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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-11-10)

In article no 18 in this series, we spoke of writers who use scientific terms without really understanding them, and an interesting example crossed my path the other day. Earlier writers took care not to get too involved in the details:

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”

So wrote Alexander Pope (1688-1744), in an elegant epigrammatic tribute to Sir Isaac Newton, who lived from 1642 to 1727. A couple of centuries later, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) had this to add:

“It did not last: the Devil howling Ho! Let Einstein be! restored the status quo.”

A very neat (and very well known) rejoinder, but perhaps just a little unfair. However involved the thinking behind it, Einstein’s best-known contribution to the world of science was probably the simplest significant equation since 1 + 1 = 2. It read simply: E = mc˛.

The importance of this statement defies description. After Einstein wrote it down in 1905, it gradually came to define the course of research in physics, and found expression in all sorts of fields from astronomy to nuclear bombs and the TV set. Because of its enormous significance, an interesting new book by David Bogdanis has made its appearance, entitled E = mc˛: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. It is very readable and it is selling like the proverbial hot cakes, because everybody knows the equation but very few know exactly what it means.

I came across a review of the book the other day. The reviewer wrote, “The power of Einstein’s equation lies in the realisation that if you take any mass, multiply it by the speed of light (670 million mph) and square that, the enormous number you will end up with is how much energy that mass can generate.”

But alas, it isn’t. What you have to do is square of the speed of light first, then multiply it by the mass. You don’t multiply the mass by the speed and square the result. If you do, your result will indeed be an enormous number, but just a bit too enormous. To take a ridiculous example, if the mass is 2 and the speed of light is 5, then our writer’s result will be 2x5 (=10) which squared = 100. If you work the equation correctly, the result will be 2 multiplied by 5 squared (=25) which = 50. The first answer is too large by the amount of the mass, and the greater the mass, the greater the error will be.

Well, it was only a review and soon forgotten, no doubt, but it would be reasonable to expect the reviewer to have read the book and understood the equation. With numbers of this size, perhaps a million or two here or there doesn’t matter (though I think it probably does.)

Just to be sure, I went out and bought the book. It’s just as lucid and entertaining as I had hoped, and here, I thought, would be the truth. So it was, but even here the demon that produces errors had struck again. On page 50, the writer adds 1 to 670,000,000, and the printer gives him 670,000,0001. His error is not 1; he’s multiplied the original number by ten and added one. It begins to look as if you can’t win, however careful you are.

No wonder I have stripes on my TV screen. Contextually yours, Ulysses Online




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