The end of the world
July 25, 2014
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In spite of what fantasists, conspiracy theorists, incompetent interpreters of the Mayan calendar and Roland Emmerich suggested, the world did not end on the 21st of December 2012. But earlier that year, on the 23rd of July, the world really did come extremely close to what NASA estimates would have been a $2 trillion economic and technological disaster.

A coronal mass ejection — a huge burst of hot plasma — from the surface of the sun exploded into space. And if it had hit the Earth, the burst of charged particles would have severely damaged Earth's infrastructure of satellites, computers, the electrical grid, medical equipment, and smartphones. Unshielded electric circuits would be fried.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Daniel Baker, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, told The Guardian. He adds that "[i]f the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."

The sun periodically blows off huge quantities of plasma. The last time Earth was struck was 1859, an event referred to in astronomy as The Carrington Event for its discoverer Sir Richard Carrington. That was before we came to rely on electrical equipment and computers for our modern way of life. But even then, it caused telegraph lines to spark enough to set fire to some telegraph offices. And the Northern Lights, were visible as far south as Cuba.

Nobody knows when such an event will occur again, but FEMA warns Americans should be prepared for the possibility, and recommends a series of steps for preparation, including making back-up copies of important digital data and information, keeping your car's gas tank at least half full, and filling plastic containers with water and placing them in your refrigerator or freezer.

This just in
8:33am ET
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U.S. gross domestic product expanded at a 2.6 percent annual rate in 2014's fourth quarter, according to the Commerce Department.

The news comes after the U.S. economy posted its strongest growth in more than a decade, a 5 percent GDP reading in the third quarter of 2014. It also comes two days after the Federal Reserve said the U.S. economy was expanding at a "solid pace."

Economists had estimated that America's economy grew by three percent during the last three months of 2014. Reuters reports that lower gasoline prices heightened fourth-quarter consumer spending.

"The consumer did the heavy lifting, and I don't think there is any reason to expect that to change in the first half of this year because of the enormous tailwind from lower gasoline prices," Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania, told Reuters.

Nature's Wonders
8:16am ET

The Grand Canyon fills up with rolling fog normally only once every few years. But on Wednesday, clouds filled the famous canyon for the second time in six weeks. The phenomenon is called a total cloud inversion, and it happens when cold, moist air gets trapped beneath a layer of warmer air. You can watch The Weather Channel explain cloud inversions here, or just enjoy nature's winter treat in this video from The Associated Press and National Park Service below. —Peter Weber

This just in
8:02am ET
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Jay Z is taking on Spotify — he's purchased his own streaming service, the Scandinavian company Aspiro, for $56 million.

Project Panther Bidco Ltd, a company Jay Z controls, told Reuters on Friday that it decided to purchase Aspiro because it was "an innovative, high-quality company with strong future growth potential."

The Norwegian media group Schibsted, Aspiro's main shareholder, said it had accepted the offer, and Aspiro's board is "united in recommending the bid," according to Reuters.

This just in
7:49am ET
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Mitt Romney (R) will announce his plans for the 2016 elections on Friday morning, according to multiple reports.

Supporters of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign received an email Thursday inviting them to join a call with Romney on Friday morning for "an update."

Sources have confirmed to Bloomberg that Romney is ready to announce a decision about a potential presidential bid in 2016. "According to people familiar with the thinking of the two-time presidential candidate, Romney has now gathered all the information he needs to reach a conclusion about whether to run a third time," Bloomberg reports.

The news comes as David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who worked on both of Romney's presidential campaigns, has joined Jeb Bush's political action committee as a senior strategist. Kochel advised Romney for more than six years.

Noted
7:12am ET
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On Friday, President Obama will unveil a proposal for a federal biomedical research institute aimed at developing treatments tailored to individual patients' genetics and other characteristics. White House officials tell The New York Times that the "precision medicine initiate" will require an initial investment of $215 million, which will be included in Obama's proposed fiscal 2016 budget. Such personalized treatments are expected to be especially important in fighting cancer. When Obama broached the idea for the institute in his State of the Union address, it was one of the points to receive some bipartisan support.

