and now for something completely ridiculous

October 31, 2009

I know that by now the video in which optometrist Charlene Werner does such awful things to equations used by physicists, these poor formulas would need to use puppets to explain what happened to them in court, has been briefly covered by PZ Myers and in plenty of detail by Orac. However, this is a video that may well have broken my brain if not for my built-up tolerance to the kind of sheer, unadulterated stupid it contains, so it took me a while to properly reply to the kinds of unholy things Werner did to physics. In the interests of saving your brain cells, I’m only linking to this terrifying video rather than embedding it on this blog. You’re welcome.

robot vs. fish

Probably one of the most amusing things about Dr. Werner (and I use the term “amusing” very loosely), is her method of lecturing. Almost everything she says ends up with a question mark, even the answers to her own questions. And those questions boldly plunge into inanity almost immediately with this quote…

You know that when light is energy, right? Ok. And [Einstein] gave us the theory that energy equals mass times the speed of light. E equals mc squared. Ok. So if we take that formula, and we think that there’s a lot of mass, right?

On a technicality, I’m going to give her grammatically mangled statement about light a pass. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation and it does carry energy. However, when it comes to mass-energy equivalence, the theory isn’t just the formula and it says nothing about how much mass there is in any specific object. Instead, Einstein’s paper said that mass and energy were essentially interchangeable and when you take away some of the object’s stored energy, you’re taking away its mass and vice versa. It’s basically an elaboration of mass and energy conservation laws. But Dr. Werner obviously thinks it means something completely different.

Well, the whole universal mass can be consolidated down into the size of a bowling ball. That’s all there is in the whole universe.

Okay. Good luck with cramming 3 × 1055 grams of the visible universe stretching across 14 billion light years into the size of a bowling ball. Really. She’s going to need it. But just to see how that’s likely to go for her, we’ll do a little back of the envelope math here to figure out what will happen if we squeeze the 25 billion galaxies in this estimate to the density of the core of a neutron star, about as densely as you could compress matter until you overcome the degeneracy pressure and create a black hole.

to get the volume of the hyper-dense universe: 3 × 1055 g / 8 × 1020 g/m3 = 3.75 × 1034 m3
to find its radius: r = √(3.75 × 1034 m3 / 4/3π) = √(8.95 × 1033) = 9.46 × 1016 cm = 9.46 × 1010 km

Wow! We’re dealing with a 117.6 billion mile wide bowling ball. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about a sphere that would reach deep into the Inner Oort Cloud, more than 600 times farther away from the Sun than we are. And considering that a regulation bowling ball has a maximum diameter of 8.59 inches, we see that Dr. Warner is off by oh… roughly a factor of 867 trillion. As far as degrees of wrong go, I’m pretty sure this may be some sort of a record. Or at least an honorable mention. But hold on folks, we’re not done yet.

So if you take that formula, e=mc2, you can almost cross out mass. So the formula ends up being energy = the speed of light.

Err… what in the hell? You can’t “pretty much cross out mass” because that would pretty much violate the laws of physics. Einstein didn’t just throw an equal sign into his equations because he thought it looked cool or he had an equal sign fetish of some kind. If you cross out mass, you also cross out energy. That’s what the word equivalence in “mass-energy equivalence” means! And as for losing an exponent, I’m willing to grant that she misspoke, but then again, it’s sort of like excusing someone who just stabbed you in the stomach for having garlic breath. And in case you were wondering, yes, the stream of blather from Werner gets even worse and to properly correct all her ridiculous assertions would take an entire chapter of a book. So Instead, I’m just going to skip ahead to her big thesis (again, please keep in mind that the word usage is very generous on my part), which she spends half of her attempt at a lecture obfuscating.

So the whole body has an infinitesimal amount of mass, but what is the remainder? Energy. So, I am energy; you are energy. […] So what happens now when that energy is released? It destroys something. It  changes its energetic state. Well, that’s what we can do with homeopathy. We take substances and we put them in solution and we succuss it just like a bomb, we throw the bomb to release its energy into this liquid. And then we take these little white pellets, we sprinkle them with that solution, and guess what we just made? An energetic substance to be used when we choose to use it.

Like the classic meanderings of Deepak Chopra, this is just random noise arranged in words and mimicking the sounds of the English language. It’s meaningless, useless technobabble that goes well beyond being not even wrong. But lets pretend for a minute that after suffering repeated impacts into a brick wall, I decided that she’s right and my body is almost all energy, all 166 lbs or 75 kg of it, and use her favorite equation to see just how much power that is.

e = mc2 = 75kg × 299,792,4582 m/sec = 75 kg × 8.99 × 1016 = 6.74 × 1018 J or 6.74 EJ

So if my body was pretty much just energy, I would put out 6.74 exajoules, which is roughly equivalent to a 1.6 gigaton blast. Compared to my body’s output, even the biggest nuclear bombs would be firecrackers and the effect I would have on the planet would be best compared to the impact of a meteor as big as a skyscraper. If humans were mostly energy as Werner claims, we would’ve vaporized the planet many, many times over. And when she compares homeopathic medicine to a bomb, a light bulb should go off somewhere in the ether of her empty head and give her the wild and crazy idea of actually using the equation she verbally violates like it’s going out of style, plug in some numbers and see what happens like I’ve done here. Physics is like the iPhone of science. If you want to see whether your idea will work, there’s a formula for that.

