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Sept. 17, 2007
Contact: Jill Jess, University Relations, (785) 864-8858.

History Channel program features researchers from KU

LAWRENCE — An energy burst that blankets Earth in chemical smog, collapses food chains and leads to death by starvation for 6 billion humans is the focus of a History Channel production that features the work of a University of Kansas paleontologist.

The Tuesday, Sept. 18, episode of “Mega Disasters” explores gamma-ray bursts — powerful energy explosions from space that last only seconds. Potentially caused by massive stars collapsing into black holes or by the merger of two neutron stars, their effects can be seen billions of light years away.

Bruce Lieberman, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the KU Natural History Museum, theorizes that such a burst could have caused the second-largest mass extinction known in the fossil record. The extinction in the Ordovician Period 450 million years ago eliminated more than 100 families of marine life.

“Mass extinctions are big puzzles,” said Lieberman, who works with physics and astronomy researchers at KU to explore the gamma-ray bursts. “One of our theories is that a star thousands of light years away exploded and caused such a mass extinction. A strong gamma-ray burst like that could profoundly affect the atmosphere, killing life on the planet.”

Lieberman and Adrian Melott, KU professor of physics and astronomy, also have been researching the possibility that mass extinctions happen cyclically, roughly every 62 million years. If that is correct, the next such “pulse” of extinction will occur in 10 million years.

Lieberman is among a dozen researchers from KU, NASA, Pennsylvania State University and other institutions who contributed to the gamma-ray burst episode of “Mega Disasters.” The program also features Brian Thomas, who earned his doctorate in physics at KU in 2005 and studied with Melott. This “Mega Disasters” is a part of the program’s second season and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the History Channel. The gamma-ray episode will be broadcast again at various times Sept. 19-23.

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