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The Gamma Ray Burster Threat

The Rise and Fall of Star Faring Civilizations in Our Own Galaxy

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A chronology of research and speculation regarding the nature and threat of gamma ray bursts from 1998 up through 2007:

6-1-98 Newz&Viewz: A mind boggling explosion 12 billion years ago rivaled the Big Bang itself in power

I wrote here months ago (maybe years) that it seemed to me the huge explosions producing the gamma ray bursts seemed potentially dangerous to possibly the entire galaxy that happened to host one-- only now am I starting to see mainstream articles noting this danger as well-- like the one cited at the end of this newz item.

Unfortunately, it appears sooner or later we WILL have a possibly fatal gamma ray burst nearby, that could kill off or severely damage all life on Earth (but for certain microbes).

But couldn't we protect ourselves somehow, like we might against an asteroid? Well, if a burster occurred within 3000 lightyears of us, the only potentially safe places would be a quarter-mile or so underwater or underground-- YIKES! Even worse, we might get even less warning about a burster than we might about a dangerous comet or asteroid-- indeed, the radiation could have begun falling on us when you began reading this article, and many of us would already be fatally poisoned before our scientists realized what was happening....

But if we did have super refuges deep underground/undersea to protect us, how long might we have to stay there before we could return to the surface? Only "...many millions of years..."-- or until we learned how to turn ourselves into wholly inorganic machines which were impervious to the killing radiation.

Obviously, if such a near burster's radiation reached us any time before maybe 2600 AD, we'd be goners-- extinct.

Luckily, the stats so far suggest near bursters happen only about once every 100 million years on average-- so we might have a few million years breathing space (or not).

-- "Recently Discovered Cosmic Blast May Be Biggest Since Big Bang" by MALCOLM W. BROWNE, 5-7-98, The New York Times

Over the past five years alone 1700 inexplicable bursts of gamma rays have been detected from the void.......These mysterious bursts come from all around us, in every direction-- but they are usually extremely distant; a billion or more light years away; perhaps even outside our galaxy. Space Today and the Washington Post, on or about 12-18-96

A region of unusual blue light in the sky about the size of the full Moon may offer a few days warning of a cosmic ray jet striking the Earth. The blue light is created by gamma rays preceding the jet and striking the atmosphere. A few days after this 95% of all animal life on Earth may begin to die, as their central nervous systems are destroyed.

The cosmic rays are emitted in a concentrated, laser-like beam, possibly from collisions of neutron stars. The beam's killing range may be a million lightyears, and it can penetrate with lethal effect half a kilometer underground or undersea. A burst can last as long as a month, enabling it to also wreck a planet's ozone layer, thereby opening the way for more types of killing radiation, over a much longer period.

The creation of such death rays in our own galaxy may take place roughly once every 100 million years-- and the last one looks to have been 200 million years ago.

Earth may be overdue for a mass extinction event by 100 million years. We know of at least five pairs of neutron stars in our galaxy at present, but the soonest of these potential collisions looks to be tens of millions of years away. However, there may be other neutron pairs we still haven't discovered.

-- Extinction is eons overdue by Michael Brooks; Weekly Mail & Guardian; August 07, 1998, and other sources

3-6-99 Newz&Viewz [edited]: The Fermi Paradox Resolved?

The Fermi Paradox basically asks "where are all the aliens"?

Well, just maybe the answer is natural cataclysms which have been sweeping the entire galaxy clean of higher life forms every few million years up until recently.

I'm talking gamma ray bursters here folks. Those mighty galaxy-shaking explosions that have been mystifying scientists now for about 30 years. Long-time readers might remember me writing here maybe a couple years ago that these enormous explosions and gamma radiation baths might be terrible news for the inhabitants of whatever galaxy where they occured. Now mainstream researchers are starting to say the same thing in their papers.

The gist is that these awful radiation bursts may have been occuring just often enough to stop the development of potential star farers in their tracks, throughout all of the history of the universe so far.

Apparently the only adequate protective measure for land-lubbers is being on the shadowed side of a planet when such a radiation bath occurs. Only life sheltered by many tons of seawater might survive on the gamma lit side.

