Artificial meteor showers and the function of omens

19.34, Tuesday 15 Dec 2020

I’m sad that Tokyo 2020 is postponed, primarily because the opening ceremony was rumoured to include an artificial meteor shower.

From 2016:

The project, Sky Canvas, goes beyond your average fireworks display: It involves launching a satellite into space “loaded with about 500 to 1,000 ‘source particles’ that become ingredients for a shooting star”

Sky Canvas, by ALE Co., Ltd: The man-made shooting star particles are 1cm spheres made of various substances that burn up with different colours. Visibility is about 200km range per shooting star particle.


I think what I like most about the meteor shower is that it’s an omen. Meteor showers in ancient times were portentous: see one, and you’re anticipating a great harvest or terrible war just around the corner.

But for the 2020 Olympics, the knowledge of the event precedes the artificial portend! The thing is happening anyway, and the Tokyo organising committee have post-hoc bolted on the omen using satellites and chemistry.


Thinking about the function of omens…

There’s a concept called stochastic resonance in which a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal.

Meaning… some hint that is too faint to detect can be amplified and noticed simply by adding some noise or static. Wikipedia lists some examples in human perception.

So, putting aside any supernatural origins, perhaps the function of omens is to add noise to our natural sense of anticipation, amplifying our unconscious hunches about future events and boosting them to awareness?

For example, you’re an ancient Roman general going off to war, and you walk down the via as - just by coincidence - all the nearby birds stop singing. Noticing the portent, you consider more seriously the possibility of failure – and, in doing so, are better prepared for the battle ahead.

I think the reason this works at all is that some portents are actually meaningful. As previously discussed: in the ancient world, birds did indeed tell the future.


So I wonder if there are everyday, domestic omens that I could be more sensitive to?

Like: my internet sometimes slows down. And mostly that’s random. But every so often it’s because a massive PowerPoint is landing in my inbox, and that means there’s work to do.

Could domestic omens be created artificially?

Like: if I have a day of back-to-back meetings, maybe the sound of distant thunder ten minutes before would remind me to refill my water bottle?

Maybe I could pay that Japanese company to drop an artificial meteor across South London, just before I go to bed, visible from my window, if I’m doing a conference talk the next day?

Halfway through a meeting, when the team’s AI facilitator discerns that an overdue decision may be imminent, the conference call is zoombombed by a tongueless dwarf silently pointing at a whiteboard.

I’m rambling.

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