On the Odds of Being Struck by Falling Satellites

UARS satellite before deployment. Photo credit: NASA Johnson Space Center.

NASA says the odds that someone will be struck by falling space debris when the bus-sized NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite comes down this week is 1 in 3200. Which got me to thinking … if I was struck while out walking Friday night, would I be unusually lucky because I beat the odds, or unlucky because I beat the odds?

Would my life insurance company pay off? Arguably it would not be an act of God, or an act of war, so I think the insurance company should pay. But I really don’t know if they would; admittedly, I don’t have a falling space debris clause in my policy. (As the space around our planet becomes increasingly crowded, perhaps space debris insurance would be a good investment.)

Now if the odds were 1 in 3200 for each of us, can you imagine the chaos? That would be a mass casualty event in the making. Those odds would be much higher than the odds of being killed by almost anything else I can think of.

From Dr. Strangelove. Click to activate the video.

I suspect there would be anti-NASA marches on the capitols of all the nations affected, which would be most of the world’s nations, by people demanding we nuke the satellite before it poses a hazard. Or maybe they’d demand we send space cowboys up to guide the careening space bus to a safer impact. (I’m not sure how those heroic bronco busters would get back; maybe they’d ride it down a la Dr. Strangelove.)

Fortunately, the odds are mighty small (1 in 21 trillion) that you or I would be hit by this particular satellite. There are much greater chances of winning a state lottery.

But assuming a piece did actually hit me without putting a hole through my head or chest, maybe simply winging me, could I profit from it? Would I become an instant celebrity? Would there be book deals? Can you imagine the television talk show questions, like “How did you feel about your impending death when you saw the fire ball heading your way?”

Let’s face it, with burning metal hurtling to Earth at 18,000 miles per hour I likely wouldn’t see it in time to react, and if I did see it, I undoubtedly wouldn’t have time to mentally compute its trajectory. Should I stand still or run? In fact, I think that calculation would be impossible. An incoming missile simply gets larger and larger in your field of view, giving you perhaps just enough time to say “Oh…” but not enough time to finish the four letter expletive you had intended.

But frankly, I’m not at all concerned. If it happens at all, it wouldn’t happen to me. It always happens to the other guy. Which I’m sure is what the insurance companies are hoping – it will be the other guy, and the other guy will be uninsured.

If pressed, I suppose I could see the insurance company’s point; If I did get squashed by supersonic satellite debris it probably would be an act of God.

Now, I’m trying to think, have I done anything to tick Him off lately?

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Native American Roots

A few years ago I sat next to a half Native American woman at a family Thanksgiving dinner. Among our conversation topics was reincarnation; she believed in it, strongly. That interested me enough to do a little research, whereupon I discovered a book called  “Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief Among North American Indians and Inuit.” It was published in 1994 by the University of Toronto Press, edited by two anthropologists, Antonia Mills and Richard Slobodin.

I had no idea that American Indians ever believed in reincarnation.

Shortly after that discovery, I began work on the manuscript for a science fiction novel that includes segments on the Osage Tribe in Oklahoma. The Osage were originally from the Missouri River valley, later “relocated” to Oklahoma, close to the location of the Cherokee Nation.

One of my first discoveries on the Internet was a set of historic photos in various archives. Two of them, immediately below, struck me as being particularly noteworthy.

Click for a larger image.
Click for a larger image.

The first photo of a young Osage mother with a child (pappoose) on her back continues to hold my attention. Although the mother is only in profile, the way her baby is looking toward the photographer is particularly fetching.

As I studied the mother’s face, I realized that she had what I perceived to be, in my ignorance, a European appearance. Her cheekbones were high, her nose appeared slim and her face looked silky smooth, showing none of the effects of the rigorous native lifestyle I would have expected. Her skin tone, her clothing, and the manner in which she carried her child were the only signs that identified her as Osage. Her overall appearance was one of lustrous youth. The second photo also showed a young mother; and I would guess the ages of both girls as no more than sixteen.

As I write this, I remember that I used to call my two young children “pappoosem”. I don’t know why, but it was obviously a term of endearment.