Luckily most bursts won't usually last very long, so an entire planetary hemisphere (the shadowed half) worth of land-based life might escape more or less intact in many cases. But of course then the biosphere has to cope with half a dead planet; an entire hemisphere of dead and rotting corpses, of both plant and animal matter, and likely much dead in shallow sea waters as well. Imagine the awesome forest fires where entire continents of deadwood are set ablaze by lightning storms for decades afterwards. The smoke from these fires might create a brief global nuclear winter type condition, leading to even more death. It's likely a world would lose 30-50% of its total species in the event (since many species exist only locally, and half a world would be killed). And the rampage of disease...! It's a pretty good bet that the planet's climate would be changed significantly for centuries, maybe millennia, after the event. And the overall biosphere? At best it might only be set back by some 5 to 50 million years or so.

But there's still more to consider. In our own case, for millions of years, humanity's predecessors existed on a single continent on one side of the planet: Africa. If that side of the Earth had been fried by gamma rays during that time, present-day humanity likely wouldn't exist at all.

Similar 'dead-ends' in the evolution of intelligent life galaxy-wide could also have happened over the past several billion years. And remember that a single gamma ray burst severely damages the entire galaxy all at once in this fashion. So hundreds or even thousands of potential sentient races could have been wiped out or set back by a single burst at any time during the past.

And apparently there's been not merely one gamma burst over that time, but possibly hundreds or thousands, and possibly with a frequency of one every few million years in the earlier history of our galaxy.

So the great majority of potential intelligent races in our galaxy have almost certainly been killed off or at least severely stunted in development during much of past galactic history.

Now though, finally, the frequency of gamma bursters looks to be decreasing, and thereby giving folks like us a chance to actually crawl out of the muck and into space in a significant way, before we get wiped off the map.

And not only us, but perhaps many other races throughout the galaxy too.

It could well be that the gamma ray bursters have forced many intelligent races throughout the galaxy to begin reaching for the stars all more at less around the same time.

Yes, we're talking the parallel, roughly equivalent development technologically of at least dozens to hundreds of different civilizations now, in something similar to how the Terrans, Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons seem to have developed in the Star Trek TV series, where none (or few) have a truly decisive headstart over the others.

Yet another implication of all this though would seem to be that sea-based intelligence (which might enjoy better wholesale protection from gamma bursters), might have enjoyed a vastly greater continuity of evolution and technological development than land-based civilizations like our own during the onslaught. In extreme scenarios of virtually 100% ocean worlds, where intelligent squids or something similar lived typically fairly deep in the seas, the core civilizations might have been damaged very little if at all-- with only outposts on land, orbiting stations, and spacecraft/aircraft in transit suffering casualties from any burster in passing.

So the most advanced civilizations in the galaxy might turn out to appear pretty darn alien to us after all, if we ever encounter them.

-- "Cataclysmic Explosions May Have Held Up Alien Visitors", Author: Robert Matthews, New Scientist magazine issue 23rd Jan 99

-- Sorry, we'll be late by Robert Matthews; New Scientist, 23 January 1999

Gamma ray bursts of duration longer than two seconds and shorter than two seconds appear to possess different phenomena for their sources. Some scientists put forth the idea that the briefer bursts are caused by mergers between binary neutron stars.

-- Short And Long Gamma-Ray Bursts Are Of Different Origin; ScienceDaily Magazine; 11/23/2000; Source:NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (

The very brief (lasting under 100 milliseconds) gamma ray bursts we detect may stem from microscopic-scale black holes exploding throughout space. As of 2001 these made up around 1.4% of the total bursts detected so far, and appeared to maybe be local in origin.

These tiny black holes could be left-over relics from the Big Bang, only now evaporating away into nothingness in gamma ray burst 'pops'. The 'pops' appear to be somewhat concentrated in the Orion arm of our galaxy.

There could be 10 billion such micro-holes distributed within every few cubic lightyears of space-- which means one could pass through our solar system any time. If this theory is correct, several of these will detonate-- each with the force of a 100 billion megaton nuclear bomb-- every year in this same volume of space. Fortunately these particular gamma ray sources and their blast effects shouldn't much affect Earth unless they occur very, very close to us.

-- Black holes in the neighbourhood by Marcus Chown; 28-Nov-2001; Contact: Claire Bowles 44-207-331-2751; New Scientist issue: 1 December 2001;

A burst of neutrinos may precede a gamma ray burster by as much as 10 seconds. So here is one possible (if tiny) warning of such phenomena.

-- In Powerful Gamma-Ray Bursts, Neutrinos May Fly Out First, Scientists Say; 11/6/2001; Source: Penn State (

As of late 2001 the closest source of a gamma ray burst ever detected was four billion lightyears plus distant. Supernovas may not be the only source of bursters. There may be a burster occuring at some location in the viewable universe every single minute.

