of knowledge. Even if they were right... Then the thought struck him: “If Velikovsky was right!”
The critical word: If. John thought rapidly. If we assume that we survived… No! If we assume only that we could survive. Then the question to ask is how ? How does one go about surviving an impending catastrophe of this kind?
Forget the data and the computer results. Forget the obvious factors of the gravitational forces tearing the worlds apart. Consider rather how such an event could be prevented or at least alleviated somewhat. Was there a mechanism, some physical attribute that could prevent wholesale disaster? Was there a mechanism in the past which prevented the total destruction of the earth circa 1500 BCE? Did the sun really stand still in those ancient days?
With some excitement Ryker realized that he had asked the right question. And it was inevitably the formulating of the question that was the most difficult. Merely finding a solution was relatively easy, once the right question had been voiced. In the case of the comet, all that was required was to assume that survival was possible – that in fact it had happened before in historical times! -- and then to ask how. What physical force could prevent the gravitational attraction from tearing the worlds apart?
'Eureka!' he thought. He had just formulated the right question. The most probable answer quickly followed with almost no effort.
He smiled as he looked up at Voulers, the mathematical calculations already racing through Ryker's mind. Voulers was still sitting, thinking, at his desk. His feet were raised and resting on a nearby chair, a cigar askew in his mouth, and an arm rested on a pile of unanswered correspondence. The cigar, John knew, would be a bit of a treat, since Voulers' doctor had urged their elimination for health reasons. It had already been almost a month of abstinence. John wondered if the joy of breaking the drought had provided any comfort. At the very least it would let Voulers once again beat the system.
Quietly, John addressed his remarks directly to the older scientist, “George. I've got an idea. I've been doing some thinking and I suspect that there may be a way out.”
Voulers sat quietly for a minute. Totally unsure of himself, he blurted out, “What the hell are you talking about?”
"George, we forgot the electromagnetic forces."
"EM forces? What the..." Then Voulers stopped, his thoughts trying to regroup and evaluate the seemingly unrelated data point.
Immediately Ryker had everyone's attention. Standing up, he went to the blackboard. “The SOLSYS program is based on the gravitational forces between the bodies in the solar system. And that's all, just the gravitational forces. Because, at most distances, that's all that's significant.”
He paused, but no one offered any comment.
"Now we all know that the principal force on the comet is due to the sun; the planets contributing only minor perturbations to its path. But, in the case of Ketuohok, the distance between it and the Earth becomes so small that the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the comet becomes critical. The key is the small distances involved!"
John was becoming excited and he paused for breath. When no one interrupted, he continued, "What about the electromagnetic forces? What about the immense electromagnetic field surrounding the Earth? If it were visible, it would look like the tail of a comet! And the odds are that the comet has a similar electromagnetic tail. "
"So what are you projecting? That it'll bounce off?" Tom Griffith was more puzzled than skeptical.
"Why not? The structure of the electromagnetic field around the Earth is basically due to the sun. If we have a teardrop shaped field about us, why not Ketuohok? And, if they're the same, we'd have like poles of their magnetic fields opposing each other. The closer the planets, the stronger the repulsive force, and you don't have to get too close before the EM forces begom tp outweigh the gravitational. Instead of a direct hit, what we might be looking at is only a glancing blow.”
A long, silent moment followed. Tom Griffith carefully moved to the last remaining chair and slowly eased into it. Scott, having visibly shifted his mind to the thinking mode, leaned slightly against a make-shift bookshelf. Voulers had a slight grin on his face as he watched his two colleagues. Ryker looked expectantly at both of them.
It was Fred Smith, the mathematician, who broke the silence. "This doesn't make any sense." Tentatively he asked, "Why aren't these EM forces already in the program? If they're important, why haven't they been considered before?"
Ryker frowned slightly. "Inertia, I suppose. It's only now that we're beginning to fully realize their significance. And, up to now, they've never really made any difference. The theory of gravitation has always been entirely adequate to explain the motions of all the various bodies in the solar system. Until now!" Ryker's tempo increased. "Now the distances are so small that it does make a difference. It's like a simple dipole, with a positive and negative charge separated by some small distance." Drawing on the board, he continued, "At distances from the dipole large in relation to the separation of the two charges, there is no discernible effect – the distinction between the positive and negative charge is insignificant. But, close up, it's a very effective force and the two poles are very distinct.”
Turning from the blackboard, he looked for support. He received none. But neither did he receive any discouragement; the others were thinking intently.
Then Smith ventured, "But why do you expect the dipoles to be aligned? Why not turn one over; then you'd have an attraction of like charges? An EM attractive force! The situation would actually be worse. ”
"Oh, that's easy," Scott said, hardly noticing Fred's reaction to his statement. "It's because of the solar wind."
