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CAPAS Working Group: Summer Semester 2023

Published onSep 05, 2023


This article documents the discussions and activities undertaken by the Technocalypse working group over the course of the 2023 Summer Semester. The group was initially formed under the name of Apocalyptic Policies, with the intention to discuss issues related to the translation of science into public policy in response to, and in preparation for, disaster & emergency scenarios. The lessons learned from the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic were to be a particular focus, especially concerning the way in which measures such as lockdowns, face masks and vaccines were introduced and communicated to the public. The pandemic highlighted the way in which unelected scientific advisors appeared to exert great influence over the machinery of government and public communications, and the problems associated with translating an uncertain and rapidly-evolving scientific understanding into concrete policy. There would also be discussions to be had concerning the cost effectiveness of mitigation policies such as lockdowns, once long-term societal impacts are taken into account.

To discuss these themes, we sought to host a 1-day workshop, drawing in external expertise from academia, government, disaster relief agencies and the insurance industry. Unfortunately, it was not feasible for CAPAS to host the workshop during the Summer semester, so these plans and our discussions did not progress at this time. Instead, given the interests of the working group members, we focussed on preparations for events surrounding World Asteroid Day on 30th June.

Asteroid Week at CAPAS: 29th June to 1st July 2023

World Asteroid Day, held annually on 30th June each year, was instigated in 2015 as a UN-approved campaign to raise public awareness of the asteroid impact hazard. Events take place worldwide on the anniversary of the Tunguska impact of 30th June 1908 – the largest impact of modern times, which destroyed over 2000 sq. kilometres of Siberian forest.

With two astronomers, Duane Hamacher & Richard Wilman, among the CAPAS fellows this semester, CAPAS partnered with several local organisations to develop a rich programme of scientific talks, cultural and family-oriented activities, as advertised in the poster below.

In a pair of talks at the Museum Geowissenschaften, Prof Mario Trieloff (Geosciences, Heidelberg University) and Richard Wilman gave geological and astronomical perspectives, respectively, on the asteroid and cometary impact hazard. The latter talk also explored mitigation scenarios (asteroid deflection technologies) and placed the impact hazard in the broader context of space risks. After the event, four framed postcard sets on Comet Halley 1910 were presented to the audience in the hallway by Rolf Scheuermann.

The following evening, in partnership with Karlstorkino, CAPAS held a wine tasting event with a pair of wines from the Domaine du Météore, grown within a 200 m-diameter impact crater in the south of France. Tasting notes were provided by CAPAS wine expert Michael Dunn, together with a scientific commentary from Prof Frank Brenker, a cosmochemist at Goethe University, Frankfurt, whose analysis recently substantiated the impact hypothesis.

The evening concluded with a screening of the documentary film Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (directed by Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer), and live audience Q&A with Clive Oppenheimer and Duane Hamacher (who was involved in the filming).

The activities during Asteroid Week were hosted in partnership with the Haus der Astronomie (House of Astronomy), the joint outreach institution for the various astronomy-related research institutions in Heidelberg. On Saturday, Carolin Liefke, Natalie Fischer and Esther Kolar from Haus der Astronomie organized a family and children event around asteroids and meteorites and hosted an evening talk by Dr Richard Moissl, Head of the Planetary Defence Office of ESA.

Transdisciplinary Scholarship Exercise in Interpreting Depictions of the Apocalypse: The Comet Halley Postcard Collection From 1910

Cometary apparitions have long been considered apocalyptic, signalling disease, war, famine, and death. Many cultures and religions of the world have maintained this association, and in 1910 these old fears were reawakened by new scientific observations. In that year, the return of Comet Halley was a highly-publicised astronomical event that garnered significant public interest. When astronomers observed the comet using spectroscopy, they discovered that it contained cyanogen, a highly toxic compound. French astronomer Camille Flammarion incited hysteria by proposing that the gas would enter the Earth’s atmosphere and would snuff out all life, as the Earth passed through the comet’s tail on 19th May 1910.