-- Three Spacecraft Detect Huge Energy Burst in Distant Cosmos;; 21 December 2001

Other gamma ray source possibilities appear to include the last moments of a dying star which has already been so cannibalized by a Kerr black hole as to be shaped like a doughnut (torus) around the hole. The gamma rays are narrow-beamed from the rotational axis of the central black hole as the last bits of the star are digested.

-- Tango between black hole and star remnant may explain cosmic explosion, MIT team reports; 21-Feb-2002; Contact: Denise Brehm brehm@MIT.EDU 617-253-2704 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Hypernovae are supernovae on a larger scale; some reports are attributing gamma bursters to hypernovae rather than supernovae.

-- Hypernovae chief suspects for gamma ray bursts by Stuart Clark; 03 April 02; news service

Supernova explosions appear much more likely than neutron star collisions for at least some gamma ray burst sources.

-- Death Of Huge Star Seen As Cause Of Gamma Ray Bursts; 05-Apr-2002; UniSci Daily

The side of Earth facing the concentrated beam of an incoming gamma burst from a nearby source would suffer atmospheric shock waves which ignited everything in the air and on the surface of the planet. The immense heating of the atmosphere would begin causing catastrophic weather changes worldwide within only minutes. Everything which could burn would do so. However, taking refuge in sturdy shelters would offer some momentary protection. Following this brief (under one second) blast of gamma rays would be days of cosmic rays raining down upon Earth, and passing with killing energies through everything as deep as half a kilometer. It's unlikely even humanity's elite in the best and deepest underground shelters available could survive. Life in the depths of the oceans will be killed. Everything on the surface will be dead.

Fortunately these death rays consist of beams likely only one degree wide, and so will usually miss a particular world like Earth. Unfortunately, the stats still put us at risk about once every hundred million years. Nearby Eta Carinae may 'go off' this way in just a million years or less, but thankfully is not aimed towards us.

-- Cosmic catastrophe 'a certainty' By Dr David Whitehouse; BBC News Online; 8 May, 2002

"...they can penetrate about 2.5 kilometers of sea water or 900 meters of rock..."

-- Of Cosmic Rays and Dangerous Days -- Berardelli 2007 (801): 1 -- ScienceNOW

Gas atmospheres absorb a substantial amount of gamma rays. Gamma rays also cannot penetrate a star.

-- It's a universal mystery: What are gamma ray bursts? BY CAROLE RUTLAND Special to the Ledger-Enquirer; May. 13, 2002;

At least some gamma ray bursts are definitely related to supernova explosions. The bursts are narrow beams emitted from the axis of the exploding stars, so if the observer isn't in the direct line of the beam all they'll see is the typical lightshow of the explosion.

-- Gamma ray bursts tied to supernovae by Eugenie Samuel; 17 May 02; news service

Gamma ray bursts seem to be caused by phenomena such as the collision of neutron stars with highly dense regular stars, or the explosions of hypernovae which result in black holes.

A gamma burster happening in our own galaxy would cause a mass extinction on Earth within seconds of the radiation reaching us.

-- Mission: Unravel The Mysteries Of Gamma Ray Bursts 04-Jun-2002; UniSci Daily

There are two different types of gamma bursts: long ones (existing for a few minutes) and short ones (lasting several seconds). Supernovas are probably the source of the longer ones, while the briefer ones remain unexplained.

-- Team may have answer to gamma ray bursts By Becky Oskin; May 17, 2002; Los Angeles Daily News

"The late Ordovician mass extinction approximately 440 million years ago may be at least partly the result of a GRB."

-- Did a gamma-ray burst initiate the late Ordovician mass extinction? (Published Online August 5 2004) (Received January 12 2004) (Accepted April 12 2004)


Apparently 'short' gamma bursts are far more numerous and closer to us than the horribly dangerous 'long' bursts.

"There's yet another way that nature found to make GRBs, which is very interesting,"

"Those more powerful long GRBs have only been observed in other galaxies and are thought to occur in our own galaxy less than once every 100,000 years. By contrast, Kasliwal says events like the one her team observed may occur once per decade in the Milky Way."

-- Nearby black hole caught burping gamma rays by David Shiga; 07 August 2007; news service

2009 UPDATE:

"Black hole jets are increasingly suspected of sterilising their host galaxies..."

-- Spinning black holes are ultimate cosmic batteries; 26 January 2009 by David Shiga; Magazine issue 2692.

So what's the bottom line on gamma ray bursts in terms of threat potential, circa 2007?

