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More math illiteracy September 1, 2008

Posted by dorigo in internet, news, physics, science.
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In my previous post I complained about the utter inability of many italian reporters to pay attention to numerical figures in their pieces, as if the hard data they sometimes have to unwillingly report was a nuisance.

Today, upon reading the news on the site of the other main italian newspaper, Repubblica, I saw another example of that effect. And it is an even more annoying one, for several reasons. First, because Repubblica is the newspaper I prefer among the two. Second, because it appears in a science-related piece, written by a reporter who is supposed to pay attention to the data he produces. Third, because it concerns the LHC.

In a piece titled “Fermate il test sul Big Bang o la Terra sparirà” (Stop the Big Bang test or Earth will vanish) Enrico Franceschini wrote a rather sloppy account of the issue of micro-black-hole production by the LHC. For instance, sloppiness is apparent when he writes:

“…ci sono scarse possibilità che l’acceleratore formi un buco nero capace di porre una minaccia concreta al pianeta…”

(there are slim chances that the accelerator creates a black hole capable of posing a concrete threat to the planet)

Slim chances… Oh well. I am rather more pissed by the following statement:

“Vero è che il nuovo acceleratore ha suscitato attenzioni e polemiche perché è il più grande mai costruito, con una circonferenza di 26 chilometri e la possibilità di lanciare particelle atomiche 11.245 volte al secondo prima di farle scontrare una contro l’altra a una temperatura 100mila volte più alta di quella che esiste al centro del sole.”

(.…the possibility to launch atomic particles 11,245 times a second before having them collide one against the other at a temperature 100 thousand times higher than the one existing at the center of the sun.)

Atomic particles ? Was “protons and heavy ions” too technical for the piece ? And where the hell is that 11,245 Hz figure coming from ? “Launching atomic particles 11,245 times a second” does not even make any sense. The right figure, however, is 40 million times a second. This time the mistake is by 3.55 orders of magnitude. Darn, the explanation suggested in the thread of the previous post does not even apply here.

Comments

1. mfrasca - September 1, 2008

Tommaso,

I do not care too much about scientific pages of Italian newspapers. The problem is such widespread expanded that we need to recur to internet to get best sources. An example, recently I have seen the sci-fi movie “frequency” and there was Brian Greene acting himself. He talked about “string theory” but it was translated as “filament theory”! You can also check books or articles translations and I think there is a lot to complain (why do they not ask to informed people?). When I need a good scientific page in a newspaper I read New York Times online (http://www.nytimes.com/pages/science/index.html). My view is that this is the best around for not-expert people.

Ciao,

Marco

2. lee - September 1, 2008

The 11,000 Hz number is about right for the number of times/sec that a particle moving at C can traverse a 27km ring – I think that’s where he got the number from…

3. unit - September 1, 2008

beh, in realtà “filamento” è una traduzione più corretta di “stringa”…

4. Luboš Motl - September 2, 2008

Dear Tommaso, “protons and heavy ions” is surely too technical for newspapers and I am afraid that even “atomic particles” could be. You seem to underestimate the stupidity of the average people.

To make you even more worried, here’s a list of dozens of articles from the last 24 hours or so, announcing the LHC end of the world on September 10th:

http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14750323
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1051070/Landmark-experiment-unlock-secrets-Big-Bang-cause-end-world-say-scientists-court-bid-halt-it.html
http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2008/09/01/scientists-hit-with-end-of-the-world-legal-challenge-over-big-bang-experiment-86908-20719522/
http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,24274368-5013016,00.html
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/story.html?id=27d22421-50c0-4441-981c-81fc01f0a90d
http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/200835/1900/The-End-is-Nigh-Colliding-atom-research-will-consume-the-Earth
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/2650665/Legal-bid-to-stop-CERN-atom-smasher-from-destroying-the-world.html

The titles are like:

The End is Nigh: Colliding-atom research will consume the Earth
Experiment raises fears of end of the world
Large Haudron Collider could spell doomsday for Earth!

and many others. That’s just a few days, or how long this will take. Now imagine that the media write similar bullshit about theoretical physics – that you don’t care about – building on similar crackpots as the LHC alarmists – for several years. This sucks, doesn’t it? I want them to be destroyed by a black hole, too.

5. Luboš Motl - September 2, 2008

Dear Tommaso, “protons and heavy ions” is surely too technical for newspapers and I am afraid that even “atomic particles” could be. You seem to underestimate the stupidity of the average people.

