Fisking Conservapedia: is E=mc2 really ‘liberal claptrap?’

JISHOU, HUNAN — Nincompoop is a word little used nowadays, but it’s appropriate for the likes of an Ivy League educated engineer who calls E = mc2 “liberal claptrap.”

Here is what Conservapedia’s Andy Schlafly has to say about Einstein’s famous equation, an equation which I hasten to add has been verified repeatedly in the last century.

E=mc² is a meaningless, almost nonsensical, statement that purports to relate all matter to light.[1] In fact, no theory has successfully unified the laws governing mass (i.e., gravity) with the laws governing light (i.e., electromagnetism), and numerous attempts to derive E=mc² in general from first principles have failed.[2] Political pressure, however, has since made it impossible for anyone pursuing an academic career in science to even question the validity of this nonsensical equation. Simply put, E=mc² is liberal claptrap[3] .

Fractally Wrong

When an encyclopedia article begins with such breathtaking, mindnumbing stupidity, it’s hard to know where to start writing a critique of it. It’s fractally wrong, as the poster above says. At first, I thought I’d just let it slide, since no halfway intelligent human would bother using Conservapedia as a resource, but it’s been nagging at me for several days. So, I’m going to give fisking it a go, and try to exercise my physics muscles after four years of disuse.

E=mc² is a meaningless, almost nonsensical, statement that purports to relate all matter to light.[1]

No. No. No. It says nothing of the sort. My former Conceptual Physics high school students could do a better job explaining it. It says, the energy (E) latent in matter is equivalent to the mass of that matter (m) times the speed of light squared.The value c2 is just a number, like π in the equation C=πd, which relates the circumference of a circle to its diameter, or the current exchange rate between the US dollar and the Chinese yuan. Those equations (or conversions, if you will) do not imply all circles have the circumference pi, or all Americans need to carry yuan in their wallets.

If I wanted to calculate how much energy is “stored” as matter in this steel paperclip on my desk, I just need to take its mass and multiply it by the speed of light squared. A paperclip has a mass of about 1 gram = 0.001 kilogram. If I could somehow convert all that matter into energy, the result would be 9 x 1013 joules (90,000,000,000,000 joules). That’s about 21.5 kilotons of TNT or 25,000,000 kiloWatt-hours. For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima released the equivalent energy of 15 kilotons of TNT.(Wikipedia) The typical American home uses about 936 kWh each month, so one paperclip of energy would be enough to power about 26,700 American homes for a month, if we could somehow release that energy without vaporizing a medium-sized city in the process. (eHow)

In fact, the equation is sometimes referred to as the statement of the equivalence of matter and energy. It provides the key to understanding nuclear reactions and processes, such as how the sun can “burn” for billions of years without running out of fuel and how to produce electricity from elements like uranium and plutonium.

Moving on, let’s correct footnote 1, which says in part, “The equation only holds true if SI units are used, hence E is measured in joules, m in kilograms and c in metres per second. In other systems of units an additional constant of proportionality would be required.”

Um, no. The equation is true for ALL systems of units, not just the metric units commonly used in science. The only thing that would need to change is the value of c, which is about 3 x 108 meters/second or 186,000 miles/second, depending on the system of units being used. There would be no need for another constant of proportionality, unless you were mixing your units for some strange reason.

As an aside, I should mention that matter and light are in fact related in another more basic sense, in that light comes from matter (to be more precise, from the electrons hopping around inside atoms).

In fact, no theory has successfully unified the laws governing mass (i.e., gravity) with the laws governing light (i.e., electromagnetism), and numerous attempts to derive E=mc² in general from first principles have failed.[2]

The first part of this statement is in fact largely true, though I would quibble about the phrasing. Physics recognizes four basic forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. The last three have been “unified” in the electronuclear theory, but as yet there is no experimental evidence supporting the theory. Gravity remains the odd man out.

The second half of the statement is puzzling, and the article sheds no light on its meaning. If it means efforts to derive E = mc2 from Newtonian physics (or pre-Einsteinian physics) have failed, it’s more a criticism of the principles used than the equation itself. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was a game changer, and as footnote 2 correctly states, many well regarded physicists rejected it at first. However, the reference to Robert Dicke as a detractor is dumbfounding, since his research confirmed many aspects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which was a generalization of Special Relativity, from which E = mc2 results. It’s hard to believe how Dicke could reject E = mc2 while still researching other aspects of relativity.

Political pressure, however, has since made it impossible for anyone pursuing an academic career in science to even question the validity of this nonsensical equation.

Conservapedia (or Andy Schlafly) seems obsessed with the notion that politics somehow determines the success or failure of scientific theories. While we can truthfully say that radically different theories have been rejected in the past, once there is sufficient evidence supporting those theories, scientists eventually give up their resistance and embrace the new theories. Einstein himself scoffed at quantum mechanics early on, but later admitted it was probably right.

Relativity — putting it simply — just plain works. So far, there has been no compelling evidence that any part of the theory is wrong, and no compelling replacement for it. At this point, anyone suggesting that E = mc2 is wrong should be laughed out of the lecture hall.

Simply put, E=mc² is liberal claptrap[3]
.

This last statement is a complete non sequitur, and the rest of the article does nothing to support it. The footnote merely states, “Citation not needed. See here, point 13.” Point 13 in the list of differences between Wikipedia and Conservapedia says: “We do not encourage the insertion of distracting “stub templates” in entries. Wikipedia has numerous distracting templates on entries.” So, I don’t see how the footnote even relates remotely to the “liberal claptrap” statement, unless it’s wordy way of saying, “offered without proof,” or stating an axiom of Conservapedia, that “liberals” and anything else that Andy Schlafly dislikes are bad.

The next paragraph of this entry deserves its own fisking. I don’t want to make these entries too long, so I’ll deal with the idea of Conservapedia’s “Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge” later.

For a more detailed treatment of the equation, I’d recommend the [evil, liberal claptrap] Wikipedia version here. It avoids reliance on proof by assertion.
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Works cited

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TNT_equivalent
Ehow, http://www.ehow.com/about_5166858_much-electricity-average-home-use.html


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