"Exactly!" Ryker answered. “The actual fields are more like large teardrops streaming off into space in a direction opposite to the direction of the sun. The Earth, Jupiter and Saturn definitely have them, and it's a good bet that so does the comet!”
"And you're counting on these fields to soften or deflect the blow?" Tom was now starting to question. A look of slight cynicism was in his eyes.
"And you think the Earth can survive because of them? We'd get off scott-free?”
"No… not exactly. But the damage wouldn't be world destroying. It could be survivable."
"What makes you think so? Have you done any calculations to figure out a closest point of approach?"
"No, not yet.”
"Well, then, what makes you so damn optimistic?” Fred's skepticism had reached new heights, and he was still ticked by Scott's comment.
Ryker glanced down, a sheepish smile on his face. It took Ryker a moment, as all craned their heads for a better view. Then he answered, "If we've survived or, rather, civilization has survived, two earlier collisions within historical times, then it's logical to expect that we can do it again."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Fred now seemed irate.
"If we can accept Velikovsky's theories, then we've had glancing shots from both Venus and Mars already."
"Velikovsky?" Tom almost spit it out.
George had a simpler eloquence, "Dog shit!"
"Now wait a minute," Ryker was adamant. "Why not Velikovsky? His theories have been around for over a half century and have yet to be proven wrong. You may not like his theory, but you sure as hell can't prove it wrong."
Tom quipped, “What about his dating of the Egyptian histories? Didn't the Carbon-14 dating proved him wrong."
"Not really. The original data showed him right. It was only after the traditional Egyptologists had ignored the facts that some congenial physicists came up with that fudge factor from those damn tree rings."
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Smith was indignant at his lack of understanding.
Scott almost laughed. "Beats me."
Tom ventured, "It's a far out theory, just the thing for astrologers!”
"Not really," John retorted. "It just doesn't jive with establishment science.” He paused for a moment then went on. “I'll admit to never having taken Velikovsky too seriously. I never had to. But when I apply cold hard fact and logic to the situation and dismiss emotionalism, then I have to concede that Velikovsky might be right. He sure as hell hasn't been proven wrong."
"But who's Velikovsky?”
Ryker turned to Smith. "About 1950, Velikovsky published a book called Worlds in Collision where he claimed that, at the time of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt , the planet Venus, which was then in a cometary orbit, came close enough to Earth to cause the overthrow of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. The events of the Exodus, like the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire, the forty years of wandering, and so forth, were all direct results of the collision. It seem that the Jews simply took advantage of the catastrophe to escape from Egypt."
Smith was genuinely amazed. "You really believe this?"
“The point is," Ryker was now serious, "The theory made several predictions that have since been borne out. For example, Velikovsky predicted Venus to be hot before it was shown to be so. He predicted hydrocarbons in Venus' atmosphere. They laughed at that idea, until a Venusian probe showed he was correct. He predicted a Jupiter giving off more radiation than it receives. That's now accepted. Velikovsky has always insisted that the EM forces play an important role in the solar system, which we are only now beginning to prove."
"No shit.” Smith almost laughed.
Ryker was completely straight. "Logic and fact are on the side of Velikovsky. The only weapon his adversaries boast is emotionalism."
"And your sudden conversion is not due to emotionalism?"
John answered sheepishly, "Probably, but I hope not."
There was a momentary silence. All sat about, not really wanting Ryker to go on. They were no authorities on Velikovsky – pro or con -- and thus none had critical or probing questions at their fingertips. Then Tom looked to Voulers. “George, you seem to be enjoying this. Do you buy Velikovsky?”
Voulers' smile became a shade more serious. After a moment's hesitation he said, “That's not the point. I can't see bothering to try to prove or disprove Velikovsky. It would be an exercise in futility.” After a pause he continued, “But! And this is the point: Velikovsky is a possible way out! He gives us our purpose. If his theory is correct, we have a chance. A chance!” Suddenly he became even more intense. “We might survive. If civilization has come through before, why not now? If we accept Velikovsky as at least a possibility, then we can try to survive. We can even plan ahead in order to increase our chances!”
“And if Velikovsky is bullshit?"
“Then we're screwed. But what do you plan to do in the meantime? That's the essence! If you assume all is lost, you might just as well cut your throat right now.” Voulers paused for just a moment. “But if you accept the barest possibility of hope, then you can try to make it. You can plan for the possibility of survival. Hell! If nothing else, it'll give you something to occupy your mind with for the next seven or eight months." Voulers leaned back, confident that he'd made his point.
