Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Confused about the Crater

The BBC did not help matters very much this morning by introducing their story on the "mystery crater" in Peru with an excerpt from the notorious adaptation of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles into a you-are-there radio drama. However, this rather sensationalist approach confirmed the observation of one of their guests, which is that people, as a rule, tend to prefer catastrophic explanations, no matter how outlandish (such as an alien invasion), to the more ordinary (particularly if the explanation is even a bit more complicated). Indeed, the great value of this particular guest's contribution was the time he took to propose alternatives to the meteorite hypothesis. This is the one that most of the wire sources have adopted without considering alternatives, although, in compiling their own story from those sources, Al Jazeera at least had the good sense to describe the crater as "apparently made by a meteorite." However, the reason the BBC interview put so much time into alternative hypotheses is because of their guest's strong conviction that the chemical composition of a meteorite cannot intoxicate the atmosphere at the site of its landing.

One of the more viable alternatives has found its way onto the BBC NEWS Web site:

"Increasingly we think that people witnessed a fireball, which are not uncommon, went off to investigate and found a lake of sedimentary deposit, which may be full of smelly, methane rich organic matter," said Dr Caroline Smith, a meteorite expert at the London-based Natural History Museum.

"This has been mistaken for a crater."

Unfortunately, you would have had to heard the radio interview to apprehend the proper definition of fireball. The geography of Peru around this area is highly volcanic. Every now and then, rather than erupting, one of the volcanoes will just sort of "spit out" some of its molten contents. The result is called a fireball; and, as Dr. Smith observed, their trajectories are frequently observed. There was also a report on BBC World Service Television of bones having been found at the "crater" site (without saying whether the bones were human or of some other animal). The point is that, between the fireball and the site, they may have been a variety of sources of methane, which would then account for the toxic air quality.

This brings us to the "Q&A" page that BBC NEWS has now prepared, which explores this hypothesis and then pursues another interesting direction that was not covered on the radio interview:

What does a meteorite emit?

Meteorites do not in themselves let off any dangerous fumes. They can however expose rotting organic matter, and the air can be filled with methane, hydrogen sulphite and carbon dioxide.

But there is some debate as to whether this is a meteorite - or indeed an object from space - in the first place.

Some scientists are suggesting that people may have witnessed a fireball, set off to investigate, and found a lake of sedimentary deposit that was already there. The biological process here could mean that the kind of fumes listed above are also emitted.

Can these really make people feel so ill?

Intense smells, even those that are not particularly toxic, can make people feel poorly, while high levels of carbon dioxide mean people at the site may not be getting enough oxygen.

At a purely physiological level, walking some way with some trepidation as to what one might find could well have an impact on the body and produce feelings of nausea and dizziness, sensations which may be compounded by the fact that other people say they are suffering from the same complaint.

So could mass hysteria play a role?

Symptoms could well be caused in part by what is known as a Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI).

There are countless examples of this through history and up to the present day.

Amid fears of a gas leak late last year for instance, dozens of British pupils were taken to hospital with nausea and other symptoms. However no gas or environmental cause was found, and doctors could establish nothing wrong with the children. It was ascribed to mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Coke scare of 1999 - when many said they fell sick after drinking contaminated cans - was also said to be an example of MSI when laboratory analysis showed levels of contamination were not high enough to cause any of the illnesses reported.

This brings us back to the Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which induced MSI with a vengeance. Even when the outlandish is not involved, the catastrophic still tends to trump the more innocuous. Perhaps there is a side of all of us that draws upon the media to provide us with a steady supply of victims, expecting the same novelty from acts of victimization that we expect from each new season of television programs. When we grow bored with too many stories of victims of exploitation (now that the mass media are finally waking up to this being the underlying story behind the subprime mortgage crisis), our self-indulgent appetites crave victims of "natural causes;" and the reporting of news has become a business of satisfying those cravings that is not particularly different from the junk food business.

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