Sunday, November 15, 2009

The 10 weirdest physics facts bull$hit

Seems to me a way of mindlessly parroting what thousands before you think is cool and trendy. Heaven forbid you actually pause and think for a second about what you read.

Take the latest #physics re-tweets about an article called The 10 weirdest physics facts, from relativity to quantum mechanics.

My god... for the last week this has been re-tweeted numerous times. Don't any of these people actually read the comments to this article pointing out the obvious factual errors? Do they even stop for a millisecond and perform a sanity check?

OK people, here is a small tutorial on how to think critically about such an article.

1. Approach everything you read with a modicum of skepticism.

Any article that states weirdest physics facts causes my bullshit meter to twitch. "Facts" is a term most physicists like to avoid writing down, even if they secretly believe in those facts. All facts are open to the possibility of being disproved. Just design an experiment to test the "fact".

2. Check the authors credentials.

When I read in the opening paragraph the following, my bullshit meter starts to really twitch:

"The humanities-graduate writer of this piece would like to stress that this is his work, so any glaring factual errors he has included are his own as well. If you spot any, feel free to point them out in the comment box below"

A humanities graduate writer is writing a piece on physics? Humm... it is a pretty good bet they don't know enough to write cogently about the subject, but that is ok, they are simply going to write an article for mass consumption to promote science as cool and interesting.  Thanks for the help Mr. Humanities-graduate writer.

And don't give me any crap about Einstein being a patent clerk etc etc. Crackpots use this argument in support of their bullshit physics assertions. Einstein had the training and the credentials. For every Ramanujan out there, who literally came from nowhere (but still had the training) there are a million others who put in vast time and effort to learn the subject. Don't pander to the exceptions. 99% of the time it is safe to be very skeptical of anything a humanities-graduate writer will write about physics.

WTF? Are we, the readers supposed to correct the writers misconceptions? Whatever happened to checking your facts before posting? The writer is making the assertion, and in science it is up to the asserting person to make his case.

3. Perform a Sanity Check on one of the topics.

Lets make this easy, and lets look at the very first one:

If the Sun were made of bananas, it would be just as hot
"The Sun is hot, as the more astute of you will have noticed. It is hot because its enormous weight – about a billion billion billion tons – creates vast gravity, putting its core under colossal pressure. Just as a bicycle pump gets warm when you pump it, the pressure increases the temperature. Enormous pressure leads to enormous temperature."

Wow, where to start? Oh yeah, how about starting where he states that the sun is hot because of its enormous weight.

It is very easy to calculate the amount of energy the sun produces. This number was pretty well determined over a hundred years ago. This number is about 4E26 J/s.

We can trivially calculate the gravitational energy of our "banana sun" by assuming that the sun was assembled via self gravitation of bananas falling toward a central point from a very large distance.
The potential energy of a sun's mass of bananas falling from infinity to the radius of the sun is: gives us some facts about the sun:

M ~ 2E30 kg
R ~ 7E8 m

G ~ 7E-11 m^3/(kg s^2)

E_G ~ 4E41 J

Therefore the gravitational energy of the bananas can produce the energy radiated by the sun for a total of 31  million years. Considering that the sun has been shining for about 5 billion years so far, we can see that the authors statement is the monkey digested remains of all those bananas.

The sun is powered by nuclear fusion. The banana's are made of the intergalactic vomit spewed by a dying star, in other words what the star could not consume. Chances are a banana sun would not last comparatively as long.

4. Don't waste your time.

At this point we have direct empirical evidence that the article will be bullshit. If the very first entry on the 10 "facts" is trivially disproved, then you have better things to do than waste any more time with the article. Go crack a book on physics. There are literally thousands of good texts or even popular accounts out there. Hell, even Scientific American is better than some random article on a internet news site.

And please stop re-tweeting this bullshit.


  1. hhmmm....banana sun looks yummy! How long would that banana sun feed us earthlings? =p

    I will post your blog link to the article...

  2. 10 banana's per kilogram means 2E31 bananas.

    There 6E9 people on the Earth, they each need about 2000 calories per day to live. Each banana is about 100 calories so each person needs about 20 bananas.

    Each person lives 100 years means they consume 400*20*100 8E5 bananas during their life.

    That means the banana sun can feed 2E31/8E5 0.25E26 people for their entire life. Or the population of the earth about 100000000000000000 times over!

  3. Hey Michael, couldn't find an email for you so I'll comment here. Thanks for stopping by. Looking at your comments today I didn't do a very good job with my blog. I'm going to make some adjustments and repost later. Let me know when you can put together something as a guest blogger. A tutorial of what the scientific method is, what a scientific theory is, and its range of applicability will be fine. My email is I look forward to having you as a guest blogger.

    Steve Tremp

  4. Hey Mike, when I read this I laughed my arse off!
    Can you believe I saw this link re-tweeted?

    BTW, are you really planning on writing a guest blog for Tremp? Why not post it to your blog instead? Who wants to have to wade through the pseudo science crap on a hack writers blog for actual physics?

    Also, you have been sort of slow on the posts? Holidays?

  5. Yup, been out with family for Thanksgiving.
    Tryptophan coma has kept me from posting!

    As for Tremp, well... he may not be a lost cause, but many of his readers are.
    I will post the scientific method on this blog in the near future.
    Have a good rest of the weekend!