Mixed Signals
6:32am ET

Birds do it, bees do it, even.... James Carville and Mary Matalin did it. But a surprisingly large number of Americans are solidly against dating (and perhaps falling in love with) someone in the other political party, Jessica Williams said on Thursday night's Daily Show. Williams got some juicy, mind-bending quotes from her panels of inter-party-dating-averse Democrats and Republicans. But what happens when she sends one of the Democrats and one of the Republicans on a date together? "It was a catastrophe," Williams says in a voiceover — just maybe not for the reason you'd expect. —Peter Weber

Life and Death
6:02am ET
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The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said that Death Row Records cofounder Marion "Suge" Knight turned himself in early Friday to face questioning over a deadly incident in which two people were run over by a red pickup on Thursday afternoon. One, a 55-year-old man, died, the other man was injured.

Update: The L.A. Sheriff's Department arrested Knight on Friday morning, on suspicion of murder, and set his bail at $2 million, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Citing witnesses, the Sheriff's Department says that the driver of the truck deliberately ran over the two members of the Straight Outta Compton film crew; Knight's lawyer says that Knight was driving, but accidentally ran over the two men while trying to escape two other assailants.

The Daily Showdown
5:18am ET

Sunday is the Super Bowl, and Jon Stewart took Thursday night's Daily Show to tackle the twin controversies surrounding this year's match-up between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Stewart wasn't overly nonplussed about "Deflategate," or "Ballghazi," but he did mockingly wonder if those were "appropriate nicknames for something this serious." His alternative: "I'm gonna go with the Ballocaust."

Also, Stewart had one good question about who's to blame for New England's under-inflated footballs: "If it's not Belichick or Brady — and it's both — then how did only the Patriots' balls become deflated?" After a too-brief interlude with John Hodgman, Stewart turned to the NFL's forced media appearances of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

Not only did the league threaten to fine Lynch $500,000 for not meeting the press, but they may penalize him for wearing the wrong brand of hat. "You know, it's just classic NFL to be more worried about what's happening on top of the player's head than the damage that's going on inside it," Stewart deadpanned. "It explains their slogan: 'The National Football League, Worrying About the Wrong S#@t Since 1920.'" —Peter Weber

culture of death
4:29am ET

On Thursday night, Robert Ladd was put to death by lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Ladd, convicted of beating Vicki Ann Garner to death with a hammer in 1996, had an IQ of just 67, prompting a legal challenge on the grounds that Ladd was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court declined to grant a last-minute stay of execution. —Peter Weber

RIP
4:00am ET
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Before Rod McKuen essentially stopped publishing his poems and recording albums in 1981, he was a pop culture juggernaut, a sort of middlebrow Renaissance man, selling more than 60 million of his poetry books and tens of millions of copies of his 200 music and spoken-word albums. At the peak of his career, in the 1960s and '70s, McKuen was "the unofficial poet laureate of America," according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. He died on Thursday in Beverly Hills, after a battle with pneumonia, at age 81.

McKuen collaborated with Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel on a string of well-known songs, including "If You Go Away" and "Seasons in the Sun," and Frank Sinatra commissioned and recorded an album of his songs, A Man Alone (1969). He was nominated for Academy Awards for the title songs to A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and won a Grammy for his spoken-word album Lonesome Cities (1968). He acted in TV shows and movies. As a budding poet in the 1950s, McKuen read his work alongside Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat poets.

His prolific work made him wealthy and famous, but the critics were not particularly kind. As to why he took a long break starting in the '80s, "I was tired," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "I peaked. I left when I was on top." Below, you can watch McKuen sing "Seasons in the Sun," his translation of Brel's "Le Moribond" and a hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. —Peter Weber

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