Gregg Easterbrook, a writer employed as a science expert by a prominent Washington think tank, evidently doesn’t understand basic science. Easterbrook, a prolific writer and editor for The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Monthy, and NFL.com, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose mission is to “conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations” for general prosperity and democracy. Easterbrook’s Brookings profile claims expertise in a remarkable swath of knowledge — environmental policy, global warming, science, space policy, “well-being” research, Christian theology, and professional sports — evidently based on his work as a journalist after receiving degrees in political science and journalism.
Dr. Joseph Romm, a Center for American Progress Senior Fellow, has well documented that Easterbrook knows nothing about global warming and environmental policy, as have other bloggers. More simply, Easterbrook knows nothing about science. To wit, in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback sports column, Easterbrook digressed into other matters of his purported expertise, science and space policy:
A few columns ago, I speculated that even if there is never any way to exceed or circumvent the light-speed barrier, relatively nearby planets might still fight by hurling nuclear bombs at each other at 99 percent of light speed — with existing technology, something moving that fast wouldn’t even be seen until nearly here. Let’s hope any world advanced enough to build near-light-speed stardrive will also have become wise enough to forswear war. But based on the only model we know, human society, technology and wisdom do not go hand in hand. Anyway, John Duezabou of Helena, Mont., adds this creepy postscript: “A bellicose or paranoid extra-solar civilization that could accelerate an object to 99 percent of light speed wouldn’t need to launch bombs at us. They could shoot anything with devastating results, because the kinetic energy of a moving object is half its mass multiplied by the square of its velocity, or KE = 1/2 mv2. Thus, one pound of anything — a pint of vanilla ice cream, for instance — accelerated to 99 percent of light speed has an energy of about 4.8 megatons, roughly the blast yield of the largest hydrogen bombs.” A moderate-sized object, say a small asteroid, if accelerated to 99 percent of light speed, could conceivably shatter the Earth.
Ignoring many of the obvious problems with Easterbrook’s thought experiment, the science here is simply wrong. The kinetic energy of a moving object is actually m0c2(1/(1-v2/c2)1/2 – 1) (where m0 is the rest mass, v the velocity, and c the speed of light) which the Newtonian formulation closely approximates only for non-relativistic speeds. A one-pound mass accelerated to 99 percent of light speed actually has a kinetic energy of about
68 58 megatons of TNT, greater than the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated.
This isn’t grad-school level physics — this element of relativistic mechanics is taught in high schools across the nation and is of course readily available online.
This kind of scientific illiteracy is of no great shakes for a sports columnist, and science fictional scenarios are an excellent learning tool for non-scientists. But under no circumstances should anyone who writes this be considered a science expert, let alone by one of the most august think tanks in the nation. Or, as the Poor Man Institute bloggers write, “Dear God make it stop.”
In a fit of sloppiness, my initial calculation was for the total relativistic energy, not simply the kinetic energy. I apologize.