  6. People are still re-tweeting this. You think the guy would have taken his post down. Funny...

  7. Dude... harsh. People don't have time to read everything in detail. And how many people can "trivially disprove" such assertions? What, you expect everybody to pull formulas out of there asses?
    So, basically anybody without your training is a idiot? How about they just don't have your training rather than assuming there stupid?

    Lets see if you have any formula to pull out of your ass if the topic was on something like biology, or philosophy or archeology?

    Or would you rather that people never get exposed to cool science, or are turned off by assholes like yourself?

  8. "1 said"...I have no training in medecine so would never consider writing a blog on "how to remove your own appendix"
    Should i do so i would make it clear it was a joke.
    There is no assumption made that people are "stupid" by reason of lack of knowledge on a subject.
    The danger is that an article written in an authoratitave looking vein could be accepted as true by those without that knowledge thereby spreading pseudoscientific nonsense.
    Quackery is not "cool science"

  9. Yeah, right.
    We all know physicists like to pretend they know everything, and that they think any other science is "soft" and anybody who does not have there training is dumb.
    He was insulting someone who graduated with a humanities degree because the guy made a simple mistake.
    Lets see Varney post on topics that he does not have training in and see how badly he screws it up. Then we can call him stupid.

  10. Who is "we", white boy?!

  11. @ ~1

    Mike's point, as anonymous pointed out, was about the dangers of authoritative sounding knowledge in the popular press.

    How many times have you seen some movie star going on about environmental issues, and who obviously does not have the training or even basic understanding to make a learned decision on the subject. But because that actor "played a doctor" on TV and is well known the press jump on the bandwagon and promote the actors opinion?
    Heck, Mike gave me an example of a very public figure (Ollie North) who really truly believed that there were canals on Mars, and breathable air, and warm liquid water, and that it shared Earth's orbit. He was vice president, and he would go around telling children this story as a way to promote the ISS and space exploration.

    I know Mike pretty well, and when he thinks someone is irredeemably stupid, he would not waste time trying to teach them critical thinking skills.
    Also, he is pretty widely read, and I have seen him take some pretty diverse courses and lectures, so you should not be overly surprised if he discusses things outside of his expertise with a critical eye.

    As for physicists:
    We may not know everything, but we have learned how to learn, and to think critically.
    In many scientific subjects, even if we are not well read in the subject, we can detect "bullshit" fairly accurately.

  12. Whatever. You are just a part of the physics cabal.

  13. OMG that is awesome!

  14. You should skip step 4 for our sakes and write another crushing analysis of the other "facts" in this article.
    And you owe me a new keyboard, as I snorted coffee all over this one after reading this blog!

  15. Ha, nice. Hi - I'm Tom Chivers, the author of the piece.

    In fairness, you've got me on the banana sun thing. It was unclear; in a later edit I state that the massive pressure of the bananas would heat it up to the massive temperatures, but since it's not made of hydrogen the fusion reaction wouldn't start. You're right, obviously, it wouldn't burn for billions of years.

    Re the humanities graduate comment; would you have preferred I claimed total authority? I'm happy to admit I don't know everything about physics, although I'm a well-educated layman (my humanities background is philosophy of science).

    I'd much rather people went through the piece - as you have - and found errors that I could correct than it just stayed out there wrong. Of course I checked my facts, but I thought a little humility in the face of a complex subject might be a good idea.

    "The danger is that an article written in an authoratitave looking vein could be accepted as true by those without that knowledge thereby spreading pseudoscientific nonsense."

    You see? Exactly why I said the humanities graduate thing, and why I got my cosmologist contact to double-check stuff.

    Anyway, thanks for reading (as far as you did).

    All the best

    Tom Chivers

  16. Actually, Mike and I have gone back and forth over several aspects of your "piece", and there were many factual errors as well as interpretive errors.
    Yes, it is hard to "dumb down" the science, but not to such an extreme. "Things should be as simple as possible, and no simpler."

    The fact of the matter is that Mike did read your entire article, but needed to prove his point by commenting on only one of the many fallacies it contained. It is partly because of popularized articles claiming weirdness where none really exists that dumb asses like Chopra can scam people into believing quantum consciousness, and idiots like Dan Brown can sell his latest bullshit to a public that is ready to believe that quantum "strangeness" can allow one to define the universe simply by willing it.

    The fact that your article was re-tweeted so much had little to do with the science content and more a reflection of the sad state of ignorance of science that is prevalent, and which your article did little to help.

  17. Hmm.

    Again, fair enough; although as I say, I did have it checked by a cosmologist, Marcus Chown, who gave it the all-clear (apart from the banana sun thing, which has been corrected).

    Quantum consciousness and all the other bullshit - let us pick the various ways homeopathy is often sold as 'something to do with quantum' - are of course bullshit.

    But physics is weird; the reverse causation thing (which I got from a Paul Davies book, The Goldilocks Enigma), for instance, is incredibly weird. And every point (again, apart from the banana one) has been agreed by some (by no means all) physicists who have read it. I agree I shouldn't have said 'facts' - it's a bad word in science, and I regret it - but none of them (I am repeatedly and reliably told - again, apart from the banana one) are entirely out of the realms of current thinking.

    Just realised I put a lot of brackets in that paragraph. Apologies.

    Incidentally, putting the word "piece" in inverted commas was a strange choice. Are you implying that it wasn't really a "piece"? I recommend this site:

    Anyway. Not sure why I've picked on you to argue. All the best


  18. It was a "piece" of something... that is for sure.