Random thoughts, 15 May 2009


First, in “honor” of the release of the film, Angels & Demons, which is based on the book of the same name by Dan Brown, I would like to poke an enormous hole in one of the major plot points (and no, it isn’t the Illuminati); since this will constitute a spoiler, if you want to avoid it, skip to the third paragraph now (normal rantings will resume there, I promise). Those who have already read the book will note that antimatter plays a prominent part in the storyline; ignoring for the moment Brown’s specious claims that antimatter will be the fuel of the future, [1] and the fact that nobody actually has the technology to make a portable magnetic bottle to house even a small quantity of antimatter, [2] Brown also clearly does not understand the effects of antimatter annihilation in any meaningful way. The climax of the novel occurs when the protagonist discovers the antimatter “bottle” and takes it to a helicopter, with the intent of flying it to a quarry outside Rome and dumping the bottle in. With not enough time to do so, he instead flies the helicopter straight up from Vatican City, assuming that, with enough altitude, he will negate the effects of the explosion on the city below. Brown is clearly not familiar with the concept of an airburst explosion, because this is exactly what he has set up with this scenario. [3] Airburst explosions are typically more destructive than explosions that occur on the ground, since in the latter, fully half of the explosion’s energy is wasted on the ground, and much of the remainder is directed upwards into the sky, neither of which contribute to destructive effects above ground; airburst explosions, by contrast, expend nearly 50% of their energy on destructive force towards the surface of the earth from above, greatly increasing their potential area of effect. The reason I referenced a page on nuclear explosions is twofold: first, the primary means of action are similar in both cases, i.e. the release of massive quantities of radiation, [4] part of which generates the characteristic fireball in a nuclear explosion; and second because of the similarity of scale. The reason for the latter is simple: when antimatter annihilates an equivalent mass of normal matter, the end result is the release of a quantity of energy that is defined by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc², where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light (c = 299,792,458 meters per second). Brown states that the antimatter bottle contains a quarter gram of antimatter, so there will be a total of one-half gram of matter involved in the annihilation. Thus, the calculation proceeds as follows: E = (0.0005 kg) x (299,792,458 m/s)²; E = 0.0005 kg x 89,875,517,873,681,764 m²/s²; E = 44,937,758,936,841 J. [5] Based on TNT kiloton equivalency of one kT = 4,184,000,000,000 J, [6] the energy release would be equivalent to roughly 10.75 kT (44,937,758,936,841 J / 4,184,000,000,000 J/kT = 10.7404 kT). Note that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the Little Boy, yielded approximately 15 kT at an altitude of roughly 2,000 ft. [7] Brown does not indicate in his novel what type of helicopter the protagonist uses, but from the trailer for the film, it looks like an Augusta AW109 (don’t ask me how that comes to mind, it just does); such a helicopter has a rate of climb of 1,930 ft/min; [8] assuming realistic conditions, the fact that the protagonist does not know how to fly a helicopter, and the fact that he had less than five minutes flight time before the bottle released its antimatter contents, the helicopter would have reached, at most, 1.828 miles in altitude, though I suspect that one mile is probably a little more reasonable, given the variables involved. This would be roughly twice the altitude at which the Little Boy detonated (1 mile being 5,280 feet); while this would have mitigated some of the blast damage effects, it does not eliminate the radiation pulse that would preceed the blast (both thermal and ionizing radiation, as is typical in a nuclear explosion). Even if the blast effects were not as significant as that which resulted from the Little Boy explosion at ground level, at one mile distant, everybody in Piazza San Pietro (Brown mentions that the piazza was full of spectators for the Papal election), not to mention much of Rome itself, would still have suffered lethal doses of ionizing radiation, and it is also likely that they would be incinerated by the thermal pulse (or at best, very badly burnt, and lethally irradiated). Ironically, if the protagonist had left the bottle in the Vatican Grottoes, where he found the container, more of the Roman population would likely survive the explosion. While an underground explosion roughly approximates a bad earthquake, Rome has survived earthquakes before, and most of the radiation would be absorbed in the ground below Vatican City; granted, the latter would probably be rendered off-limits to visitors for quite some time while the radioactive isotopes in the ground decayed, but much of the population of Rome would still be alive and relatively unscathed.

