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Standard Deviations: Forget killer galaxies, the sharknado will probably get us

By Mark Saal standard-Examiner - | Oct 6, 2019

Talk about your #fakenews …

This past week, the journalists at Fox News successfully baited me into clicking on one of their silly stories.

Now ordinarily, I avoid Fox for the same reason I bypass most other cable news networks — the partisan talking heads and their infotainment programs rarely seem credible or interesting.

But this particular story grabbed me with its highly provocative headline: “Milky Way galaxy on ‘collision course’ with nearby ‘monster’ galaxy.”

Look, I freely admit it — I’m a sucker for a good end-o’-the-world story. Whenever I hear scientists talking about the Earth’s magnetic poles reversing, or being T-boned by a killer asteroid, or a supervolcano eruption in the Yellowstone Caldera, or our allegedly changing climate spawning a very real man-eating sharknado, they have my full attention.

So a “collision course” with a “monster galaxy”? I’m all ears.

And the lead sentence in the Fox News story didn’t disappoint, warning: “The home to all life as we know it, the Milky Way galaxy, is on a ‘collision course’ with its cosmic neighbor, Andromeda, according to a new study.”

I must say, the Fox reporter does a great job of selling the peril in the opening sentence — “home to all life as we know it,” “collision course,” “according to a new study.”

It all sounds so, so … imminent.

Ah, but before you start plotting a humane, painless doomsday exit strategy for you and your loved ones, you’ll probably want to at least read the second line of the Fox story, wherein the reporter comes clean and points out that the intergallactic fender-bender won’t be happening “for about 4.5 billion years.”

Wow. And Fox News calls climate-change stories a hoax?

I realize the reporter was just being playful with the writing, but it does seem rather ironic given the fact that the network has been fairly vocal in its criticism of so-called scare tactics from climate scientists.

Of course, Fox wasn’t the only media outlet to carry the story — although others didn’t use quite the same amount of sensationalism. CNN’s headline reported “This violent galaxy next door is set for a collision with the Milky Way,” but the network didn’t bury the lead, stating right up front: “Astronomers predict that in about four billion years, the Andromeda galaxy will collide with our own galaxy, the Milky Way.”

(My hands-down favorite headline on the subject goes to Forbes, which declared: “Our Neighbouring Galaxy Is Binge-Eating And We’re Next On The Menu.”)

Never one to pass up an opportunity to needlessly alarm the public, I decided to run the story by the physicists at Weber State University. I was already calling their department for comments on next week’s popular Physics Open House, so it seemed a good time to pick their brains on that whole Andromeda-bullies-the-Milky-Way thing.

Here’s a rough approximation of my conversation with WSU physics professor Adam Johnston on the subject …

ME: Assuming you eggheads finally get off your nerdy glutes and come up with some scientific procedure that will allow me to still be around in four-and-a-half billion years, what will that galaxy collision look like for those of us left on Earth?

ADAM: A galactic collision — from a distance — would look like a huge, slow-motion tumultuous event of two galaxies colliding. But on a scale of a single planet or star, it would be life as usual. The overwhelming odds are that nothing would be felt.

ME: That’s because space is mostly made up of, well, space, right? So even though the two galaxies “slam” into one another, the odds of an object from Andromeda coming close enough to affect the Earth are quite remote?

ADAM: That’s exactly right. You know, we have an opening here in the physics department. You should apply.

ME: Yeah, that’ll happen. But seriously, speaking as one scientist to another, what sorts of other likely — or even unlikely — scenarios could doom us before this galaxy-eating monster gets around to gobbling us up?

ADAM: If we (as scientists) wake up in the middle of the night, it’s for the completely random and distinct possibility that a comet or asteroid blindsides us. But much more than that would be the worry about natural resources and climate change — these are things we can predict, these are things we could prevent.”

And so, while the rest of us worry about bigger galaxies taking our lunch money, or careless asteroids not looking where they’re going, it would appear the scientific community is actually much more worried about what’s happening to our changing climate.

I can see the Fox News headline now: “Climate-change alarmists warn of sharknado attacks.” 


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