Monthly Archives: August 2011

Simple Mathematics

Inspired by a certain Doctor.

While watching a rerun of a favourite series, I noted that a character states that the Earth rotates at a thousand miles an hour. This piqued my curiosity; how fast am I moving while sitting still? All that is required for this little exercise is rudimentary mathematics, and a good encyclopedia. The circumference of the Earth at the equator is 40,075km, and there are 86,164 seconds in a day, which means we spin right round, baby, right round at about 465 metres per second, or 1,674km/h. Which is pretty damn fast, fast enough to keep water in the sea, dirt on the ground, air neatly fixed just above, and us in between. On the other hand, it’s not that fast when you consider that the land speed record is 1,223km/h; someone has built a car that rockets along almost as quickly as the planet it is driving on spins. Which make you wonder, if it drove in the opposite direction to the rotation, and if it could achieve the same speed, would it actually be stationary?

Lockheed SR-71 in flight (SN 61-7968) 061122-F...

Image via Wikipedia

If you think that’s a laudable feat consider the Blackbird. This is possibly the most mind-bending machine ever made by man, a plane so wonderfully fast it’s gone before you realise it’s there. It set a record for the fastest flying manned vehicle at over 3500km/h; the pilots could fly so fast they could see the dawn twice. If they flew in the opposite direction they might have been able to reverse time and save Lois Lane. Oh no, wait, that requires a cape, never mind.

"The Blue Marble" is a famous photog...

Image via Wikipedia

But wait, there’s more!

So we are spinning around quite quickly on the face of the Earth, but we have managed to build machines which can go even faster. And then I begin to wonder how fast is the Earth itself? Sure it’s spinning on its axis, but it’s also flying through space, sitting softly in the Goldilocks Zone (that’s what it’s called, seriously) between fiery death and freezing death. My mathematical skills are not good enough to play with ellipses, so I’m going to assume a neat circular orbit based on an average distance from the Sun of 150 million km. 2πr x 8742 (hours in a year) giving us 107,807 km/h. Which is pretty damn fast. The Earth is moving faster than the speed of sound, 1,236km/h, a lot bloody faster. Faster even than a speeding bullet, roughly 3,182km/h (M4 Carbine muzzle velocity).

Using infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Spac...

Image via Wikipedia

I had to look the rest up…

So we know how fast the Earth spins, and how fast it is flinging itself through space, but the whole solar system is orbiting the galaxy, which is itself moving at great speed towards something aptly called the Great Attractor. The speed of the first is 792,000km/h, and the second is 3,600,000km/h.  I’m not going to even consider the cumulative speed of all these various factors, I think it would blow my mind. How can we possibly be moving that fast and not notice? It may be due to the fact that it’s all happening in a vacuum over tremendously incomprehensible distances, kind of like how far away aeroplanes appear to fly slowly. Also, someone once said that time and speed and all that jazz are relative. The speed of the Earth that we perceive is relative to the Sun, the Sun to the galaxy, the galaxy to the Attractor. But what about the Universe itself? Thanks to the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation we have a fixed point in space, the very edge of the observable universe, and in relation to this the whole freaking galaxy is moving at 2,257,200±79,200km/h. Even the variable is hideously fast.

Universe, challenge accepted.

These numbers are ridiculous, they are beyond human comprehension, it’s hard enough to imagine how fast the Blackbird flies, and that’s only a fraction of these numbers. There’s no way we could build a machine that could even come close to these speeds, it would be impossible. Right? Well, yes, if you think big. We could never move a big thing that fast. While gravity is a terribly weak force over short distances (it really is, and you can prove it yourself, jump; if gravity was really strong you’d stick to the Earth, but even flimsy human limbs can defeat it briefly) it is tremendously strong over vast ones, especially when given enough time to get its act together. As luck would have it, gravity just happens to live in the universe, the biggest and oldest thing there is. So of course it can fling galaxies about at mind-boggling speeds with ease, it has had all of time to practice.

But what about a small thing, the smallest things in fact? It turns out we have created a machine which can build up to the galactic speeds achieved by gravity, and surpass them, but on a very small scale; the Large Hadron Collider flings sub-atomic particles at each other at near the speed of light, which is, for comparison, 1,079,250,548km/h. Scientists have built a machine which fires something at a billion kilometres an hour at another thing which is also moving at a billion kilometres an hour. Just to see what happens. How cool is that? One result for this experiment was the setting of a record for high-energy collisions at the combined energy of 7TeV. No, I have no idea what that really means either. Luckily some has worked out the mathematics on this (http://www.physicsforums.com/archive/index.php/t-101327.html). It appears that 1TeV is like having a thousand Little Boys (the Hiroshima atomic bomb) in a bullet. So these scientists fired a bullet packing 3,500 Hiroshima bombs at another bullet which also had 3,500 in it just for kicks. I’m sure some science was done also, but purely as a secondary goal, the primary aim being ‘to be awesome’.