This resulted in public reactions of fear, tension, and apprehension, and opened the flood gates for opportunists to take financial advantage of peoples' fears. Rolf Scheuermann has been passionately collecting comet postcards over the years, amassing an impressive collection. Drawing from his collection, we created a display at CAPAS of 4 framed postcard sets, each showing a themed set of six postcards relating to the Comet Halley 1910 panic. As an exercise in trans-disciplinary scholarship, we invited current and former members of CAPAS to contribute short 500-2000 word essays about these postcards, prompted by the following questions: How do you see interpretations of the apocalypse represented in these postcards? What lessons can we glean from them? What issues do you feel they address? The questions were framed in an open-ended way, to enable individuals to approach the task from the context of their own discipline.

There are two noteworthy local Heidelberg connections with Halley’s 1910 appearance. Heidelberg astronomer Max Wolf was the first astronomer to rediscover the comet, in September 1909, as it returned to the inner Solar System for its 1910 perihelion; the techniques of astrophysical spectroscopic analysis, which led to the discovery of cyanogen in the comet, were developed in Heidelberg by Bunsen and Kirchoff through their analysis of the solar spectrum in 1859.

Compilation of the 4 sets of Comet Halley-themed postcards on display at CAPAS. For more detailed images of the individual sets, and the background to their acquisition, see the contribution by Rolf Scheuermann.

The following contributions were received:

Richard Wilman: The Distinct and Multi-faceted Nature of the Cometary Threat Abstract: With perspectives on the latest science, this article explains how the cometary impact threat remains very much alive, despite the rapid progress in mitigating that from near-Earth asteroids. There are further risks posed by the dark remnants of past Halley-type comets, and potential climatic impacts from cometary dust.

Juliet Simpson: Cultural Collisions: Omen, Satire & Revelation – Halley’s comet through the lens of artists and writers, 1835 – c. 1910 Abstract: This article reviews the evolving cultural impact of artistic depictions of Comet Halley, particularly concerning the 1835 and 1910 appearances.

Duane Hamacher: Eschatological Visionaries of Comet Halley in early 20th Century Postcards

Rolf Scheuermann: From Comets in Tibet to Cometary Panic Depicted in German Postcards in the Early 20th Century
Abstract: The first part of this article introduces the long-standing Tibetan tradition of traditional Astro Sciences, and, particularly, how it perceived comets. Based on the commonality of considering comets as harbingers of evil, the second part then turns to a collection of postcards on Cometary Panic and four particular sets related to Comet Halley in 1910/11.

Paolo Vignolo: The End of the World as an Upside-Down World

Working Group Excursion to the Nördlinger-Ries and Steinheim Impact Craters

The pair of impact craters at Steinheim am Albuch and Nördlinger-Ries, straddling the borders of Bavaria and Badem-Württemberg, have been dated by geologists to asteroid impact events circa 14.5 million years ago. They were originally thought to have been produced simultaneously by a binary asteroid, but more recent investigations suggest that the Steinheim crater is around 500,000 years younger.

The larger of the pair at Nördlinger-Ries measures some 24 km across and was likely produced by the impact of a 1 km-diameter asteroid. An impactor of this size is of particular significance in studies of asteroid impact consequences, as it marks the size above which the indirect global effects (chiefly in the form of a major climate downturn) outweigh the direct effects in the impact region itself. Impacts of this size are expected to occur roughly every 100,000 years, and could result in the death of a significant fraction of the world’s population, an apocalyptic scenario by any measure.

Exploring the rim of the Ries crater

View of Steinheim from the central uplift of the crater

Universe on Tour: 19th - 23rd July 2023

Furthermore, and as part of the ‘Science Year 2023 – Our Universe’ (proclaimed by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, BMBF), a mobile planetarium has been travelling through Germany as the Roadshow Universe on Tour. At the end of July, it stopped over in Heidelberg. On this occasion, a series of public lectures was organised by the astronomy institutions in Heidelberg. On July 21st, Duane Hamacher contributed a talk on his book The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars, and the Open-Air Apocalyptic Cinema on the same day screened the 1951 science fiction movie When Worlds Collide with a scientific commentary by Richard Wilman.

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