Had I not known better, I would have thought I was reading a spoof in The Onion (the online news magazine that publishes false stories that at first blush could be real). The headline was dramatic enough: “Black Holes Inch Ahead to Violent Cosmic Union.”
Egad! That sounded serious. The article in question appeared in national papers (I read the New York Times’ account) last week with the sub-heading, “A Preview of the Future of Our Own Galaxy.” Disturbed enough to envision Armageddon within my children’s lifetimes, I read on. And, indeed, the report was (at least to a non-scientist like me) more than slightly alarming. It described the cataclysmic results that would likely be realized when two black holes of enormous size spiral into a cosmic collision on what astronomers are calling “unimaginable scale.”
The article went on, in most serious terms, to describe how the release of energy from this collision would be the equivalent of 100 million supernova explosions, which, even though I have no idea what one supernova explosion would be like, was enough to make me wonder why this report was buried on page A12 of the newspaper.
The article continued to describe the magnitude of this prospective cosmic event for a dozen or so paragraphs, with each scientist who was quoted saying, in turn, that the event would destroy stars, planets, solar systems, and certainly all forms of life in the universal vicinity of the event. I shuddered and wondered if I should perhaps turn on Fox News to hear them decrying Obama for not doing something about the threat.
And then, finally, buried about three quarters of the way through the article, came this note that the writer apparently thought was only mildly interesting: The collision might occur in one million years, which, the writer observed, is “an unimaginably long time to a human, but unimaginably short to a star or the universe.” I was further relieved when the article went on to explain that the anticipated black hole collision was going to occur so far away from our planet that scientists would need gravitational wave detectors to “see” the actual results of the event.
And, so, I ultimately understood that our earthly existence wasn’t immediately threated (if it is to be threatened at all) by this particular cosmic event.
Meanwhile, closer to home (indeed, much closer), on page A1 of the same day’s New York Times (and just about every other major newspaper in the country), the headlines reported of the massacre of twelve journalists at the headquarters of a French magazine.
I suppose the juxtaposition of these two stories serves to define the word “relative.” To be sure, the threat to our universe that the merging of the two black holes poses is massive in the grand scheme of things, but it pales in significance when compared to the threat posed by those actions occurring in the here and now right here on planet Earth.
I don’t know what to make of the degree to which terrorism from the Islamic extremists of today’s world has morphed from initially being centrally driven by al Qaeda, then to independent spin-offs that took hold in just about every Arab country, then to more virulent forms of the same fanaticism (like ISIS) bent on establishing a new Islamic fundamentalist state throughout the Middle East, and now to individual cells that might consist of a band of brothers, such as created the massacres in Paris this month.
Suffice to say that it is becoming an ever-more dangerous world when anyone who hews to the radical Islam view of the religion can justify horrendous acts of terror and murder in the hope of achieving martyrdom while vindicating some perceived slight to the Prophet or to Allah. Combating this kind of evil has the potential of pitting whole armies of civilized nations against rogue bands of individuals who can take guerrilla tactics to a whole new level of unpredictability and mass carnage.
All of which raises a fundamental question that I have not heard anyone address: How do we stop it? It was good to see the outpouring of support for France (and against terrorism) in the march in Paris days after the massacre (with leaders including Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas linked with other leaders in front of the millions who marched with them). Maybe a silver lining of last week’s massacres will be a lessening of hostilities between those two peoples.
But solving this threat to modern civilization will take more than a show of unity among the civilized peoples of the world. And that’s where I think the word “relative” becomes meaningful. It may well be that we are on the verge of a new form of combat, one that will make the Bush administration’s “war on terror” look even more off-key than it did at the time. It may also be that the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted drone missile attacks will appear laughable in the face of the ways in which Islamic fanatics will press their jihads.
And to really break it down to “relative” comparisons, the “Cold War,” in which the two nuclear superpowers engaged in a game of brinksmanship for the better part of a half century, is starting to look more and more like the good-old days, as civilized society seeks effective ways to combat repeated incidents like those last week in Paris.
And then there is the matter of cyber-attacks, such as the one the Pentagon just experienced last week. (ISIS claimed credit for the attack, which DOD officials said was harmless.) Relatively speaking, a massive cyber-attack could have even more devastating results for a society’s economy than armed, military-style attacks that can disrupt and destroy the individual lives of a handful of families and communities.
So, in the end, it’s all relative, isn’t it? Yes, the threat to the universe in a clash of black holes can be cataclysmic. But the more immediate threat posed by the ever-changing nature of radical Islamic terrorism might well warrant much, much more concern.