Here we are being flung through space by gravity at roughly 0.2% the speed of light, while we fling atoms at each other at 99.999% the speed of light. We frail creatures, having existed for less than an astronomical instant, have built a machine which can impel particles to speeds beaten only by light, and light can’t be beaten, there’s a law against it. We learned to fly just over a century ago, a few decades ago we were playing golf on the moon, and now we investigate the very fabric of reality. It’s amazing what can be done with mathematics…

Bad History.

I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s very very wrong…

I was recently introduced to a woeful show, ‘Legend Quest’, which appears on a channel called ‘SyFy’, a series purporting to be based in such factual disciplines as history and archaeology. Let’s cut to the chase; it isn’t. This programme is little less than a shallow pool of supposition coupled with annoying camera-work; logic and reason take a back seat as history and archaeology are abused in some bizarre effort to capitalise on Dan Brown’s gimmick of dressing fact with fantasy. Part of the problem might be in that the channel is not what one would call a reputable source of documentary broadcasts, and aside from that, can’t spell ( the contraction derives from Science-Fiction, where have those ys come from? And since when do sci-fi and fantasy belong to the same genre? How can the incomparable Philip K. Dick be dragged on to the same spectrum as George R. R. Martin?). This programme, with its annoying premise blurring fact and fiction, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t portrayed as a documentary, a factual presentation set in the real world, if we weren’t led to believe that it offers us history, the very meaning of which is not fiction, not fantasy, just facts interpreted logically and reasonably.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia (Image via Wikipedia)

Identity Theft.

Let’s take a look at some of the mysteries this series claims to have resolved. In the first episode we are treated to a new twist on the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, and a Scotsman doing his best impersonation of Indiana Jones. He heads off with his crew to Ethiopia, which is a good start because the Ethiopian Church claims that they actually have the Ark under guard in Axum. Is this where the show takes us? No. We are instead brought to Lalibela, the second-most holy site in Ethiopia. Here, because the churches are carved out of rock, a feat which the presenter decides the people of the region incapable of, in the shape of crosses, we are told that the structures were cut out by the Templars (did I mention the presenter is a member of the modern Knights Templar?). Wow. I mean, what arrogance to suggest that the Ethiopians could not carve these churches, that they must have had help from more skillful Europeans. And what a leap it is to ‘confirm’ this theory with the moronic deduction that since the churches are in the shape on an equal-armed cross, the symbol of the Templars, they must have been built by that Crusading Order. It must be pointed out that this symbol was the accepted cross of the Orthodox Church for centuries before the Templars appeared on the scene. So, at best, this programme might have suggested that the Ark was in Lalibela for a while before being brought to Axum, and that is all that they could reasonably say. But no, that’s not conspiratorial enough for our intrepid host; the Templars took it from Ethiopia first to Tuscany, and then to the Cathedral of Chartres, which lies near Paris. Because that makes perfect sense.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

The leap to Tuscany is drawn from an image of a double-headed eagle on the walls of the church in Lalibela; this is a common symbol in the Near East, used by, among others, the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Armenians, and the Hitties. I should make it clear that list covers several millennia of use before the Templars ever dreamed of heading off to foreign deserts to kill people for believing in a different interpretation of the same deity. But, what the hell, the presenter decides it must be a Templar symbol. He even meets a Grand Master of the Order who tells him clearly that one must distinguish between the myth and the history of the Templar. A delightfully veiled “cop the hell on”. And then the subject of the conversation leaps to Chartres Cathedral, which makes me want to see the uncut version as the interview we are shown is cut in a curious fashion. At Chartres the presenter finds a carving of the Ark which he takes to be evidence of the Ark’s presence. Yeah, because medieval Christian Churches don’t often have religious imagery from the Bible plastered all over their walls, columns, floors, windows, or every available surface. A scarred slab is ‘discovered’ in the middle of the cathedral, which the team decide must hide the Ark, not even for a moment pausing to ask anyone for the history of the site or architectural details. This slab may have been an entrance to a crypt, the site of an old altar, or any number of things other than a hole in which the Ark was hidden. The line of reasoning is as convincing as a wet sheet of paper is strong. Or, in other terms, slightly more convincing that homeopathy, but only slightly.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (Image via Wikipedia)

A Sword and a Stone.

In another episode the presenter somehow conflates the legends of the Stone of Destiny with the Stone of Scone. Leaving aside whether or not (just so you know, not) these are the same object, the line of reasoning is again deeply flawed. First we are introduced to a real historian who has studied the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and who essentially scoffs at the presenter’s crazy theory. Then we are treated to the crew’s obvious surprise at not being allowed to go in and film in the museum, with the not so subtle hint that the ‘establishment’ is trying to hide something. Really? What kind of professional TV crew, documentary or not, thinks that they can just walk on into a museum without asking for permission in advance? The whole scenario is clearly staged. Later, at Iona (I really do not know how they got to Iona, it makes no sense at all) they wander around the grounds, and move furniture and rugs without ever consulting anyone. There’s even a point where one of the crew asks if it is okay if they move things and the presenter replies, yeah if you do it with respect. What on earth does that mean? I have the sneaking suspicion they didn’t ask for permission this time, and just went ahead and filmed, which would explain why they are always running about breathlessly… They ‘discover’ a stone under the floor of a small room; for a hiding-place it’s not very clever if it can be found after two minutes of searching. And even then, all they find is a fairly plain stone slab which could be a headstone, since it has a cross inscribed on it; they have no, I repeat, no evidence to even suggest, let alone prove, that this is the true Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny, which apparently sits atop Tara in any case. Also, at one point the presenter states that Iona was founded by Scottish colonists, when it was in fact founded by Colum Cille of the Ui Neill of Ireland, and became a missionary base for Irish monks.

