March 5, 2010

Tall tales from NASA

In the aftermath of the powerful earthquake that virtually “shook the world” last Saturday (2/27/10) the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has offered us some precise and rather interesting data.

Mother Nature inflicts an enormous toll on humanity when quakes measured at 8.8 magnitude strike populated areas. And while the estimated 800 lives lost in Chile last week pale in comparison to the devastation wreaked upon Haiti in early January, any loss of life is a sad thing.

It’s relatively easy to grasp the scale of difference between an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and one that is measured at 7.0, as was the temblor in Haiti. We can even understand the reasons behind the stark contrast in damages and loss of lives in Chile and Haiti – density of population, quality of building construction, and so on.

But NASA's precision in announcing that the length of our days will be shorter by “1.26 millionths of a second” is beyond our comprehension.

Writing a review of the book entitled not exactly for the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Stark suggests that its author, Kees van Deemter, seemed to see a virtue of sorts in vagueness – that all words have “fuzzy” boundaries. What is "tall"? What is "short"? But there’s even disparagement of scientific measurements, like the platinum bar that has been used as the definitive length for a “meter.” Apparently, it was mismeasured by “about 0.00005 millimeters.”

Admittedly, the focus on van Deemter’s book about “vagueness” appears oriented more toward social interaction and politics than science or economics.

But it was the quote attributed to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that really caused us to ponder the precision of NASA’s statement regarding a shift in earth’s axis, caused by the Chilean earthquake.

If I seem unduly clear to you,” Greenspan once remarked, “you must have misunderstood what I said.”

NASA, which has been beleaguered by budgetary and political woes in recent years, should employ Greenspan as a spokesman.

Perhaps he’d have allowed that our days will be shorter by “just a tad.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ALL measurement is an estimation. When one is happy with the estimate it is pronounced to be "accurate."