The funny thing is that Dr. Werner is introduced as being the the right person to give a “homeopathic lecture.” If you happen recall the post of mine featuring Mitchell and Webb’s parody of homeopathy, you may be aware of what a homeopathic lager is. And it seems that Werner accomplished a similar feat to turning tap water into beer with a few drops. Her eight minute desecration of a century worth of basic dynamics and cosmology will give her infamy in the science blogosphere for years to come. A tiny dose of intensely concentrated inanity has spread her message across the world. Though the world’s reaction may not be what she hoped for…

[ illustration of a robot practicing his kung fu on a fish by CG artist Andre Kutscherauer ]

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  • musubk

    As far as degrees of wrong go, I’m pretty sure this may be some sort of a record.

    Bah, a mere 0.229 Dmb’s :P

    Though I’ll give you the honorable mention, since this is the first person I’ve seen whose error can sensibly be measured in Dmb’s.

    Someone should teach that lady about density. Compressing mass into a tiny space doesn’t mean there’s less mass. Or at least teach her the difference between multiplying by one, what she wants to do by ‘crossing out mass’, and multiplying by zero*, what we get if there’s an ‘infinitesimal amount of mass’.

    *I’m afraid the concept of limits would go right over her head.

  • reggie

    Nicely done, Greg. I must admit that parts of my brain shut down while I watched her in that video. I think it was some fail safe mechanism to protect my mind from damage due to excessive stupid. At any rate, I couldn’t and dared not try to wrap my head around some of the things she was saying. A case of “fractal wrongness”, if ever there was one.

  • ColonelFazackerley

    Ha Ha. Nice work.

    I am impressed with your ability to watch it and still have enough wit left to analyse. I went limp and had a small dribble string coming from the corner of my mouth. My wife had to shout at me to snap me out of it.

  • I thought she was great. I watched it a few days ago and thought, wow, even to a very sympathetic audience that must have sounded just plain confusing. I mean, even if you were trying really, really hard to follow her, you just can’t. I’m sure everyone in that room left thinking, what did she just say? She should be the homeopathic industry’s spoke-person! :)

  • Greg Fish

    “Compressing mass into a tiny space doesn’t mean there’s less mass.”

    That’s actually a great point I forgot to mention. Even if you destroy the matter itself by compressing it with the force of a collapsing hypernova and trap all of its energy in a self-gravitating object, i.e. a black hole, the mass is still very much there.

  • Dave Romeo

    Fantastic article! I must admit, I didn’t even make the 2 minute mark in her video before my brain rebelled in a fit of self-preservation. I’ve never before encountered stupid so intense it engaged my fight-or-flight mechanism before.

  • Actually I took a class at CalTech from the late great astronomy Jesse Greenstein where he may well have been the biggest mistake ever made (notwithstanding the cheap and common spectacle of someone dividing by zero.) Dr. Greenstein was calculating the number of stellar collisions in our galaxy at the blackboard. He roughed out the equation and popped in reasonable estimates for the various terms and arrived at a result of 10**9 collisions per second. To his credit he realized his error right away. “Oops!” I put that 10**100 in the numerator instead of the denominator.”

    Everyone else in the class hardly noticed the brief misstep, but I realized that I had just witnessed an error of 10**200!!! I have been telling this story for almost 30 years and no one has ever put forward a calculation with a “bigger” error than that one.

  • Victor

    Is it so bad to watch these videos purely for the sake of its comedic values?

    Because they really are funny, if you can tolerate that kind of humour. But your brain explodes a little inside.

    Great read.

  • I became violently nauseated when it was presented that the entire mass of the Universe could be compacted into a bowling ball. Good grief this lady better never meet a neutron star. She callously disassembles Einstein’s energy equation with total abandon leaving me in a disoriented state. How on Earth did this lady get loose?

    Good job debunking and warning us about bad cosmology/science. I elect to give her a free trip to the event horizon of the nearest black hole.

  • Vote with the stupid! How can so many people be wrong? The University of Michigan has more than 80 diversity programs,

    As for the Gifted…
    “The Summer Institute for the Gifted is not associated with the University of Michigan.”

    OTOH, if you are a paternalistic historic White Protestant oppressor of Peoples of Colour… Charlene Werner is the confluence of overwhelming ignorance with overweening arrogance. We lack rigorous characterization of the topology and function of cluelessness. An idiot is not half way to being an idiot-savant.

    God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

  • Sagar

    I’m pretty sure I died watching that video. As to how I’m typing this I’m assuming the awesomeness that is Charlene Werner’s energy coming out of the youtube video must have transformed me back to life :-|

    What a nutcase? Deepak Chopra has competition now …

  • david

    i think whe you calculated the radius of the hyper dense universe you should have used cube root, not square.