Site of Earth’s oldest asteroid discovered
Should we embrace randomness? As scientists discover more evidence that we are the product of many million-to-one chances, perhaps we should give up trying to plan our lives so much.
Travel back in time about 2.29 billion years and our world would have been unrecognisable.
A supercontinent called Columbia covered much of the Earth’s surface; the days were around four hours shorter, and there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere.
An ice age, known as the Huronian, had been taking place for some 100 million years. The entire planet was covered with a thick layer of ice.
Then a massive asteroid crashed into Earth.
By analysing soil samples from the Yarrabubba site in Western Australia, geologists have, this week, managed to confirm that it is the oldest impact site on Earth.
And they believe that a four-mile-long object hurtling down into the Earth could have been enough to jolt it back into life.
Here is why. In the crash, such a huge extra-terrestrial object would have released billions of tons of water vapour into the air.
Over time, this would have warmed up the Earth, helping to create the conditions which made the evolution of complex life – and eventually humans – possible.
In other words, a gigantic space rock randomly smashing into Earth, over two billion years ago, could be a significant part of the reason we are here today.
Geologists say that once we fully understand the idea of randomness and the probability associated with any such event, a different conception of chance – and of history – emerges.
The big asteroid that hit Earth just off of the Mexican Yucatan peninsula some 66 million years ago produced the equivalent of 10 billion Hiroshima-type atom bombs, or 100 trillion tons of TNT. It released 10,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide, blocking sunlight for months, and producing a cold and dead world, thus starving the dinosaurs to death.
But this event was not totally random. Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, argues that we now know the probabilities and timescales of all such strikes.
In particular, 10km-size asteroids strike every 100 million years or so; one-kilometre meteoroids hit every million years or so; 100-metre rocks arrive at Earth every 1,000 years or so, and so on. Even random events follow statistical laws.
But quantum mechanics tells us that when we zoom into any teardrop, apple pip or grain of sand, nature is impossible to predict.
So, should we embrace randomness more?
Luck of the draw
Yes. Without being open to randomness, we can never be truly lucky. The world is a chaotic place, but that makes the opportunities we receive all the more precious.
Probably not. Science, politics, and art are about making sense of a chaotic world. We moved away from the myths and magic of the dark ages, precisely because we wanted to rise above randomness.
- Do you think randomness is something to be afraid of, or something that we should embrace?
- What is the most random thing that has happened to you in the last few weeks? How did it make you feel?
- Keep a journal of all the events that make you either very happy or very sad, over the course of the day. Tally up how many of each type are ‘random’.
- Have a little randomness competition. Going up against another person, each name a number between nought and 10. Then, flip a coin 10 times in a row; count one point for every head, and zero points for every tail.
Some People Say...
“God does not play dice with the Universe.”Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born physicist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Everything! In almost every situation, given enough information about the physical properties involved, we can predict what might happen next. If you measure a dice and calculate the different forces being applied to it, you can determine the outcome. Randomness is not something that is real, but rather something that is felt as such.
- What do we not know?
- Everything also. At the sub-atomic level, all of matter is unpredictable. In a system as complicated and as chaotic as our own Universe, we cannot ever know all of the variables. The future will always feel random to us.
- When most of the land on Earth is bunched up and forms one big shape.
- Minor planet that sometimes collides with other objects in space.
- Moving at a very high speed.
- Quantum mechanics
- The behaviour of matter and light at the atomic and subatomic level.