To make you even more worried, here’s a list of dozens of articles from the last 24 hours or so, announcing the LHC end of the world on September 10th:

sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14750323
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1051070/Landmark-experiment-unlock-secrets-Big-Bang-cause-end-world-say-scientists-court-bid-halt-it.html
http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2008/09/01/scientists-hit-with-end-of-the-world-legal-challenge-over-big-bang-experiment-86908-20719522/
http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,24274368-5013016,00.html
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/story.html?id=27d22421-50c0-4441-981c-81fc01f0a90d
http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/200835/1900/The-End-is-Nigh-Colliding-atom-research-will-consume-the-Earth
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/2650665/Legal-bid-to-stop-CERN-atom-smasher-from-destroying-the-world.html

(The system doesn’t allow me too many URLs.)

The titles are like:

The End is Nigh: Colliding-atom research will consume the Earth
Experiment raises fears of end of the world
Large Haudron Collider could spell doomsday for Earth!

and many others. That’s just a few days, or how long this will take. Now imagine that the media write similar bullshit about theoretical physics – that you don’t care about – building on similar crackpots as the LHC alarmists – for several years. This sucks, doesn’t it? I want them to be destroyed by a black hole, too.

6. Luboš Motl - September 2, 2008

Dear Tommaso, “protons and heavy ions” is surely too technical for newspapers and I am afraid that even “atomic particles” could be. You seem to underestimate the stupidity of the average people.

To make you even more worried, here’s a list of dozens of articles from the last 24 hours or so, announcing the LHC end of the world on September 10th:

http://news.google.com/news?ned=us&hl=en&ned=us&q=lhc+cern&ie=UTF-8&scoring=n

The titles are like:

The End is Nigh: Colliding-atom research will consume the Earth
Experiment raises fears of end of the world
Large Haudron Collider could spell doomsday for Earth!

and many others in the Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Glasgow Daily Record, Australian Courier Mail, Times Colonist in Canada, The Tech Herald, Sify in India, etc. That’s just a few days, or how long this will take. Now imagine that the media write similar bullshit about theoretical physics – that you don’t care about – building on similar crackpots as the LHC alarmists – for several years. This sucks, doesn’t it? I want them to be destroyed by a black hole, too.

7. dorigo - September 2, 2008

Well, I never said you are not entitled to rage, Lubos. I might suggest that it is something to allow to oneself only occasionally, however, lest one starts to be perceived as a sociopath.

I think that, once the LHC wins all its legal actions, we may end up benefitting from all this media coverage. People have gotten interested in the CERN endeavour, no doubt about that. As for the general opinion on science, that is unlikely to be changed once they see there are no black holes swallowing their children.

Cheers,
T.

8. Luboš Motl - September 2, 2008

Well, Tommaso, it is surely better to be just a sociopath than an aggressive anti-string-theoretical crackpot. The latter category belongs to the intersection of sociopaths and imbeciles.

Concerning your hypothetical future benefits of the LHC alarm, I am afraid that you don’t understand how the society works. The lawsuits could have made the people interested in the collider but only because of the reasons that are written in the headlines of the stupid newspaper articles: they will always have some suspicion that the experiment is a conspiracy to destroy the world.

The intensity of this conspiracy theory will fluctuate but it will never return to zero and it will never inspire people to figure out what the LHC is actually good for because these two things have almost nothing to do with each other.

The journalists are mostly idiots but they reflect the general interests and knowledge of the average people (the journalists’ average IQ is about 106 and those 6 points above the global average may be attributed to their ability to learn grammar).

Most of the normal people don’t even go to the “depth” of the articles. They read the headline and accept it as a fact. In the very same way, their interest in string theory (or any other physics beyond the Standard Model) is limited to roughly three words, whether it is “not even wrong” or something like that. They just don’t want to occupy their expensive (because highly limited) room in their skull by a fourth word.

The ultimate reason why idiots like Woit have so much influence is that most average people are even more ignorant and uneducatable and the journalists provide us with a fair description of the general population.

9. dorigo - September 2, 2008

Marco, I agree, NYT is a good source. However, it bothers me to see so many mistakes in italian newspapers. If a sports reporter writes a goal was kicked by x instead than y he is likely to be crucified, while they get away with such BS on scientific matters at times… It’s depressing.

Lee, yes, that is probably where that number came from.

Cheers,
T.

10. DB - September 2, 2008

“As for the general opinion on science, that is unlikely to be changed once they see there are no black holes swallowing their children.”

They will not see the black hole swallowing their children because they will only see their children permanently located at the event horizon of the Schwartzchild singularity.
:))


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