The day we almost went stupid

+ -

advertisement | advertise on newsday

William F. B. O'Reilly Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28,

William F. B. O'Reilly works as a corporate and political communications consultant. He works with clients on the

I remember when pocket calculators came out. It was exciting -- for about five minutes.

I thought I wouldn't have to take math anymore, but my teacher quickly spoiled the fantasy. (That one anyway.) "What if the calculator breaks?" she asked. "You wouldn't know how to do anything."

I took the math. The calculator never broke, and I haven't used long division once in the years since. But I do remember my teacher. Fondly.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

She popped to mind this week when I heard that the world just missed being sent back to the Bronze Age by a solar flare. It happened on July 23, 2012, but scientists just got around to telling us about it. This flare apparently caused something called a coronal mass ejection, which in turn created an electromagnetic pulse that missed Earth by a whisker. A smaller coronal mass ejection caused telegraphs around the world to melt down in 1859 in what became known as the Carrington Event.

Pretty big difference between 1859 and 2014 technology-wise. If Carrington had struck in the summer of '12, we'd likely have lost electricity; water services; bank accounts; financial markets; anything online; and car, rail and air travel -- pretty much everything except those solar calculators that now come as tradeshow giveaways. It would take years to bring services back online, experts say.

A lot of smart people are taking this threat seriously. Hedge fund giant Paul Singer issued a memo to investors this week, calling the threat of an EMP rendering useless everything with a battery or a plug "the most significant danger" in the world.

"While these pages are typically chock full of scary or depressing scenarios," Singer wrote, "there is one risk that is head-and-shoulders above all the rest in terms of the scope of potential damage adjusted for the likelihood of occurrence. Even horrendous nuclear war, except in its most extreme form, can [be] a relatively localized issue, and the threat from asteroids can be mitigated."

When the Paul Singers of the world worry enough to alert investors about something, it's probably worth thinking about.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, and a former client, has been warning about the threat of EMPs for years. But Gaffney doesn't look to the sun. His concern is China, North Korea, Russia, or a nuclear Iran. Anyone with nuclear capability who can sail a barge near America's shores would be capable of knocking out America's power grid with a high altitude nuclear detonation.

"We've done nothing to protect our civilian infrastructure -- and most especially the electric grid that powers it -- from such an effect," Gaffney warned in a recent article. "As a result, should some enemy use a ballistic missile to detonate a nuclear weapon over the United States, it could have an existential impact on our country."

I used to lie in bed at night imagining that I awoke three, four or 500 years in the past, ala Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It beat counting sheep.

"What could I teach them?" I'd wonder before drifting off. I don't know how to make a television work. I can't build a radio. I can't even explain how a bicycle works. And all my files are on Google Drive.

If an EMP hits, I'm in deep, deep trouble.

Sign up for the Opinion newsletter and get the latest analysis delivered to your inbox.

You also may be interested in: