Doomsday Again

November 17, 2009

Back in May, I wrote about the stories being circulated on the Internet about the possible end of the world, which, according to the stories, would be brought about because the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN would create a black hole that would swallow the Earth.  In one gentleman’s novel approach to probability, he figured that the disaster either would or would not happen, and therefore the probability of its happening was 50%.

The LHC has had its problems getting completely up and running, but fortunately there is a new theory of ultimate disaster available for those folks that seem to thrive on these tales.  Yesterday’s New York Times has an article about the new putative end of the world, now scheduled for December 21, 2012.  (Don’t forget to mark your calendar!)  There has been growing chatter about this date on the Internet, late-night talk radio (a medium populated almost entirely by the insane even 40 years ago), and other well-known sources of reliable information.  This prediction is based on an enormous farrago of nonsense involving the Mayan calendar, a supposed massive invisible planet Nibiru colliding with the Earth, an “alignment” of the Sun with the center of the Milky Way, a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field (sometimes accompanied by the Earth’s crust, and the continents, rotating 180 degrees around the Earth’s center), and even the Sun spiralling into a black hole at the center of the galaxy.

The hype has been fed by the publicity for a new movie, 2012, which opened last Friday, and features scenes from the predicted destruction of the world.  (My personal favorite is the one in which a tsunami throws an aircraft carrier into the White House.)  Now, anyone who takes seriously everything put out by way of movie publicity is already a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but some of the marketing for this movie has taken advantage of the background hysteria.  According to an article discussing the issue on NASA’s web site,

The film publicity includes creation of a faux scientific website ( for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind.

As the article goes on to point out, the request by some people that NASA, or someone else, “prove” that the Doomsday idea is false, is ludicrous: if someone claimed that 50-foot tall purple elephants were strolling through Cleveland, he would (correctly) be considered a nut case.

Nonetheless, some folks at NASA are trying to inject some sense into the discussion, with a FAQ page on the topic; they also have posted an article, which originally appeared in Sky & Telescope magazine,  by E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, about the story and some of the history behind it.  (Some readers may remember the supposedly significant alignment of the planets in 1987, the so-called “Harmonic Convergence”, which turned out to be more of a Moronic Convergence.  Some of the same True Believers are still around.)

I have never quite understood the appeal of these end-of-the-world stories, but clearly the appeal is there.  I suppose eventually, if the end is predicted often enough, it might even happen.  I’ll try to remember to have my camera ready.

Balloon Boy

October 20, 2009

By now, unless you have been spending your time in an abandoned mine or something, you have heard about the saga of the “Balloon Boy” in Colorado.  A spate of breathless news stories (like this one from CNN, via YouTube) reported that a six-year-old boy, Falcon Henne, had gotten into a balloon (which was sometimes referred to as an “Experimental Aircraft”) that was moored in his back yard, had managed to release it from its tethers, and was flying across Colorado.

The early reports described the craft as a “hot air balloon”.  One of the reports showed a picture of the craft (in the backyard, presumably) with a person standing next to it.  From that picture, it was obvious that the “hot air balloon” story was, well, hot air.  The smallest hot air balloons capable of carrying a person (without a gondola or any other equipment) have an envelope containing more than 20,000 cubic feet of hot air; from CNN’s size estimates, the Balloon Boy’s contained less than 1,600 cubic feet, not nearly big enough to lift even a child.  For comparison, a typical hot-air balloon used to give rides for 3-4 people at festivals, fairs, etc., has an envelope volume of about 100,000 cubic feet.

Later, the report was updated to say that the balloon was actually filled with helium.  This would, of course, allow the use of a much smaller envelope, because the difference in density between helium and air (mostly nitrogen and oxygen) is substantially larger than that between hot air and cold air.  The “GeekDad” blog at Wired has a post on this, in which he calculates that an envelope holding 1,571 cubic feet of helium could provide enough lift to carry a 50-pound child.   However, as he points out, the aircraft is a balloon, not a dirigible (which has a rigid structure), and there is no evidence in the photos that the shape of the envelope was deformed at all by any weight it was carrying.

Now it is suggested that the whole thing was a hoax, created by the Henne family in an attempt to get a gig on a “reality TV” show.   It’s also another disappointing demonstration of the gullibility and scientific ignorance of many members of the media.


The whole phenomenon of so-called reality TV seems to me, on one level, to be pretty weird.  When I’ve asked a few people why they liked these programs, the answer was something along the lines of, “Well, I’m interested in people.”  In some cases, I am reasonably sure that the person in question would only sit at an actual sidewalk cafe (say, Les Deux Magots in Paris) and watch actual people — you know, what we used to call “reality” — if “persuaded” at gunpoint.  Evidently watching a bunch of amateur actors being paid to be followed around by TV cameras supplies something that reality lacks.