As for the episode concerning Excalibur, well, that’s easy. There was no King Arthur to have a sword, he’s just a myth, so there is no physical sword to be discovered; problem solved. Yet somehow we are given a twenty-minute romp through this man’s personal delusional version of history. I have no idea why the presenter thinks King Richard had Excalibur, that is a truly baffling leap, and how he came to the conclusion that Richard had to buy an army from Tancred in Sicily, when he in fact invaded it to secure the release of his sister from Tancred, has me stumped. And, predictably, the Templars are involved.

A web of lies.

Whoever wrote and researched this series would seem to have a similar obscene relationship with the truth as the Vatican, flirting with it, and touching it in a way that can only be described as uncomfortable. Leaps of ill-conceived logic are made frequently, religious art and icons are misinterpreted, and the process of historical and archaeological research, deduction, and reasoning are grossly misunderstood. I cannot believe that this claims to be reality, though it does belong on the SyFy channel, but only as a compliment to Warehouse 13, and with a clear indication that it is fictional.

This programme is painfully misleading, and its website is confusing. At the very beginning of the programme the presenter states:

“My name is Ashley Cowie. I’m an author and archaeologist explorer specializing in ancient symbols and mysterious legends. I’ve spent years studying some of the world’s most fascinating relics. Now I’m on the hunt to find where they are. Some would hope that these secrets remain hidden but I’ll leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth in my…”Legend Quest”.”

Firstly, what kind of archaeologist would put “author” first? Secondly, as a proclaimed archaeologist, it is suspicious that he has studied relics (a word I am reliably told a real archaeologist would never use) that he has never seen, or that nobody else has; that’s just not how archaeology works. Archaeologists go out and find things, and then study them, that’s the bloody point. Also, he never mentions what qualifies him as an archaeologist.

The associated website has some curious fictions of its own. We are informed that “In 2002, Ashley was elected into the “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” the oldest and most exclusive historical society in Europe.  Founded by Royal appointment in 1732, this society currently holds only 3000 fellows.” (http://www.syfy.com/legendquest/team/ashley_cowie). This is really weird, and I mean really. Firstly, why is “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” surrounded by quotation marks? Is it not a reference to the real society, just one made up to make this guy look good? “Madness”, I hear you say, “You, dear author, have been infected by the conspiracy nonsense of this prattling man!” And you might be right, dear reader. But let me take you to secondly, which is that  “The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783.” (http://www.socantscot.org/content.asp?Page=251&Menu=237). The date on the SyFy website contradicts what the Society’s own website says, and the SyFy site is completely wrong in stating that the presenter is a member if the oldest historical society in Europe, it’s not even the oldest in Britain. His books don’t appear in their list of publications, but they do have a book on the Stone of Scone which contradicts what he argues. Something is very very wrong. On top of this the website biography states that the presenter is a historian, not an archaeologist as he claims in his introduction on the show. Furthermore, no reference is made to where, or to what degree, he was educated in either field. Is anyone else thinking that the fiction isn’t just contained to the programme itself?

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

If it’s supposed to be fantasy fair enough, but “Legend Quest” should be clearly labelled as such; lies like these can be dangerous, I might smack someone if I heard them rattle this nonsense off to a group of friends at a party. But seriously, if people are led to believe that what this man is doing is real history and archaeology it devalues those fields and builds a deeply misleading image of them in the minds of the viewers. His crazy conspiracies are given an element of credence by the documentary style of the programme, which might lead people to believe that what he says is true, when it is categorically not. He’s not within an ass’s roar of the truth.

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is what gives madmen power, it erodes the confidence people have in critical analysis and academic research, it allows the implausible to be dressed as the probable. A lie repeated confidently is believed true, and facts which offer truth are ignored. This is a seemingly more frequent occurrence in our TV shows, and the words of our elected officials; it’s all part of the same problem. Nobody takes the time to really think and reason things out, possibly because we are not taught this skill at school, but also due to the very fact that the people and programmes we have been inculcated to trust are using this trust against us to achieve their own ends.

Or maybe I’m just a cynic…

It seems I am not alone in doubt the legitimacy of this programme – http://tv.yahoo.com/news/syfy-channel-fabricates-footage-area-51-legend-quest-212600449.html .