Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Common sense?

I haven't written a "letter-to-the-editor" type of note to the media in a very long time, but today I wrote one to the "opinion page" of our local newspaper. It concerns the meteor seen in the sky over Alberta and Saskatchewan on November 20 of this year. Here's the gist of my (expanded for this blog) note:

On Tuesday, Dec.23, page B2 - "Metorite fall could yield scientific gold" - the article regarding the Nov. 20 meteor seen in Alberta/Saskatchewan (picture at left), I read with great interest, and a sense of sad dismay, that the more than 100 meteorites collected are all "...part of a 10-tonne, 10-kilometre-wide meteorite that broke up on impact with the atmosphere, spawning brilliant flashes of light that caught many eyes" (from the 9th paragraph in that article).

To begin with, a meteorite is defined as that part of a meteoroid which is found on the ground after travelling through the atmosphere. A meteoroid is the solid, original body before it encounters the atmosphere. The process by which this body disintegrates when it travels through atmosphere and which results in the 'brilliant flashes of light', and other associated phenomena (heat, ionization, occasionally sound) is called a meteor.

If the meteoroid (taken as a cube to make the basic calculations easy) had indeed been 10 km (about 6.2 miles) diagonally across, it would have had a mass of millions of tons (around 500 million - roughly equivalent to 1 trillion pounds); it would have struck the Earth almost totally intact, and caused a conflagration similar to what many scientists think happened on the Yucatan peninsula 64 million years ago, with the subsequent extinction of many species. If the 10-ton mass (about 20,000 pounds - i.e. about three GM Hummers) is taken as approximately correct, then the meteoroid that hit us, again taken as cube, would have been about 1.6 metres along each side. The meteorites shown in the newspaper's picture with Dr. Hildebrand appear to be of a "stony" nature - approximately 2.5 times the density of water. 10 tonnes of water is equal to 10 cubic metres of water, by definition - 1 cubic metre of water is equal to 1 ton. A 10-ton cube of water would measure about 2.15 metres along each edge. The "stony" equivalent cube of stone would therefore be 1/2.5th of 10 cubic metres, i.e. about 4 cubic metres. This would be a cube measuring about 1.6 metres on each side. How can one equate 500 million tons with 10 tons, or a cube of approximately 5.8 kilometers (5,800 meters) along one edge to 1.6 meters along the edge, or a trillion pounds to twenty thousand?

In reality, of course, the meteroid would not be a cube, but of some irregular shape. That makes calculations like these far more complex, but there is no getting away from the masses of material and the orders of magnitude involved.

What dismays me is the apparent incomprehension of and lack of innate feeling for the relationships between size, mass, weight and other physical characteristics and properties of the things that surround us, perhaps mixed in with lack of understanding regarding the metric system. It is as though common sense has left the authors and/or editors involved in the kind of published nonsense seen in the media far too often.

I gain little consolation from knowing that this kind of "innumeracy" is all too common. Not a month goes by in which I don't see such misrepresentation and misunderstanding in the newspapers or other media. Is this due to a lack of teaching in school?

This whole thing may be of no interest to anyone, but I had to vent my spleen here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas

This year, we used only the top two/thirds of our artificial Christmas tree (Derek opted for a natural tree this year). We think it looks just as nice this year, and we did not need to move a lot of furniture to accommodate it. The heirloom decorations (many handmade) make it beautiful.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Healthy New Year to all of you!

The "full" Christmas tree

The tree this year

A hand-made decoration. This one came from Erlyne's mother. Erlyne was a bridesmaid at our wedding, 44 years ago, and my wife and she are still in almost daily contact. She's family.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A quick year

It seems that each year goes by faster. It seems like last week that the previous winter was here. Right now, the snow is falling and I'll have to shovel some of it to clear the sidewalk. The grandchildren went off to school, taking along their snow slider board - they'll have a great time at school, where there is a small hill.

I have a theory why the years appear to go faster as you get older: each minute that goes by is a larger percentage of the rest of your life. So, enjoy what you can, you may not have the chance again.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the "meme"

Derek's post of yesterday asks to show a "meme", a picture on the 6th page of my flickr photostream, on this blog. Here is mine. I have no idea what the name means, or why it's called that. The closest word I can think of is the French word for "same" - même. So, perhaps it means something like "copied", but why the 6th picture on the 6th page?
This picture was taken during the "Symphonie of Fire" from the apartment balcony of our close, and longtime friend (she's part of the family) in West Vancouver, looking over English Bay, towards the False Creek area.