Slip Sliding Away

September 5, 2009

“Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote.” – Have Space Suit – Will Travel, 1958. by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)

Back in May, in a post about a “now vs. then” technology comparison (actually, iPod vs. Walkman), I mentioned coming across my slide rule on an occasion when one of my younger colleagues, who had never seen one, was present.  I was reminded of that by an E-mail I received recently from ThinkGeek (a purveyor of geek toys), advertising the availability of slide rules for sale.  Apparently slide rules (or “slip-sticks”) are now so retro that they are becoming cool.

Through this terrible dark technology period the mechanical slide rule was the one gleam of hope that true geeks could cling to. Here was a simple device with one sliding part that could do complex mathematical calculations in moments.

Now, I’m not very used to being a trend-setter, but this image, with me and my classmate Laurel,  from my high school yearbook, is proof:Alpha Geeks, circa 1970

All kidding aside, I was sort of intrigued  that some people were apparently interested in slide rules.  Following some of the links from the ThinkGeek product listing, I found some amusing stuff for other old crocks that still remember pre-electronic calculation..

There is a site for the Oughtred Society; in their own words:

The Oughtred Society was founded in 1991 by a group of slide rule collectors and is dedicated to the preservation and history of slide rules and other calculating instruments. In the past 18 years it has evolved to an international organization with members in 22 countries.

They have an interesting history of the slide rule, a FAQ, and even a nascent section on slide rule humor.  (Now that is geeky!)

There is also (who knew?) an International Slide Rule Museum, located in Louisville, Colorado, whose site has a wealth of information, including a do-it-yourself course in how to use a slide rule.  In keeping with the electricity-free ethos of the slide rule, there is even a version you can download and print out – you can study with no batteries or wimpy Internet connection required.

More seriously, I can’t think of a more effective device for really learning how powers, exponents, and logarithms work.

Curmudgeons of the world, unite!

Lightning Safety and Lore

June 10, 2009

‘Tain’t what a man don’t know that hurts him; it’s what he knows that just ain’t so. — Kin Hubbard

It’s that time of year again: in the last couple of days we’ve had some pretty impressive thunderstorms here in the Washington DC area.  (One knocked down a tree on the White House lawn.)  Every year, too, questions come up about staying safe in thunderstorms, particularly from lightning.  Although, statistically speaking, auto accidents in the US kill many more people than lightning does, lightning is dangerous: sadly, a twelve-year-old boy was killed nearby by a lightning strike a few days ago.

A few years back, I was actively involved in the AIDS Rides, and was administrator of an e-mail list that was used to provide support and advice, especially to new people.  Lightning questions came up there, too, and I realized that many people really didn’t understand much about the actual risk.  One fairly common type of question was something like, “Is is safer to wear sneakers with rubber soles in a thunderstorm?”   Well, no.  Here is the explanation we put into the FAQ for the list:

Whether you ride with sneakers or clipless pedals, or the frame composition of your bike, probably makes very little difference. Remember that the electric current in lightning is travelling through air for a considerable distance, and air, even with some water droplets mixed in, is quite a good electrical insulator.

Perhaps more to the point, either the bike or the cyclist will conduct electricity considerably better than air, even air saturated with water vapor. The electrical potential difference between a thunderstorm cloud and the earth can reach ca. 100 million volts. Small amounts of insulating material (e.g., rubber-soled shoes) make very little difference.

Sometimes people think that being in a car is safer because the rubber tires insulate it from the ground. This is a correct conclusion for the wrong reason.  Mostly, the safety comes from the fact that you are (approximately) inside a closed metal (conductive) container. (This was called a “Faraday cage” in physics class — the net electric field inside a closed conductive surface is always zero, by Gauss’s Law.) Being inside a steel-framed skyscraper is also very safe for the same reason, as is being in a metal railway car (which of course has steel “tires”)

The mistaken belief falls in the category that I call lore. One of the mental goals that seems to be innate in people is the desire to make sense of the world.  We will work hard to construct a story about how and why things happen, and the lack of actual knowledge or understanding doesn’t seem to impede this process very much.  In this case, people know that rubber is an electrical insulator, and the idea that it would protect you from lightning seems plausible.  Getting in the car during a thunderstorm, if there’s no better shelter available, is a good idea.  But thinking you are safe because you’re wearing sneakers is a very bad idea.  As Kin Hubbard said, those things you know that just ain’t so can get you in big trouble.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory has a page of lightning safety advice.

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