A big reason why people observe nature is to recognize interesting patterns, like the cycles of the Moon and Sun or the shapes of constellations.
Obviously, many patterns are so commonplace that they merit no discussion. City-dwellers expect to hear garbage trucks in the morning. Everyone expects long days in the summer. What more can be said of such obvious facets of life? The observer’s joy lies in uncovering previously unknown patterns lurking within these larger ones.
For example: Sure, winter is not just darker, but also colder. But relatively few know that it’s also windier. Or that winter clouds are mostly large, flat, blank sheets that we view from below, while summer clouds tend to be puffy cumulus that we commonly see sideways. So it’s not just the ground; the sky looks very different during these seasons. Or rainbows: They’re rare during the cold months because they require sunshowers – mostly a warm-weather phenomenon that explains why rainbows are so common in Hawaii.
A pattern may be tactile rather than visual. A scratchy throat or a few sneezes is widely recognized as the first sign of a cold. This reliable early illness signal was enough to make people in past centuries say, “God bless you” to a sneezer, asking for divine intervention in this upcoming battle whose outcome back then was never certain.
But patterns can mean more than recurring shapes, events or disease outbreaks. In our modern era, a second less-recognized pattern is the cycle of media focus.
Editors of mainstream print and TV news are very aware that “new scary disease” grabs mass attention; but they also know that they mustn’t milk that cow too often. Disease outbreaks continuously unfold somewhere around the globe, but if a “Watch out for this New Virus!” headline is presented every week, the public will start tuning out. Editors probably don’t consciously connive to run such stories using an 18-to-36-month interval; it’s more of a professional news instinct.
Thus, every two years or so, we get scare headlines about an existential threat like Y2K or a new epidemic. In modern times these have included SARS, swine flu, bird flu, West Nile virus and mad cow disease. They are real diseases; they’re not fictitious. Yet their actual health threat was negligible compared with the scare headlines that made these terms known to everyone and feared by many. By the time the dust settled, SARS ended up killing 916 people worldwide. Swine flu killed 30 people. Bird flu killed no one at all in the US. And mad cow killed 129 people globally. Obviously, they didn’t deserve repeated front-page headlines.
The point is not that there exists an ongoing pattern of new viral illnesses – rather, that our awareness of them revolves around a media pattern of headlining epidemics, and when one is aware of this pattern it’s much easier to assign a truer, more reasoned risk assessment.
The media play a role in extraterrestrial areas, too. For example, whenever a new “hazardous asteroid” is first discovered and announced, the initial prediction of its chances of an eventual collision with Earth (e.g., one in a thousand) is always later downgraded to much longer odds (e.g., one in a million). Recognizing this “always later downgraded” propensity lets us assess it more realistically and with less worry to begin with.
Here’s why: The initial rough calculation of a comet or asteroid’s orbit may reveal a trajectory where it may eventually collide with us. But with a fine-tuning of the data, a simple, interesting process unfolds. There’s only one refinement direction that can shift this object’s path into a more likely impact with Earth. But there are a thousand tweaks in which the object will miss us by an even-greater margin than first thought. After all, it’s a bullet meeting a bullet: lots of ways to miss, but only a single, very unlikely trajectory for a collision.
New information always carries a strong natural bias toward producing a threat downgrade. The metamorphosis to a less worrisome appraisal, utterly unknown to most people, is nonetheless as reliable a pattern as the morning sunrise.
In all areas, improved pattern recognition enhances the clarity of observing nature. It diminishes fear. It opens doors to fascinating gee-whiz science nuggets. And it’s just plain fun.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our website hudsonvalleyone.com.