Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Meteors cause sickness? Say it ain't so!

Every now and then a story hits the internet that is just so absurd (or premature) that I have to laugh. This is one such story. It claims that villagers in Peru started to become sick after a meteor hit outside town. Now the thing that bothers me is that causality is just assumed. Yes, it is possible that the events are connected, but I think it's far more likely that they're not, this sounds like a serious case of the "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, which means "after this, therefore because of this."

First off, in order for the meteor to have caused the illness, it would either have to have some kind of toxic substance on it (inorganic, the odds of an organic substance that's harmful to humans surviving reentry and being of sufficient quantity to disperse into the atmosphere are infinitesimal), or vaporize some kind of toxic substance in the ground. The first scenario isn't too likely, because meteors are mostly benign materials (rock or iron), and any toxic material wouldn't be very concentrated. Plus the meteor wouldn't be very big to begin with, I highly doubt it would be more than a few feet in size, which would make the total amount of dangerous chemicals in it tiny.

The second scenario is much more likely, but still not nearly certain. Based on the media reports the meteor displace 157,000 cubic feet of material, which is not a whole lot, just a box 53 feet on each side. Granted, it could be a lot more vaporized, but given that it had the entire atmosphere to diffuse into, even an order of magnitude increase wouldn't matter much. I don't think that amount of material would remain concentrated in the area very long, just think of how quickly smoke from fires or smokestacks disappears, but I could be wrong. Even then, the toxic material would have to be present in the soil of the region, and people would be inhaling or ingesting it anyway!

What really gets me is that none of the articles (which, despite seeing it in three different sources are all carbon copies) discuss this. They don't even mention that the events might not be related, and they definitely don't say that if they are, the toxic material is almost certain terrestrial in origin. The headline and article read as if we're being poisoned from space, and that's just stupid. And the real pity is that there will almost certainly be no follow-up article that tells what actually happened, because it'll be something mundane that won't be newsworthy! So it goes, I suppose.

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  • Blech. JUST a box 53 feet on each side...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:13 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • Anonymous, you have to remember this is out in the countryside, with millions of cubic feet of just air all in contact. Even a box 53 feet on each side is nothing compared to a small open field (think of a football field, that's not very big and the 157,000 cubic feet fills it only three feet high. My point was that it would diffuse out to nothing fairly quickly.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 12:17 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • In actual fact, if dangerous organic chemicals are present in a meteor, then the likelyhood of their surviving the fiery fall to Earth is precisely 100%.

    Please note, Meteors are close to Zero Kelvin before entering the atmosphere, and they do not spend enough time in transit to heat all the way through.

    In fact, it is documented that meteorites have been located directly after landing, and have been found covered in ice: the interior remaining cold enough to cool the exterior, form condensation and freeze.

    It is therefore not possible to destroy or denature any organic compounds (or life) within a meteorite simply by plunging it through a pile of gas for a couple of minutes.

    You might like to investigate the facts before making pronouncements of such surety.

    I do however agree that it is exceedingly unlikely this meteorite has had any health affects on the poor Peruvians.

    By Anonymous M0b1u5, at 1:05 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • M0b1u5, ok, I didn't know that. But to be fair those things will depend on the size and composition of the meteor (it seems to me like a small metal one would have high enough thermal conductivity to get quite hot), and the organic substances inside the meteor wouldn't be in contact with the atmosphere. In order for any organic substance to be rapidly liberated, it would have to be vaporized (or so it seems to me), which would denature it.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 1:11 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • One element of the story that makes me suspect the whole thing is the casual mention that the meteor blasted out a crater 20 feet deep and 100 feet across.

    When was the last time you heard of THAT happening?

    We've all heard of big impacts like the one that made Meteor Crater or the one that greased the dinosaurs...but a 100 foot crater, in the modern era?

    By Anonymous TomK, at 2:22 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • TomK, off the top of my head I can think of the Tunguska event, which would have been huge had it not exploded before impact. I bet there have been more that just haven't been noticed, like out in a desert or jungle. If I knew a meteor hunter I'd ask them, but alas, I do not.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 2:25 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • It is OBVIOUS that Earth is under attack from an alien society that uses biological weapons disguised to look just like meteors. Save me, Mulder and Scully!

    By Blogger Rick Sparks, at 2:39 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • Why do these things always seem to happen in a remote village somewhere, conveniently out of the way so there are no aerial photos of the impact, no reports from doctors who's existence and credentials can be verified...

    By Anonymous JNS, at 5:17 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • JNS, I'm more concerned about why there's never any follow-up by the reporters who cover this kind of "story".

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 5:21 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • Stupac,
    I was thinking of Tunguska as well, which would have left a mighty crater indeed, if it made it to the surface. Meteor Crater in Arizona of course, *is* such a mighty crater. So it certainly happens, and it probably does happen in remote areas from time to time.

    But what struck me as suspect was how the article skipped past this startling event, to focus just on the illnesses. As in: "A talking dog has charged Congressman Fairdinkum of bribery. The Congressman is expected to refute the charges at a press conference this evening."

    You wanna go "Wait, what? Go back..."

    By Anonymous TomK, at 5:54 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • In fact...heck...if our only available facts are (a) a big crater and (b) folks are sick, why even posit a meteor at all? How about military bombing mishap?

    By Anonymous TomK, at 5:54 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • Tom, according to the Bad Astronomer, you were right about the crater size. Usually they're either much smaller or much larger, medium-size craters are very, very rare.

    It's good you bring that up, because I didn't even think of that. It could easily be some kind of military weapon (or an aircraft), and some kind of fuel or explosive makes a lot more sense as an environmental toxin.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 5:58 PM, September 18, 2007  

  • There are lots of articles out there about this and they're not all mirror copies... As well there is continued coverage of the story 3 days into it, you need only do a google search. Or go to and go to the news section. The pictures show a quite dramatic crater. I recognise the area having spent years of time traveling in Peru since 1999.
    Finally, it is indeed possable that there are some form of toxic gasses involved with this meteorite inpact. This area is adjacent to Lake Titicaca, and was once lake bottom. These sediments can contain methane gas as well as mineral salt deposits which would be released and cooked by the heat of the meteorites burn thru the atmosphere as well as the impact. It is not impossible that the meteorites composition is is other material than the usual stone/iron/stoney iron classes or perhaps a combination thereof.
    jns and stupac2 -- Please read the articles at before writing this off as nonsense. These peoples crdentials can be varified...

    By Anonymous Mundo_Infinito, at 11:25 PM, September 18, 2007  

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