Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Woos and Big Stuff

There's a scene I remember from an anime called "Blue Gender." It's a post apocalypse scenario involving giant bugs dead set on environmental revenge. The hero ends up hanging out with a girl who's only heard about the ocean.
"So, if the lake is like this," (Gestures a circle with her hands) "the ocean is like this?" (Gestures a bigger circle)
"Not even close."
"Like this?" (Gestures with her whole arm span)
"No, it's like," (Looks up) "'s like the sky."
Often, woos seem to have no grasp of how big or how old the universe is. Science is often the art of putting numbers on things so that we can understand them.

One of the categories particularly guilty of this is the Creationist. They like to pull rather unlikely probabilities out of their back pocket using bad math, but often when they try to cite how unlikely many things are, they forget to account for the size of the universe. Many like to point out how unlikely it was that this exact ball of rock we live on would have been habitable for life, but they forget that the universe is an enormous place. If it didn't happen for Earth, there's no shortage of other planets it could have happened to. If enough people play the lottery, you can bet someone is going to win, eventually. And, thanks to the anthropic principle, the losers aren't around to complain.

Other woos, such as those who believe in psychic powers and other magical means of divination, underestimate the power of coincidence when combined with confirmation bias. For example, many people have worries about their friends manifest as dreams about them being in danger. Usually we write these off appropriately when they don't come true. Woos of this sort usually do that, except if the dream coincidentally comes true. There are enough superstitious people out there that it happens, get spread by word of mouth, and suddenly a normal form of anxiety becomes a vision of things to come. Sometimes it can take over a person's life.

This is a difficult problem to overcome. A decent grasp of mathematics helped me realize where I had be going wrong in my young woo days with just the explanation, though. About all I can think to do right now is encourage better math education and, when in an argument, push for quantitative measurements.


Dark Jaguar said...

I noticed this a lot when watching a Twilight Zone marathon the other day. There were a number of "crash land in space" episodes that seem to suggest the people writing the show thought that asteroids were literally just right up there just above the clouds, and not INCOMPREHENSIBLY farther away than they know.

Even today people vastly underestimate something as simple as how far away the moon is. I mean it LOOKS so close right? I can see it right there! My perceptions are infallible! I still hear comedians joking about how it took 4 days to reach the moon, asking "how come it took so long?" in the same way one might joke about the biblical exodus.

Oh on an unrelated note, I didn't see this particular doggeral yet, but maybe I missed it. Did one on "playing god" yet? I was just reminded of it with this hilarious comic:

Dunc said...

Yeah, Sci-Fi writers are really bad for this one too. For example, Firefly ep 1 (or practically every episode of Trek ever) - the odds against two ships coming that close together by pure chance are, quite literally, astronomical. Given the size of space, it should be almost impossible to even detect another ship unless it's either broadcasting its position or you already know where to look. Space combat should be more like submarine combat than aerial dogfighting - the biggest challenge should be finding your target without giving away your position.

Valhar2000 said...

I don't know, Dunc, I've read several comments on this blog about how difficult it would be to hide a ship from another ship, given the fact that radiation will be emitted no matter what you do, and that modern telescopes are excellent, and likely to get even better.

On the other hand, it TNG, at least, they often talked about the range of their sensors, and it was usually in the range of 1 or 2 light years, if I remember correctly.

2 ships in space have an infinitessimal chance of seeing each other, but two ships carrying a cocoon (so to speak) with a diamter measured in, light years, moving through a cluster of a few hundred stars, have a decent chance of intersecting each other.

In this case you woudl have to consider how likely it would be that sensors caapble of detecting a ship across light years would also detect all sorts of debris floating around within that distance, and how they woudl be able to sort everything out.

Dunc said...

Well, you have to consider the difference between active and passive sensors, which is another parallel to submarine warfare... If you're using active sensors, you're effectively broadcasting your position and providing a handy targeting beacon for anyone who might want to use it.

Sure, you might be able to spot a ship passively by observing it in IR, but by the time you're fighting space battles, that's not likely to be hugely difficult to mask. Exhaust plumes would be more difficult, but again, are you still going to be using chemical rockets by the time you're fighting space battles? And you've still got the problem that you're looking for a very, very small needle in a very, very big haystack. How do you tell a ship from a lump of rock at a distance big enough to matter? Even worse, how do you do it in an orbital environment, where there's a sodding huge lump of comparatively hot rock to hide behind?

Also, it's really hard to target something that's far enough away and moving at sufficient velocity that its real position no longer overlaps its apparent position by the time you see it. That takes the challenge of deflection shooting to a whole new level...

Space warfare tip no 1: paint your ship black, not white. And I mean really black.

Dweller in Darkness said...

Also, as awesome a pilot as Wash is, I'm pretty sure that the computers keep to flight paths similar to commercial aircraft. Given the need for accuracy in astronavigation, one assumes that the ships are very good at keeping to narrow flight paths. While Firefly troad the road less travelled by, it was travelled.

James K said...

Actually, according to Atomic Rocket hiding in space is practically impossible, at least within a star system. Even manoeuvring thrusters are visible at light hour ranges and the heat from life support would be like setting off a flare.

In practice, the significant factor in limiting detection ranges would be light lag.

Dunc said...

OK, some very good arguments against stealth there... I yield.

Dark Jaguar said...

What about minovsky particles? I'm a nerd...