As for why I would bother performing such an analysis, Brown claims at the beginning of the book that the facts he uses within are scientifically accurate; this, of course, is a challenge to somebody like me, particularly because I enjoy reading science fiction wherein the science is treated realistically and accurately (where possible), otherwise known as Hard SF. Having already had some exposure to the fundamental concepts involved with antimatter, it became increasingly obvious throughout the book that Brown didn’t have a clue in hell what he was talking about, and this annoyed me. He also inaccurately described the geography of Rome to fit the constraints of his story, and also made the mistake of claiming that his descriptions were accurate; having just returned from a study abroad program in Rome, I was immediately and painfully aware of his glaring geographical distortions. The fact that the climactic scene in the novel is so ludicrously unscientific did not help matters, either. Again, all of this would not have been so bad had Brown not claimed that his information was accurate; good SF writers I have read do not even make such claims about their work (they rely on the reader to make that determination). Had Brown simply left the matter alone, I would have been willing to accept his claims and distortions as plot-driven elements – bad ones, to be sure, but otherwise harmless; claiming that they were accepted facts is concerning because there are plenty of readers who would not independently verify the information, and would accept him at his word (much like global warming supporters do). In my estimation, such distortions are both demeaning to the scientific community, and the mark of a lazy writer. More on the latter in a future post, which will cover good SF stories.

In domestic news, the President appears set to reinstate the Bush II era military tribunal system for the former detainees of Guantanamo Bay. [9] Meanwhile, AG Holder has indicated that said detainees will not be released within the United States. [10] Both are encouraging developments, though there are still many unresolved issues. The system of military tribunals for these detainees never struck me as particularly unjust, as has sometimes been claimed; one fundamental issue surrounding their legal status is that while I do not deny that they should receive some legal protections, this does not automatically demand that we extend the full protection of American law to said individuals. After all, these are individuals who, at best, hate our society and its laws, and, at worst, would fight tooth and nail to destroy our society and replace our laws with their draconian ideas of “justice” and law. Meanwhile, it is also encouraging that Holder appears to have some sense in his head regarding the detainees and where they will go. While he doesn’t know where they’ll go, at least they will not be wandering the streets of our cities while the government determines their status. The latter is, perhaps, the most troubling of the unknown factors in these cases: no one in the current administration has yet made a determination of what these detainees are – POW, enemy combatant, foreign national, etc. As I have previously mentioned, any prosecutions of these individuals will continue to be plagued by criticisms from all sides until we clearly define what these detainees are, and the laws and procedures that apply to them, as a result of their situation.

Meanwhile, the conundrum surrounding the “torture” approved by the Bush II administration continues. [11] Wilkerson’s claims, if true, are a little concerning not so much because of the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves, but because of the potential abuse of authority Cheney’s alleged directives embody. As previously stated, I am still not entirely sold on the notion that these techniques constitute “torture,” and even if they do, we are still not fully informed as to the efficacy of said techniques; without the latter, we cannot make any objective assessments on the utility of such methods (or the lack thereof). On the other hand, if former VP Cheney directed his subordinates to use such methods not to elicit useable intelligence, but to advance a specific agenda, then such actions fall into an entirely different category. Defending the nation through the gathering of intelligence has a long (though sometimes ignominous) history throughout the world, so, while it is distasteful at times, it may simply be the price we as a nation must pay to enjoy the liberties and security that we currently have. Intentionally coercing pre-supposed information, however, has nothing to do with security; if such methods were, indeed, used for political purposes, then such decisions must be investigated and punished, if they prove to be true. Regarding the release of photos documenting these such methods, I am a little ambivalent about such matters. I will take it on faith that military commanders believe that such releases of information will likely lead to greater casualties, but the argument that withholding such information will entirely eliminate such a threat is fallacious. The barbarians we fight have already proven that they have no qualms about brutalizing our troops or citizens whenever the latter are unfortunate enough to be captured by the former, so one cannot argue that we can stop such brutality by withholding information. Again, however, I will take our military commanders at their word about the potential dangers to our troops. I also do not accept the hyperbole from the left that these photos are conclusive evidence that Bush II and his administration should be prosecuted for torture; as the President himself has stated, the photos are no worse than those already released, and they do not pertain to pending investigations. As such, I do not have any problems with his decision to withhold releasing the photos. Freedom of informatin is a noble concept, but this does not appear to be a case where it is absolutely paramount, particularly given the potential danger it might entail for our troops.

In entirely unrelated news, Time magazine online has an interesting article detailing the 10 biggest tech failures of the past decade. [12] To be honest, I was not aware that all of the products on the list were considered failures, though MS Vista and the HD DVD debacle are particularly well known. In the former case, it is not too surprising, given that the quality of Microsoft releases has been in decline for quite awhile, and Vista has had some very high-profile criticisms lobbed at it; to be fair, Windows XP has been fairly kind to me, but it has also not been without its share of issues. The last version of Windows that I remember with anything approaching fondness was Windows 3.11, and I last used that OS over 10 years ago; on the other hand, it was simple to use, stable as a rock, and generally unobtrusive (as opposed to later generations of the Windows OS that keep trying to automate tasks for me – damn it, I want to think for myself!). HD DVD, on the other hand, was inevitable, in some ways; more specifically, the failure of one of the two competing formats (the other being Sony’s Blu-ray) was inevitable. Honestly, though, I did not mind Sony’s win in this regard; from what I’ve read, Blu-ray is the more technologically advanced and higer capacity of the two competitors, so it has greater room for expansion as the technology and the markets mature. Its also nice to see Sony bag a win after their rather humiliating defeat with the Betamax format decades back.

