Friday, April 30, 2010
They are out there somewhere, and the computer of the world's most famous
physicist says in a vaguely Norwegian accent that we should keep low so
they won't notice were here. In a new documentary for the Discovery
Channel, Hawking says, "To my mathematical brain the numbers alone make
thinking about aliens perfectly rational." That depends on what you think
about them. He suggests that aliens might raid Earth to take our
resources. Actually, our resources are draining away into the Gulf of
Mexico. Or maybe the aliens analyzed the Hubbert peak and decided we
weren't worth the trouble. "We have only to look at ourselves to see how
intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
I'm sure the series will be a great commercial success, but this is totally
irresponsible. All this paranoid society needs is the world's most famous
scientist telling us that the obesity epidemic was engineered by the space
aliens to fatten us up for the feast. Not only is Prof. Hawking profiling
with a totally imaginary profile, he screwed up the mathematical physics.
Lets run the numbers for him:
Every September on the first day of class I ask my new freshman physics
majors if they think humans will ever travel to another star. Almost all
say "sure, eventually." "Okay," I tell them, "let's start planning the
trip." We set a few minutes aside in every class session to work on the
plan. How far is it to the nearest star? Its 4.2 ly to Proxima Centauri.
How long can we take to get there? We agree on a working lifetime, 50
years. Multi-generational space travel would raise ethical concerns. At
that velocity we can use Isaac Newtons 300-year-old laws of motion.
Indeed, until his retirement last year, Stephen Hawking occupied the
Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, once held by Newton. Anyway, my
class couldnt agree on how many frozen pizzas we would need on the trip so
we settled for calculating the energy per gram, 317 MJ/g. Can that be
right? If it is we just solved the Fermi paradox. These hideous aliens are
lusting for Earth women but don't have enough stuff to make the trip.
According to the 2003 movie, 21 Grams, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts,
it's an "established scientific fact" that the human soul weighs 21 g.
Maybe it's our souls the aliens are after?
The leading story in the Personal Journal section of the Wall Street
Journal yesterday, was the Power of Lucky Charms by Carl Bialik. The
subtitle was New Research Suggests How They Really Make Us Perform Better.
Here's the scene: participants on a putting green who we're told they were
playing with a "Lucky Ball" did 35% better on average. Psychologists,
were told, are exploring ways to tap into people's belief in good luck.
What I learned from the study is, don't believe what psychologists tell you.