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09.02.2003

Comet Impact Extravaganza

Most of the fanciest supercomputer simulations ever run have been wasted on devoted to numerical modeling of nuclear explosions. Back in the Cold War days, using computers to design weapons meant that you could build smaller, cheaper, more versatile nukes without violating any pesky test ban treaties. When the Cold War ended, and blowing the bejesus out of things briefly fell out of fashion, bureaucrats at the Department of Energy had to scramble around for another rationale to keep the funding flowing. They found their solution in something called "stockpile stewardship", a program intended to (wait for it) "maintain the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons". The American Deterrent: Safe. Reliable. Nucular.

Someone needs to tell Lawrence Livermore that no one will be upset if a massive thermonuclear strike turns out to be a dud. Really. What kind of scenario are they imagining?

"Smithers, what is that?"

"It's a satellite view of the Kremlin, sir."

"Did we or DID WE NOT launch sixteen ICBMs at the Kremlin this morning??"

"We did, sir"

"And why do you think we launched sixteen ICBMs at the Kremlin?"

"To blow it up, sir."

"And did we blow it up?"

"No, sir."

"Do you see any kind of damage in this picture, Smithers?"

"Just a dent in the cupola, sir."

"Do you see a ball of living hellfire, burning with the light of ten million suns?"

"No, sir."

"Would you care to tell me WHY there is no ball of hellfire?"

"The weapons... didn't work, sir."

"Smithers, you're fired!"

So I was happy to see that Sandia Laboratories (another dark spooky place) tested out one of its new supercomputers not by doing a boring old nuke test, but by simulating a comet hitting the Earth at a brisk 60 km/second.

Naturally they followed Ceglowski's Law of Urban Celestial Mechanics, which states that all computer simulations of objects hitting the Earth must be shown destroying Manhattan. This particular bad boy hits south of Brooklyn, ejecting eight hundred cubic kilometers of ocean, along with a fair number of Williamsburg hipsters, into low polar orbit. I particularly like the head-on views, which show a really bad day for the Boston-La Guardia shuttle.

There's also a diagram of comet impact seen in cross section, where you can see the hole the thing punches in the atmosphere. A hole in the atmosphere! Sure, the hole soon fills with incredibly hot steam, but it's still an impressive detail.

It turns out that comet impacts have many interesting effects like this, all of them bad. You get a brief (2 year) period of total darkness + acid snow, continent-wide forest fires, tsunamis all over the place, total destruction of the ozone layer and (once the dust clears), a centuries-long spell of global warming thanks to all the water vapor sucked into the stratosphere by that hole in the atmosphere I mentioned. Which slowly turns the planet into Venus.

I hardly have to point out how cool all this is. Naturally, my first instinct on seeing all this was to try and download a program for making my own comet porn. I figured that even with a much simpler desktop simulation, aiming comets at various cities was a great way to spend a Tuesday at work. I got briefly excited after finding a link to an asteroid impact simulator for Windows (how fitting!), but to my total horror all it did was generate fake statistics. You let it run, and the program told you how many impacts had occured over a thousand years, showed you average fatalities, and so on. Yawn city.

It looks like the only way to satisfy a comet impact craving without a security clearance is to watch Deep Impact, or (when desperate), Aramageddon, Hollywood's star-studded "fuck you" to the laws of physics. As one of the debunking sites kindly points out, the movie ends with Bruce Willis hurtling towards the Earth's atmosphere at 22,000 miles per hour, with no fuel to slow down. I'd pay seven bucks to see that any day.

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