Finally, in today’s WTF?!? moment, apparently, the Bible is not factual. [13] Say it ain’t so! As a lapsed Catholic myself, I am, of course, familiar with the quasi-factual nature of the narratives contained therein, but it always struck me as odd that people would take it as literal truth. Disregarding, for the moment, the clearly metaphysical aspects of the narratives, and the fact that they were written by people (who, by definition, are highly fallible), does it really matter if the narratives are factual or not? Is not the message they impart of greater significance, particularly since these messages still find useful application in our daily lives millennia after they were originally written? In that respect, who cares if the narratives are true or not? Does this, in any way, diminish the value they possess for imparting moral values? All religions have their share of such “disingenuous” narratives, but it has always been the intent of the story, and not the details, that has been of paramount importance within each faith community. If such narratives achieve the noble aim of imparting a sense of just morality, what does it matter that the narratives are not “true?” As Thomas Jefferson said, “…it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” [14]


[1]: Brown himself notes that to create a quarter gram of antimatter, the scientists at CERN had to consume enough energy to light several sizable cities; the fact that antimatter does not not exist in appreciable quantities in nature (it is, after all, quite possibly the most reactive substance known to exist) and that it takes enormous quantities of energy just to produce a small, unstable mass of antimatter generally disqualifies it as a viable fuel source for general consumption. The reason that fossil fuels are so commonplace is not that they are so very efficient (combustion is, in fact, a very inefficient means of energy conversion), but that they are plentiful, and they can be obtained without a high expenditure of energy, such that overall, the amount of energy released by burning fossil fuels far exceeds the energy cost incurred by extracting it from nature.

[2]: Antimatter being as reactive as it is, it cannot come into contact with any normal matter, as its antiparticles (antiprotons, anti-electrons, & antrineutrons) will annihilate their corresponding particles in normal matter regardless of how the latter are formulated, i.e. a molecule of antihydrogen can react with a molecule of iron, since it is not the atom itself, but its constituent particles that govern this type of reaction. As such, if one were to attempt to store even small quantities of antimatter, it would need to be kept in vacuum isolation, and suspended away from the physical walls of the container in which it is kept. Currently, we do not have the technology to do even this, let alone make a container of this type that could be carried by hand (the energy requirements for such a container would be enormous).

[3]: Brief overview of the effects of nuclear explosions here, from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) website, updated 21 Oct. 1998.

[4]: The principle end results of particle / antiparticle interactions is the creation of photons of electromagnetic radiation with energy states equivalent to the total conversion to energy from the mass of the original particles. See here for a kinda/sorta explanation (Wikipedia article; note: I’ve read about antimatter before in books that are currently not with me, and I didn’t find any decent explanations online)

[5]: 1 Joule (J) is equal to one kilogram · meters² per second² (1 kg · m² / s²)

[6]: See here for a table with TNT / kilton equivalency (Wikipedia article); in the interest of independent verification, I also looked up an online converter, which yielded similar results; see here.

[7]: See here for a description of the bomb itself, and here for a description of the bombing mission (Wikipedia articles).

[8]: See here for a description of the Augusta AW109 (Wikipedia article); note that most civilian helicopters have similar performance characteristics; only military helicopters can perform better than this, so regardless of the model of helicopter involved, the results would be similar.

[9]: CNN article, 15 May 2009.

[10]: CNN article, 07 May 2009.

[11]: CNN articles here and here, 14 May 2009.

[12]: Article available here, from Time Magazine website.

[13]: CNN article, 15 May 2009.

[14]: From Query XVII, Notes on the State of Virginia. See here for sources (Wikiquote).

[*]: Today’s post is a little longer than usual, since some of what is contained herein was originally intended for yesterday’s post, which I never got around to writing.


One Response to “Random thoughts, 15 May 2009”

  1. MI Says:

    Re. containment of underground nuclear detonations, see here:


    Re. detainees…as previously stated: given my druthers, we would’ve amended the Alien Enemies Act to encompass foreign members of Al Qaeda, thereby authorizing their indefinite detention w/o trial.

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