Mondoweiss

A house cat is smaller than an aircraft carrier, not larger– in world of ‘NYT’ correction

David Brin

This is off my usual topic when ranting about the New York Times, but I found it funny seeing how the NYT goes about retracting a dumb mistake. It probably isn’t fair to generalize from this, but it is tempting. Not Middle East material, but I wanted to share.

I enjoyed the above article in last Sunday’s Times Magazine quite a bit– “A new initiative to beam messages into space may be our best shot yet at learning whether we’re alone in the universe. There’s just one problem: What if we’re not?” Author Steven Johnson pointed out that those who receive the message might seek “the destruction of all life on earth.”

But unfortunately Johnson quoted a science fiction writer, David Brin, who claimed that in 50 years we would be able to launch a few kilograms at half the speed of light (maybe so) and (here is the mistake) the energy would make the impact that killed the dinosaurs look small.

This is a mistake a bright high school kid with an interest in physics could have caught. The energy of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs is usually estimated to be in the 100 million
megaton range. The energy of ” several” kilograms going at half the speed of light is roughly 16 to 17 megatons if we take several to mean 5.

The original story said the few kilograms going at one half the speed of light had kinetic energy much greater than the asteroid. The reality is that it is millions of times less.

A number of nerds pointed this out to the Times (I was one), and the Times correction says that the energy would be less, not greater, than the asteroid impact.

An earlier version of this article misstated the impact a few kilograms traveling half the speed of light would have if they collided with Earth. The impact would be less than that of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, not more.

That is true in the same sense that a house cat is smaller, not larger than a WW 2 aircraft carrier. That is the size of the mistake they made. A house cat has a mass of several kilograms, but you would need a 30,000 ton object going at half the speed of light to equal the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact.

This isn’t the kind of mistake most non-nerds are going to care about, but it shows not only some sloppiness, but a realization that if they admitted the size of the mistake they would look a bit silly to anyone who cared.