A Cherokee in Osage Country

My interest in the Osage compelled me to travel last year to Pawhuska, OK, the seat of the Osage Nation. My only disappointment was that there appeared to be no Osage in town, at least on the weekend.

The Osage aren’t mentioned in “Amerindian Rebirth”, but many closely located tribes are, like the Ponca, even the Seminole. They’re both tribes on reservations near the Osage Nation, although presumably they’re not closely related, genetically. And to be fair, once the Tribes became Christians, many of their former beliefs became hidden.

Now, as my family of descendents is enlarging, my daughter and I are searching for possible Native American relatives. Both my granddaughters are reputed to have relatively close genetic ties to various tribes, one being Cherokee, and the other from an unknown tribe from the North.

Even my wife’s family has an oral tradition, on the female side, of a Georgian who married a Cherokee Princess. I am dubious of that claim, since my genealogical research has so far turned up nothing. And besides, I suspect Cherokee Princesses were few and far between back in the 1700s, when my wife’s relatives were in contact with the Cherokee.

But we’re still looking.

You’re Not a Mad Dog – So You Must Be an Englishman

Having made several transits from the South to the North, and back again, I’ve become fascinated with the response of people when taken out of their natural element. For instance, my nativity and early childhood were spent in the American South, Arkansas and Texas. When my Dad’s work forced a move to Kansas City, I found that I could no longer do certain things — like talk.

Snowy school bus stop. Photo credit: Cathy Griffin.

It didn’t happen all the time, of course, just when I had to make that icy, snowy walk to my bus stop several blocks from home.  Somehow, the muscles controlling my lips and cheeks got so cold they didn’t move correctly. I felt like one of those Southern green anoles (aka, chameleons) that become so cold they can’t move — until the sun warms them, making their stiff bodies supple again. If I could force words to form at all, they were abnormal, as if I had ice cubes in my mouth. And for a Southern boy, that’s basically how it felt.

My fellow bus stop mates had no problem at all. Why was I different? I now realize that it was because of heritage (Southern) or early childhood environment (Southern). We’re just different, somehow. I have no scientific explanation for it.

Apparently, I eventually grew out of my dysphasia since my travels as an adult to the Arctic and Antarctic did not leave me speechless.

Now that the Florida summer heat is upon us, I realize that Northerners are not only immune to biting cold, or so it seems, but some of them enjoy running during the hottest time of the day.

For you non-Southerners, let me explain why Southerners talk slowly. For those like me who grew up without air conditioning; without air-conditioned cars to drive from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned workplaces, the South could be a torturous place in the summertime, especially in the afternoons. No one thought of doing much of anything physical at a time when the sun was trying to parch the life out of our bodies. When your heart and brain are trying to equilibrate with the temperature of the Sahara desert, talking fast just doesn’t seem worth the energy. 

The other day I drove up beside a friend who had been running at midafternoon, the hottest time of the day, in 95° F heat, with 95% humidity. Borrowing a line from Noel Coward, I said, “I know you’re not a mad dog, so you must be an Englishman.”

I was close. He’s the son of a Norwegian, from an even higher latitude, where they have northern lights.

From the looks of him, he really didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, and he later admitted he’d lost 12 pounds water weight during that run.

Let that fact sink in a bit… 12 pounds of water lost. 

Running in Hades heat

Of course my friend is from the far north, both from recent and olden heritage, for no born and raised Southerner would consider such hellish activity. We were trained at an early age that such unnatural activity would lead to heat stroke. And indeed, I know of cases where it did; so this is not urban legend, or a wives tale. People die in this heat.

But oddly, some people from the Northland seem to be immune.

I do not understand it.

I realize the sample I see may be, as we scientists say, biased. I see the atheletes who are able to lose enough water to keep their bodies at a safe temperature, and I don’t see those who get nauseated at the mere thought of running in the heat. But it’s curious to me that one of my neighbors, a retired elderly man who looks like he should be having a heart attack, thinks nothing of mowing his yard during the hottest time of the day! Oh, did I mention he’s from a far Northern state?

