We’ve done our fair share of bashing Gregg Easterbrook on this site (he was even named our 2007 Douchebag of the Year), but we’ve gone easy on him lately. I’ve always given him a partial pass since he’s really just a science and governmental policy expert with an interest in football.
You can’t really expect a guy billed as a “space policy expert” and employed by a hoity-toity Washington think tank to radiate brilliance when discussing the NFL.
You would think, however, that he would know stuff about science. Turns out he sucks at that too.
A secret admirer sent us a link to something called the Wonk Room, which does the dirty work of lambasting our buddy Greg for failing to spot what is apparently a glaring error in something that was sent to him — and then exacerbating the problem by continuing to speculate from the perspective of the biggest GD sci-fi geek you’ve ever met.
Here’s what Easterbrook wrote:
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.
And here is Wonk Room’s riposte:
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.
So yeah! Take that!