Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Peeling the Onion

The great thing about The Onion is that they get things so incredibly right in their humor – they almost never make a humor misstep. For instance, today’s issue on Cosmic Stan is spot-on in many levels. First off, every big campus has a Cosmic Stan lurking around. I know because I was one. Secondly, the lunatic things he does or says is so like stuff you have heard or expect to hear from these raving lunatics. And finally, and this is where The Onion becomes the standard bearer of American Humor, they get the physics stuff exactly right. For example, in our study for the Ph.D. comprehensive exams, we were in dread of having to do something with the Clausius-Clapeyron equation – and probably would have become a raving lunatic if asked.

I find that a litmus test of the quality of something that is for whatever reason including physics in their “thing”, is how coherent are the equations or statements being used. For instance, a low quality science fiction film will string together a series of random terms and hope to flamboozle the audience that some high-grade stuff was whizzing by. Something like “Phlogoston Phase Bi-modulation of the Vernium Density”. Or a commercial will have a blackboard of equations that have absolutely nothing to with each other - or even better yet, things that aren’t even equations, just a jumble of greek letters and numbers. But if somebody has taken the time to put something coherent together physics-wise, usually that means they have spent time to put quality in other aspects of what they are doing.

My all time best example of this was in the movie Contact. Jodie Foster drives a car up to the radio telescopes of the Very Large Array and starts up her computer while sitting on the hood of her car (oh...and the telescopes were in their maintenance configuration…). Now, simple electrodynamics states that this is a very bad idea if you want the highest quality data from your telescopes. The car’s alternator, starter, spark-plugs and the computer’s display and electronics are spewing out gobs of electromagnetic radiation at all frequencies – which are a gazillion times the intensities of the things the telescopes are observing.

Now the astuter of the people reading this know that the subsequent correlation of the data will take out this noise – but not all of it – so it will degrade the signals of the data that is left. And if we are talking about communication with another species, isn’t the highest quality data a teeny bit important? So this little bit of unrealistic behavior is just indicative of the pedestrian quality of the movie – getting this right would have meant that they would have also made other things better, and hence a better movie.

So hats off to the folks at Onion, may their pungent layers of allium humor forever amuse!

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