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February 10, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Mad Scientist Edition)

Mild-mannered liberal-arts college physics professor Chad Orzel falls victim to shrill unholy madness after reading Gregg Easterbrook. Oh no! He's turning green! The seams of his tweed jacket are ripping! He's growing in size! Hulk SMASH!!

Uncertain Principles: The writer in question is Gregg Easterbrook, who many wrongly persist in thinking of as a general-purpose public intellectual. "He's a senior editor of The New Republic," these people say, "How can you belittle him as merely a football commentator?" The answer is simple: his football commentary is excellent. But every time he puts fingers to keyboard to write about any other subject that I know anything about, he reveals himself to be a complete and utter chowderhead. Thus, I feel that I'm not belittling him by referring to him as a football commentator, but rather pointing out his strengths....

His Super Bowl column, which contains this summary of recent results from the ATRAP collaboration at CERN:

...the CERN research accelerator in Switzerland has just created anti-hydrogen in extremely small quantities. Anti-hydrogen is the antimatter mirror image of hydrogen. If an anti-hydrogen atom met a hydrogen atom, each would release all its energy in a total-annihilation reaction far more potent than the nuclear fusion that powers the sun and thermonuclear bombs.... CERN's achievement is to create entire anti-atoms and hold them in a stable condition using pressure from lasers. "The ultimate goal is to make a goodly supply of anti-atoms, store them and then probe their internal structure," CERN reports.

This appears to have been generated... by having a ten-year-old with ADD read that press release, and summarize it for him. This isn't even a physics problem, so much as a reading comprehension problem: any literate adult reading the press release for themselves would surely notice that this is not the first experiment to produce antihydrogen... and that the lasers are not used to trap the atoms, but as part of the production reaction.... Of course, it doesn't really matter to Easterbrook that he's mangled the description of the experiment, as it's really just a springboard for some Luddite windbaggery about antimatter bombs. "In theory an antimatter bomb the size of a baseball could obliterate a city." Sure, and when we've worked out how to make 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many antihydrogen atoms as we've made to date (at the rate of a couple thousand a year, last I heard), this will be a real dilemma. Of course, the clone armies will have taken over by then.... Of course, that's not even close to the levels of fatuousness he achieves when he attempts to talk about cosmology:

Both the donut and soccer-ball camps hold that when astronomers scan deep space, the infinity they think they see is an illusion. In some doughnut-shaped or soccer-inspired or bagel-sliced way, the cosmos appears much larger than it is. Cosmologists estimate there are at least 100 billion galaxies; actually, these researchers contend, what we observe is reflections of a much smaller number of galaxies: a traveler moving at super-speed straight out into the universe would eventually end up back at the starting point, not continue forever. The universe is an illusion? Well, this seems easier to swallow than the idea that all material for the entire cosmos popped out of a single point with no content, as Big Bang theory maintains.

Just... stop. You're hurting America. Take your cue from John Madden, and just disappear until August.

Posted by DeLong at February 10, 2005 06:33 PM