Maybe it’s the northern lights. I’m suspicious that the beauty of northern lights masks the more sinister irradiation of the brain by cosmic particles that destroy some people’s ability to simply rest, drink, read, and contemplate during the heat of the day.

It’s my opinion that God made evenings cool, and mornings even cooler, so that people in hot climates can get some useful work done. It is not a gift to be ignored.

Broken Sparrow – Everyone Loves a Fighter

What on earth could make a blog posting on a sparrow worth reading?

Well, people love stories of near tragedy, survival, and salvation, and this has some elements of them all.

A nesting pair of House Sparrows showed up at work this Spring, hidden in the metal framework of a second story bridge connecting two brick buildings of typical government construction. Their nest lay only a foot from the heads of passers-by. No one paid them much attention until the hatchlings started calling incessantly for food. Then the nest became both busy and noisy.

The real story began after a wind storm struck one weekend, leaving behind an injured male sparrow. It was obvious that one of his wings had been damaged for we found him on a Monday morning walking up and down the concrete walkway, trying to dodge the frequent pedestrians, and not flying away to safety. In fact, it looked almost as if a wing had been torn off.

But what got everyone’s attention was the sight of him hopping down 12 feet of metal stairs to get to the ground, search for some food, then hopping all the way back up those stairs to defend his nest site, the best he could by being there, injured. Considering he was only about 3 inches high, those hops would be equivalent to us hopping up and down 232 feet of stairs, repeatedly.

I was probably not the first to test his flying ability, and indeed, when frightened he would fly a short distance to a palm tree trunk not far from the bridge. But then he would climb to a secure spot on top of the palm tree, rather than fly straight to the top. Flying for him had become a last result. It was difficult and seemingly painful for him, although he never cried out in pain or alarm, as I’ve heard sparrows can do.

The next day I borrowed some bird seed from a bird lover, and set out a small pan of water, so the injured bird would not risk being eaten by the feral cats that roam our buildings at odd times of the day. When that seed was quickly eaten, a warrior friend of mine came asking for some seed so he could feed his bird.

His bird? So, I was not the only one taking an interest in this brave little male and his struggle for survival.

Unfortunately for the female, her mate was not able to forage for the young, and she had to work double time. That could be why, as soon as the babies had fledged, the nest was emptied, and the female never returned to her mate for another breeding cycle. She could do better, I suppose.

In spite of his troubles, and probable pain, he remained the strong sounding male, calling, announcing his prime nesting site. Never mind that no other bird wanted it. If they had, they could easily have taken it from him since he was defenseless. But still, he thought, he had a job to do. It was a man-thing.

For weeks we would see that male, starting to hop down the stairs, to look for food, and if he happened to see my warrior friend or I bring food, he would turn around, and hop back up the stairs to eat, rather than risk foraging on the barren ground. He became used to us caring for him. Of course he always kept a safe distance from us.

 One morning my warrior friend was visibly upset.  Three female sparrows and a ring neck dove started mooching off the birdseed. He chased them off, as I did when I saw them, but they were persistent.

“How dare they steal food from my bird,” my friend said. “I’m gonna bring a BB gun and stack their little corpses up like cord wood.”

We both laughed at the irony of it.

And then he said, pensively, “I wonder how many birds I’ll have to kill to save this one?”

Others got into the protection business when three females, perhaps his offspring, ganged up on him when he was on the ground and started pouncing and pecking on him mercilessly. One of our female employees became angered by the attack on the injured male, and chased the females away. After that, the male flew best he could back up to the relative safety of the second story walkway.

And that was a good sign. He was growing stronger. A week later, I saw the sparrow flying instead of walking or hopping, and calling loudly to attract a female back to his nest, without success.

But I think the story is now complete, for today he left, fully healed, perhaps in search of more desirable real estate.

When I told my warrior friend the bird was gone, and that we had apparently saved him long enough for him to heal, he said, “You know, I go bird hunting a lot, but there was something about this guy that made me want to save him. It must be something psychological.”

“He was a brave soldier,” I said, “and you don’t leave an injured man to die on the battlefield without trying to save him.”

He smiled and nodded his head. He knew exactly what I meant.