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Revised estimate of Russian meteorite size reveals what's good about science

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 20th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The meteor that hit Russia last week is now believed to be the largest object to strike Earth in over 100 years. NASA scientists now estimate it to be 1,000 times larger than previously believed, exploding with 500 kilotons of energy.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Scientists have revised their estimate of the meteor's mass upwards from 10 tons to 10,000. NASA led the effort to revise the estimates after reviewing data from stations around the world that recorded the event as shockwaves reverberated around the planet.

The key to this analysis was infrasound data. Infrasound waves are too low in frequency for humans to hear, but can be detected with special equipment. These low frequency sounds travel much farther than the sounds we hear and scientists can use them to determine direction, location, and even the power of the source.

The Russian meteorite event illustrates a common problem in news reporting. Often in the immediate wake of an event, reporters seeking out any knowledge they can, find an expert who on the basis of an initial review of the data, will make an off-the-cuff estimate. This speculative answer is then widely propagated through the media.

This was also evident when it was initially reported that the Russian military shot down the meteorite. This obviously ridiculous statement was also propagated for some time in the immediate aftermath of the event.

The good thing about science is that it is self-correcting. The work done by NASA to calculate the true mass of the meteorite is evidence of this. In science, data is repeatedly reviewed and tested to provide simple answers about real events. These answers can then be bundled into conclusions and theories.

If anything, the revision suggests that we should never be too excited when we hear news of astounding scientific discoveries. Often, months to years following an event or a major discovery, science, patiently laboring, finds that the initial conclusion was in error. A notable example was last year's revelation that neutrinos did not in fact travel faster than the speed of light as was widely reported following a European study. Instead, there was a problem with the calibration of the equipment that caused a bad result.

The new estimate of mass for the Russian meteorite now means that it ranks as the largest thing to strike the Earth in over 100 years. It's predecessor is thought to have been the Tunguska event which took place in Siberia in 1908 and flattened like matchsticks, some 80 million trees in the Siberian wilderness.

That event was also detected as far away as London.

The greatest conclusion we can draw from this event is to take initial scientific discoveries and announcements with a grain of salt. Until peer review has had an opportunity to weigh in, it's hasty to draw formal conclusions.

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