Meteor strike may have destroyed Sodom, collective blob motion, asteroid nuclear impact

Physics

Suspicious soot: Sid Mitra examines a sample from Tall el-Hammam. (Courtesy: East Carolina University)

According to book of Genesis in the Bible, the city of Sodom was destroyed by God because of the wickedness of its people. While there are several historical sites that could have been Sodom – and some scientists have suggested that the city could have been destroyed by a natural event such as a meteor strike – the story is widely regarded as mythical.

Now, the geologist Sid Mitra at East Carolina University in the US and colleagues have come up with an explanation of where Sodom was and what happened to the city.  They have focused their attention on a Middle Bronze Age city called Tall el-Hammam, which is in the Jordan valley. In 2005 archaeologists discovered a 1.5 m thick layer of debris and destruction in the city that comprises materials that have been subjected to intense heat.

“They found all this evidence of high-temperature burning throughout the entire site,” says Mitra. “And the technology didn’t exist at that time, in the Middle Bronze Age, for people to be able to generate fires of that kind of temperature.”

Ten nuclear bombs

The archaeologists hypothesized that the city was destroyed by an airburst meteor strike like the 1908 Tunguska event, which flattened forests across a swathe of Russia with the energy of 10 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs.

To test this idea, scientists in different disciplines have joined forces to study materials found at the site. Mitra is an expert in the analysis of soot and discovered that a large fraction of the organic carbon at Tall el-Hammam is in the form of soot. This, he says, points to a very high temperature fire at the site – something that could have been caused by a meteor.

Evidence studied by other scientists include diamond-like carbon, melted pottery and other materials affected by high temperatures and a pressure shock – which would have been delivered by an airburst meteor.

Mitra and colleagues describe their findings in Scientific Reports and speculate that this catastrophic event 3600 years ago may have been recounted in local oral tradition and then made its way into the Bible. The event could also explain why the region around Tall el-Hammam was abandoned for many years. It could even be the origin of another biblical story: the destruction of the walls of Jericho, which is about 22 km from Tall el-Hammam.

Collective motion

The 1950s science-fiction horror film The Blob features a growing, corrosive, alien entity that envelops everything in its path. Thankfully, researchers haven’t quite managed to recreate that but it is known that blackworms (Lumbriculus variegatus) can aggregate into “blobs” that are capable of collective movement.

Measuring up to 10 cm long, blackworms live in ponds or marshes in Europe and North America. To protect themselves from drought, they merge as entangled, shape-shifting blobs that contain about 100 individuals. The blob then moves to seek out cooler climes.

Researchers have now discovered that the collective movement of the blob can only emerge when there is a fine balance between their individual movement and how well they cling to each other.

The team says the results could be applied to the design of individual soft and flexible robots that entangle and move as a unit, which sounds like the basis for another science-fiction horror film.

And finally, scientists have carried out computer simulations showing that a nuclear bomb could be used against an Earth-threatening asteroid.

Such a scenario – as made famous by the films Armageddon and Deep Impact – could be averted thanks to a 1 megatonne nuclear bomb that if ignited near the surface of a 100 m-long asteroid two months before potential impact would result in up to 99% of the total mass of the asteroid missing Earth.

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