Scott smiled as he began to sense the fullness of the idea. "Right on, George," he said, feeling the lilt of a reprieve. "We can treat this collision as we might treat any other challenge. We needn't lie down and die. We have a chance to build an opportunity for survival. We might have to live within the confines of the collision's reality, but we could do it with purpose and a sense of value."
Fred smith snorted, "What a load of crap!"
Scott glanced toward Fred, his hackles lightly brushed. And for just a moment Scott's objective nature sounded a warning note. Scott was a stickler for detail and a very intellectually honest individual, both in his science and his day-to-day dealings. For a fleeting instance his objectivity demanded more precision, more supporting evidence. But his objectivity, his insistence on rethinking every aspect, looking for loopholes, was abruptly overridden.
Scott was individualistic to the point of ruthlessness. And his individuality would accept nothing less than a chance. Ryker's loophole would have to prove correct or Scott would forge another. From this point on, Scott would not be denied. "Let's do it," he said.
Resolved in his own mind, his face flashed a determined smile. Then he glanced at the others. Across the room sat Tom Griffith, also in a moment's retrospect, but who quietly acknowledged Scott's charge. But Tom seemed a great deal calmer.
Tom was, after all, a mature individual, casually confident of his own abilities and limitations, and a man with his feet planted firmly on the ground. In some respect he seemed out of place among the other physicists, particularly in his ability to deal with people. Combining his sense of diplomacy with businesslike leadership and administrative talents, he was uncommonly practical, despite his imposing title as a theoretical elementary particle physicist. From his own account, he was more of a mediator or supervisor than a creative, innovative genius. Instead of being the brilliant scientist, he was a foundation on which others could build, and rebuild, incredible structures.
It flashed clearly in Scott's mind that what was needed now was just such a foundation -- particularly when it combined the intelligence and background to contribute to solving the problem. In addition, Scott realized clearly that their group would need a leader. In times of war or survival, leadership seemed essential. Tom was the clear choice. The thought gave Scott some comfort. They were going to make it!
For Tom's part, thoughts of his wife and children kept interfering with his calculating mind. A rehashing of the work of the last few days could be incredibly painful if the answers refused to vary. But for his family he would have to try. "So what you propose," he said aloud, turning to address Ryker, "ls that we redo our computer program and include EM forces?"
Voulers interrupted, "Certainly. And, with a little luck, we might find an answer that's a bit more palatable."
Smith could not bring himself to be adverse to the idea of new work, but a lifelong habit of questioning ideas and evidence prodded him to ask, "But you don't really think we'll be able to predict the consequences of even a near-collision. The most we could hope for would be to figure a closest point of approach.”
“I've thought of that,” Ryker answered. “The effects of a glancing blow we can't predict with the computer, but we can use Velikovsky as a guide. Using his description of the previous collisions, we should be able to get some ideas of the possibilities."
"What type of things are you thinking about? Earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes?"
"Oh, certainly. Possibly worse. But the point is that there is a chance for making it through." Ryker had an almost evangelistic zeal in promoting this last thread of hope.
Scott was more practical. "And the better we prepare, the greater our chances of making it."
"Hold on just a minute", Voulers interrupted. "Let's take a brief excursion back to reality. One, we've proved nothing! Sure, we may have a chance, but first we've got to do some heavy work. We've got to expand our group somewhat and get on this immediately. If we can get an answer that makes John's hopes seem even remotely possible, then we can talk about the next step. But let's get on the problem and do that first. In the interim, we don't talk about this to another soul!"
Then Voulers grinned slightly, "If things do work out to where there is even the slightest chance of surviving, I'll be sure to inform each of you.” George glanced at each of his colleagues as they laughed a nervous laugh. Only Fred Smith seemed not to note George's black humor, he was clearly preoccupied with another thought.
"What's the problem, Fred?” Voulers looked concerned, fearful of their loophole having a flaw.
Fred looked at him for a second, then glanced around at the others. “I get the feeling that we're still keeping the lid on this. At some point we've got to put the word out. Contact the authorities. If for no other reason, we could use some collaboration from other labs."
Griffith answered first, "No question, Fred. We'll put the word out as soon as possible."
Voulers interrupted, "Let's get this work done first. A premature announcement would cause a lot more damage than good. Let's find out what our chances are; then we'll talk about telling the rest of the world. Until then we need to keep this absolutely quiet. And, once we have our answers, then we can discuss how to tell the world. Let's not have anyone go off on his own. Not yet. Not until we're all agreed on how to do it. Okay?”
When everyone assented, Voulers finished by saying, “Griffith, please tell the others about our temporarily keeping this secret. I'll tell Kirk.”
“I can tell him, George,” Fred said.
“That's okay. I'd rather be the one to tell him. I want to be sure he understands.” George looked particularly serious.
Chapter Two -- Ketuohok
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