Scientists are a bit less apprehensive than they were before about the prospect. But the true risk still remains unknown and difficult to precisely quantify.

Why can we still not rule out extinction or high calamity from gamma ray bursters? Because we continue to discover new ways they can come into being, as well as new reasons a gamma burster source could pop up without warning right on top of us.

The closer a gamma burster source was to us, the more dire its consequences could be. Even the briefest and weakest of bursters happening too near Earth could be devastating. And we can't be positive Earth hasn't been struck this way in the past. Because there appears to have been multiple mass extinction events of varying degrees on Earth during its history. And the more we look, the more evidence we uncover for more such events than we're aware of today.

The true causes for most of these past extinction events remain highly theoretical at present. So 'short' but close gamma bursters could one day be implicated for some of them. And only after that could we determine any sort of time frame by which to predict the probable schedule of future events of that kind.

However-- barring some extreme bad luck-- we do seem to probably be safe from any 'long' gamma burster threat, based on current knowledge.

It appears unlikely humanity will be destroyed by one of the most powerful bursts, as these occur so rarely, and their destructive power is narrowly focused in a beam. While that beam may possess a killing range long enough to encompass the diameter of an entire galaxy (meaning a burster on the opposite side of our galaxy could still destroy all life on Earth), it'd pretty much have to be aimed directly at us. The farther away from us the 'big' burster (and up to now all have been immensely far away), the more precisely targeted Earth would have to be, to suffer.

So the biggest bursters seem to be far less of a threat to us statistically speaking than comets, asteroids-- or ourselves.

The smaller, weaker, and shorter bursts may be another matter entirely.

Because at the moment we know of no potential sources near enough to do us harm.

Note that that particular comforting thought could change with the very next newscast, or scientific paper.

So add nearby 'short' gamma bursters to the astonishingly long list of reasons why humanity should renounce its age-old practice of 'trickle-up' subsidization of the already wealthy from primarily taxing the non-rich, enabling those wealthy to farm and slaughter the rest of us like cattle for their own gains.

No, instead, our governments and corporations should be forced to operate more in the interest of benefiting all mankind, and better deal with the many real threats to our civilization and species, rather than fantasies dreamed up merely for the sake of war or business profits, and the killing of helpless innocents.

Of course, as a malevolent faction of the super-rich would be one of the first groups to suffer from such a profound change in society, it'll likely require a major social upheaval to get such reforms instituted.

One final note: Recall my statement above about "...barring some extreme bad luck-- we do seem to probably be safe from any 'long' gamma burster threat...".

Now consider this: SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) as well as others, have by late 2007 never detected a single verifiable sign of any sort of other civilizations existing in our own immense galaxy, of perhaps over 100 billion star systems: or in a handful of our neighboring galaxies of roughly comparable size.

Given the overwhelming evidence (presented on this site) that simple life must be widespread throughout the galaxy and universe-- and the seeming inevitability of intelligence arising from that life, wherever sufficient opportunity is available-- the silence of the heavens seems ominous.

For based on everything we know today, civilizations like ours appear to be inordinately UN-lucky, where long term survival is concerned. Whether the source of such consistent misfortune lies in ourselves, or in natural events like gamma ray bursters, remains to be seen.

WR 104: A nearby gamma-ray burst? March 3rd, 2008 by Phil Plait citing Is this the real Death Star? March 03, 2008

"Data from satellites and observatories around the globe show a jet from a powerful stellar explosion witnessed March 19 was aimed almost directly at Earth."

"...the dying star was 7.5 billion light-years away. "

"The team believes the jet directed toward Earth contained an ultra-fast component just 0.4 of a degree across. This core resided within a slightly less energetic jet about 20 times wider."

"Maybe every gamma-ray burst contains a narrow jet, too, but astronomers miss them because we don't see them head-on."

"Such an alignment occurs by chance only about once a decade, so a GRB 080319B is a rare catch. "

-- "Naked-Eye" Gamma-Ray Burst Was Aimed Squarely At Earth J.D. Harrington Headquarters, Washington 202-358-5241 Lynn Cominsky Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif. 707-664-2655 Sept. 10, 2008 RELEASE : 08-223

NASA Images Show Gamma Ray Bursts Across Milky Way By Sindya N. Bhanoo Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, August 27, 2008; Page A03

Worldwide hunt to solve the mystery of gamma-ray bursts Public release date: 16-Feb-2008 Contact: Professor Alan Wells University of Leicester

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All text above not explicitly authored by others copyright © 1993-2009 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.