Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Imaginary Asteroid

I'm going to go ahead and make the assumption that readers don't remember this post from last year. Basically, a pair of fellows made a claim based on their (and only their) interpretation of an ancient Sumerian disc that a heretofore unknown asteroid impact caused a huge landslide event at the Köfels site in the Austrian Alps that took place around 8,700 years ago. Well, the two fellows involved, Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, have released a book about their findings that was reviewed in the new (vol. 14, no. 3) issue of Skeptic and their arguments appear to be pretty freakin' weak.

It's always troubling when someone's allegedly scientific conclusions are released not in a peer-reviewed journal but rather in a mass-market book. Readers may also recall that I found it odd that Bond and Hempsell's asteroid scenario required that the
Köfels event take place about 3,500 years more recently than the conventional dating of the site indicates. This is because our two friends want to show that an Sumerian artifiact called the planisphere is actually a record of the event, but computer models of the ancient sky from around the accepted dating of the Köfels event don't synch up with the planisphere's depiction of the night sky, but you can get a close match from a computer model of the sky from June 29, 3123 B.C. Widely accepting dating methods be damned, according to Bond and Hempsell. If the planisphere looks kind of like the sky from 3123 B.C. and not like the sky from 6600 B.C., then by golly the Köfels landslide took place in 3123 B.C. and the geologists who've dated it otherwise are wrong.

That in and of itself should set off some warning bells, but Skeptic reviewers Jeff Medkeff and Martin Rundkvist have even more damning criticism of Bond and Hempsell's work. Briefly, Bond and Hempsell claim that the impact at
Köfels threw a massive plume of debris backwards along the path of the impacting object, creating a huge plume of fire over much of the ancient mid-east that has since been incorporated into the mythology of the region. As Medkeff and Rundkvist note, all of this supposedly happened without leaving so much as a crater at the Köfels site. Bond and Hempsell's further claim that the impactor was broken up before it struck the Köfels site by glancing impacts against other nearby mountains is also unsupported by observations.

It looks very much like Bond and Hempsell simply came up with a "cool idea" about what the planisphere might represent and worked backwards to find some way to make it mean what they want it to mean. If that meant rejecting physics and geology to make the evidence fit their conclusions, then so be it.

Also, given that some of the early headlines about Bond and Hempsell's hypothesis read "
Research Shows Asteroid Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah"*, it may also be worth noting that some of the customer reviews on Amazon go a little something like this (Emphasis added):

I was first interested in the book to see if it confirmed any dates in the long, 13,000 year chronology of the Bible. (See bibletime dot com or Harold Camping's 13,000 year Bible Chronology.) This impact event does match. The impact date given in the book is just after Peleg's first year, (using the Bible Time version) at the time when the earth was "divided." This impact event provides a great explanation of that mysterious reference.
The always-hilarious website Conservapedia also has an excited entry on the "Köfels Impact" in which it claims that the non-existent impact provides literal evidence for the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since it also incorrectly cites Mark Hempsell as a geologist (He's actually an aerospace engineering lecturer and England's Bristol University), that whole article can probably be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it looks like the imaginary "Köfels impact" is likely to quickly find its way into the lexicon of Biblical literalists.

In any event, check out an online version of the Skeptic review here.

*Headline is from FoxNews.com, 4-1-2008.
Also, I know it's not considered an asteroid it it hits the Earth, but I liked the alliteration...


Martin said...

Thanks for the shout-out!

An asteroid hitting the Earth is still (briefly) an asteroid. Perhaps you were thinking of the distinction between a meteor and a meteorite?

Bond & Hempsell state pretty clearly in the book that they've been unable to publish any of their imaginings in a peer-reviewed forum.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Ugh, and to think that not two weeks ago I read Phil Plait's new book in which he -repeatedly- explains the difference between asteroids, meteors, and meteorites and I still fumbled that one. Thanks for the correction, man. I must be a slow learner...

I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for you, as an archaeologist, to see plainly silly speculation like this -already- being quoted as fact on the internet.

Martin said...

To relieve your blood pressure, I suggest you don't read Conservapedia. (-;

I'm also reading Phil's book, though! On page 18 he twice calls geologists "archaeologists". But it's a good read!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I'm still not entirely convinced that Conservapedia isn't just an elaborate piece of satire.

Martin said...

Actually, I believe some of it is. There used to be this hobby among liberals to see how weird fakes you could get into Conservapedia.

Nelson Góes said...

Thanks for the share. Both of you.