Trying to explain why this sort of thing bothers me
It’s actually a rather lovely video, for a car ad. You see the car falling, with skydivers alongside it, and you think; “Huh. Wish Galileo could have seen this.” But then it appears on the net, with the caption “0 to 60 in .4 seconds (when dropped from a plane)”.
Not even on Jupiter. Because if you drop a car out of a plane on this planet, it’s going just under 9 miles an hour in 0.4 seconds. After one full second, it’s about 21 miles an hour. Takes almost three seconds to get up to 60. Which would still be pretty damn fast on the ground, but there are few cars that can accelerate at 1G, let alone almost 7G.
It’s hard to explain why this bothers me, but I’ll try.
“If you want to get technical about it…”
You might think, “What difference does it make?” But I can’t help picturing a bunch of advertising creatures sitting around a table brainstorming new slogans for the campaign. And apparently not one of them would admit to knowing that the acceleration due to gravity on our planet is about 32 feet per second per second.
This is not exactly esoteric information – it has been known to fairly high precision for hundreds of years. You can damn well bet the engineers who designed the car’s inner workings knew it. Maybe even the stylists who sculpted the sheet metal did. But why should I not be bothered by one more data point in the scatterplot of scientific ignorance in US culture? It wouldn’t cost anything to say; “0 to 60 in 3 seconds (when dropped from a plane)”, and our recognition of reality would go up a notch.
There’s a price we pay for having no sense of the proportion of things. Our kids grow up not knowing a million from a billion, and preferring simple answers to complex realities. We vote for Senators who get glassy-eyed listening to testimony about food safety, environmental hazards or the damage SOPA will do to the Internet. We think we’ll just brace ourselves, hold on to something, rather than buckling a seat belt.
Hey, I struggle with numbers as much as anyone. More, probably, since I am dyslexic and they keep jumbling up on me when I work with them. But damn it, there’s a real world out there. And there are real consequences if we don’t at least try to understand it.
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
- Carl Sagan
- Rick Santorum says science “should get out of politics”. But anti-scientific populism isn’t just sideshow entertainment anymore. It might actually threaten the human race.
- Acceleration due to gravity is awfully important: it influences the thickness of your bones, the size of bird (and airplane) wings, the action of waves, the maximum height-to-base ratio of a gravel pile, the size of a building, everything to do with architecture, the weather, bridges, our chances of ever getting into space… the list is endless.
- Of course we’re ignoring the forward momentum of the car: the plane wasn’t just hovering in place.
- I recently watched the movie October Sky. It is a moving tribute to science as a way out of toil and darkness for humanity.