Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Jump if you don’t understand physics

Today’s forehead-slap inducing article comes from a story that started in Scotland where a fake scientist claims to have gathered enormous support for his efforts to solve global warming.

Let’s bypass the debate about whether or not global warming exists (junk science abounds on both sides of this argument ) and take a moment to look at the article.

Hans Peter Niesward, from the Department of Gravitationsphysik at the ISA in Munich, says we can stop global warming in one fell swoop — or, more accurately, in one big jump.

The slightly disheveled professor states his case on, an Internet site created to recruit 600,000,000 people to jump simultaneously on July 20 at 11:39:13 GMT in an effort to shift Earth's position.

Niesward claims that on this day "Earth occupies one of the most fragile positions in its orbits for the last 100 years." According to the site, the shift in orbit will "stop global warming, extend daytime hours and create a more homogeneous climate."

Only three paragraphs into the article, anyone with a high school level of physics comprehension should be staring at 3 or 4 red flags. Just to be clear, here are the most obvious problems.

Insignificant mass: The mass of Earth is approximately 1.3*10^25 lbs. Even if all 600,000,000 people weighed 300 lbs each, their total weight would be 1.8*10^11, which is 0.0000000000014% of the mass of Earth. That will hardly make a difference and certainly not enough to shift the earth’s orbit by an amount you could accurately measure.

Directional force: If you have people all around the world jump at the same time, the force of people jumping on one side will mostly cancel the force of people jumping on the other side.

Zero net gain: Even if you could get a huge mass of people on one side of the earth to jump at the same time and cause the earth to move slightly, it would go right back to it’s original position the second everyone came crashing back down. That’s the way gravity and Newtonian physics work.

Longer days: If you do move the path of Earth’s orbit slightly further from the sun, it wouldn’t change the length of the day, because that’s determined by the earth’s rotation around its own axis, not it’s orbit around the sun. It appears that this jumping scheme is being confused with the “everyone drive your car east and stop the world from turning” myth.

If you noticed any one of those flaws, it should come as no surprise when the article points out that Professor Niesward is neither a professor nor a scientist. For that matter, he’s not even a Niesward. He’s really an artist and performer.

You can debate whether this is an experiment in flash mobs and internet myths or simply a way to draw attention to the theory of global warming. What I think is more important is what’s buried a little deeper in this article.

Members of the online environmental site have been debating not only the physical possibility of the jump's promise but the morality of its outcome.
Some believe it's risky to alter Earth's orbit, while others fear the jump will make the Gregorian calendar obsolete because of the length of Earth's new orbit. Others doubt the ability of the world's population to synchronize an event like this.

In other words, though some people are obviously questioning the principle of the jump, others have accepted the theory enough to actually begin debating whether it’s moral or not. Now without having looked into many online discussions about this, I can’t say that everyone talking about this really believes in the theory, but it certainly seems as though some people really have accepted the possibility that this will work.

With a supposed 599,000,000 jumpers enlisted already, one has to wonder what the world would be like if the power of the internet could be harnessed for education rather than spreading junk science.


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