Impact!: The Threat of Comets and Asteroids / Edition 1

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In Impact, Gerrit L. Verschuur offers an eye-opening look at catastrophic collisions with our planet. Perhaps more important, he paints an unsettling portrait of the possibility of new collisions with earth, exploring potential threats to our planet and describing what scientists are doing right now to prepare for this awful possibility. Every day something from space hits our planet, Verschuur reveals. In fact, about 10,000 tons of space debris fall to earth every year, mostly in meteoric form. But meteors are not the greatest threat to life on earth, the author points out. The major threats are asteroids and comets. The reader discovers that astronomers have located some 350 NEAs ("Near Earth Asteroids"), objects whose orbits cross the orbit of the earth, the largest of which are 1627 Ivar (6 kilometers wide) and 1580 Betula (8 kilometers). Comets, of course, are even more deadly. Verschuur provides a gripping description of the small comet that exploded in the atmosphere above the Tunguska River valley in Siberia, in 1908, in a blinding flash visible for several thousand miles (every tree within sixty miles of ground zero was flattened). In addition, the author describes the efforts of Spacewatch and other groups to locate NEAs, and evaluates the idea that comet and asteroid impacts have been an underrated factor in the evolution of life on earth.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Not since Spengler has the end of civilization been threatened so often. Astronomer Verschuur may well be right to be so alarmist. In recent centuries, humans tended to see the probability of being hit by a substantial meteoroid as being so slight as to be negligible. But then we discovered that the moon's craters did not originate in extinct volcanoes but in impacts. At the beginning of this decade, it became widely accepted that the dinosaurs were wiped out as a result of impact, more precisely an impact that created Chicxulub Crater off the coast of the Yucatan. Groups like Spacewatch have been discovering new NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) at an impressive rate. Finally, in 1994, after some much-publicized dud comets, the many fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter causing, among other things, a 10,000-kelvin fireball that flew outward at 38,000 mph. Recently, estimates of the size of the impactor (or impactors) that could destroy much of the world has been reduced as it has become clearer that the real damage would not be so much to the land as to the atmosphere. Verschuur would have been better off letting these facts speak for themselves. Instead, he spends much of the book talking about the history of uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism without giving lay readers enough help with the underlying differences between the two. And his excitable prose sometimes undermines the power of the fact ("`Wow!' I responded profoundly to illustrate how stunned I was.") Verschuur's tone is that of a prophet in the desert, warning of doom with a sometimes disturbing single-minded determination: "On the morning of June 30, 1908, civilization may have suffered the worst piece of luck in its history," he says describing the meteoroid that flattened miles in a remote area of Siberia. "Had the Tunguska object struck a large city, a million people or more might have perished, and the phenomenon would have raised everyone's awareness to the threat of comet impact." (Sept.)
Library Journal
Earth may not need a plan to counter an alien invasion, but its inhabitants would be wise to determine the extent of a more likely threat from outer space: the untold numbers of comets and asteroids hurling around the solar system, some of which are bound to hit home sooner or later. So warns astronomer and science writer Verschuur (Hidden Attraction, Oxford Univ., 1993), who insists on the need for a thorough census of large objects with earth-crossing orbits. Beginning with the reputed dinosaur-killing asteroids and ending with the Jupiter comet hits of 1994, Verschuur traces the geographical and historical evidence suggesting the role of such collisions in the earth's formation, the evolution of life, and even in the course of human civilization. He laments that our species has been slow to accept the reality of the situation despite having evolved to the point where we might actually be able to defend ourselves against future impacts. This interesting and accessible if somewhat repetitive book is recommended for public and academic libraries. [We are being bombarded not only by comets but also by books about them; see Duncan Steel's Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets, LJ 5/1/95; John Lewis's Rain of Iron and Ice, LJ 1/96; and John and Mary Gribbin's Fire on Earth, LJ 6/1/96.Ed.]Patrick Dunn, East Tennessee State Univ. Lib., Johnson City
Kirkus Reviews
Verschuur, an astronomer (Hidden Attraction, 1993), offers a detailed and alarming account of the meteors and comets that have struck the Earth in the past, with devastating consequences, and reminds us that such disasters are likely to reoccur.

He begins his account in 1980 with the discovery of an anomalous concentration of the element iridium at the geological boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary eras—the point at which the dinosaurs became extinct. Rare on Earth, iridium is far more common in comets and meteors; this discovery led to the theory that a massive comet striking the earth with the impact of 20 million hydrogen bombs led to the death of the dinosaurs. At first reluctant to accept the concept, many geologists were eventually brought around by the discovery of a massive impact crater near Yucatán. Verschuur then examines both the geological and astronomical evidence for frequent large impacts: the presence of other craters on Earth (145 had been identified by 1995), the prevalence of craters on other bodies of the solar system, the large number of astronomical bodies in near-Earth orbits, historical accounts of comet or meteor impacts. Verschuur places great emphasis on the possibility of a large, devastating strike in the near future. He also gives particular attention to the consequences of an ocean impact (in fact, the most likely scenario), with huge tsunamis crashing hundreds of miles inland. And he considers courses of action we might take, emphasizing a program to detect (and possibly deflect) the menaces from space. Verschuur argues that we should seriously entertain the prospect of moving some of Earth's population off the planet, to allow the human race to survive an unpreventable large strike.

Occasionally overblown, often jumpy in its organization, this is nonetheless a strong treatment of one of the key scientific discoveries of our time.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195119190
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/1997
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Gerrit L. Verschuur is a noted radio astronomer and author of many articles and books popularizing astronomy. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2000

    Impact: The Threat of Comets and Asteroids

    An excellent book for anyone wanting great depth of coverage. The book brings the idea of impacting asteroids and comets to the forefront and makes you want to become involved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 1999

    Impact: The Threat of Comets and Asteroids

    Couldn't put the book down long enough to check the skies. If you're into the serious science of comet/asteriod dangers, the book will seriously enlighten you as to the dangers that lurk nearby. The threat of comet/asteriod impact on the planet Earth is real and needs to be heeded. This book goes a long way toward enlightening the public to the dangers.

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