Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Detecting Gravity Waves? You Haven't got a Prayer. Here, Have a Boxful.

Last night's The Enemies Of Reason raised the bar somewhat for the standards of lunacy on TV today, but Channel Five are never ones to shirk from a challenge, unless that challenge involves not being rubbish. To this end, they put out a show tonight called A Very British Apocalypse, reasoning that shows called A Very British something are sometimes alright. Here is a quote from one of the more insane sects featured, whose particular contribution to the end-times is to pray into a little green box:

We actually store the prayer energy in a container... The reason we store the prayers is because this way we can have hundreds or thousands of man- or woman-hours of prayer stored up, and that way if there's a crisis... Take the tsunami... We actually responded to that faster than the government!

The BBC, not wanting to be left out of Crackpot Night, broadcast The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide. I'm sure this is normally a very sensible show, but the fact is that tonight I was taught all about a project called Virgo, which is an experiment to measure gravity waves. This is a very ambitious project, not least because when Einstein first postulated such waves, he also calculated that they would be far too feeble to measure. Virgo is attempting to measure them anyway, and so far Einstein has done what comes naturally to him, and beaten the researchers every single time, and so tomorrow's researchers will be playing for £47,000. It should come as no surprise to anyone at all that this plan has failed. The theory is that gravity waves will alter the length of a 3km long tunnel by a distance Adam Hart Davis compared to a hydrogen nucleus. To put that into perspective... is impossible. It's too short. It is beyond the reach of metric units; beyond even the reach of metaphor. Even if you pick a very small thing, you still need to divide it down so far that the numbers become meaningless. The upshot of this is that the effects of any gravity waves that may pass by will be billions of billions times smaller than those of the vibrations caused by Douglas Adams spinning in his grave and demanding his title back.

Possibly I'm being unkind here, because I haven't read any of the literature on Virgo and I don't really know much about it, having never heard of it until tonight, but I know that while I was watching it and the woman presenting that part of the program was explaining what Virgo was hoping to achieve and how it planned to do it, I was thinking "well, that won't work," and then ten seconds later she explained that, no, indeed it didn't work. (Agreeing with Einstein is sort of a shortcut to being correct. Doesn't always work, but it's a good bet.)

With Dawkins' series finished, it was left to a small boy on Newsround to be the voice of reason for today's TV. A reporter asked him what it was about Hurricane Dean that had worried his family enough to make them cut their holiday short, and he told her that it was, "er, it hitting the hut and destroying everything."

Hard to fault his logic. Small boy for Prime Minister, I say!

No comments: