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Friday, September 24, 2021

How to survive an asteroid impact

Last Friday, asteroid DA14 zipped by Earth at a record-breaking distance of about 17,000 miles from the Earth’s surface. That same day, a surprise meteor streaked across the sky and rained fireballs on Russia, causing a shock wave to blast windows, trigger car alarms and injure civilians. But in an alternate world, it was the asteroid that collided with Earth and ripped our planet of civilization.

Retired UC Davis professor Thomas Cahill published his first novel of a trilogy, Ark: Asteroid Impact, telling a story about a post-apocalyptic world. This science fiction begins in Davis and centers on Californians trying to survive the devastating effects of an asteroid impact and rebuild civilization.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the effects that asteroids have on the Earth and especially the extinction of the dinosaurs,” Cahill said. “And the question came to me, ‘What if the same thing happened now, but instead of dinosaurs, we have people who are clever enough to somehow survive?’”

Ark: Asteroid Impact was published in December of 2012, just in time for people to wonder what could have happened if a large asteroid had hit the Earth instead of the smaller meteor last Friday. The novel tells the story of a shattered civilization, wiping out most forms of plants and animal life on Earth. In order to portray a realistic post-apocalyptic Earth, Cahill said he based a fictional story on science.

“It’s fictional, but the science is solid,” Cahill said. “I tried to do the best science possible using results from the previous extinctions.”

Cahill has authored plenty of academic articles and book chapters. He retired from UC Davis in 1994 as a physics professor after joining the university in 1967. Cahill is still active in his field with his current research expertise in the impact of aerosols on climate change and from highways and rail yards.
Part of Cahill’s work has involved protecting the visibility at U.S. national parks and monuments through the aerosol network. He also helped evaluate air at the excavation project after 9/11 and has worked in nuclear physics and astrophysics.

“One of the most compelling things about Tom’s writing is, because he has the physics background, he actually goes in and makes sure the physics is as close to reality as possible,” said Sean Barberie, a fourth-year physics major.

Barberie has been working with Cahill for two years as a student-employee doing physics work focused on aerosol science.

To make the book even more realistic, Cahill said that every place the characters travel to are places he has been to, including Cheyenne Mountain. He said that this allows him to describe each place accurately and realistically. Starting in Davis, the novel begins with 20 UC Davis survivors, including physicists.

“As the book develops, you start having other groups, who have either by luck or skill, somehow survive, so you start seeing them put together a new society,” Cahill said. “And of course, the Earth is the new ark. The Earth is very badly damaged. It’s in an Ice Age right now. So you see them re-crafting the Earth.”

Cahill’s science-packed and realistic novel almost serves as a “Guide to Surviving an Asteroid Impact.” He begins with descriptions about a mine at 2,500 feet in Eureka, where the survivors take refuge.

“If you heard that an asteroid is going to strike, the first thing to understand is there will be tsunamis all around the world,” Cahill said. “The first thing is to get away from the ocean. The second thing you’ll learn is that when the thing strikes, it puts ash in the sky and that cuts down the sunlight, and the Earth gets very, very cold. So the second thing you have to survive is cold.”

Ark: Asteroid Impact is Cahill’s second novel, following Cahill’s first book published last October. Cahill said he started writing for fun after he retired, writing a few pages at a time and getting feedback from friends. He said that Ark: Asteroid Impact was published after much encouragement from friends.

“[The book] sounded good,” said Glen Erickson, a retired UC Davis physics professor. “It sounded like something that could do well. He asked me some questions about the astronomy, which I knew a bit more than he did. I know that he enjoys writing and I presume that he does a fairly decent job at it.”

Cahill began writing the novel about a year and a half ago, finishing last November. He said that he was inspired to write the book because of the growing scientific knowledge of the extinction of the worlds from previous events and his love of science fiction when he grew up as a boy.

“[Cahill] talks about it, and he would get excited about some parts he’s writing and explain it to me,” Barberie said. “It was good fun.”

The second part of the trilogy is scheduled to come out next summer, according to Cahill. Right now, Ark: Asteroid Impact is available in digital form and paperback.

“It’s fun to read,” Cahill said. “I kept [passing out copies] but eventually I was giving out a lot, so I decided to [publish it]. Fortunately, other people like it too.”

JOYCE BERTHELSEN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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