Thursday, May 22, 2008

Strained comparison.

In an article on a supernova astronomers recently observed out towards the constellation Lynx, the reporter on the BBC's science beat felt he had to explain supernovae to his unenlightened readers. Reaching for that most strained-yet-common of metaphors, he typed:
Exploding stars, or supernovas, are some of the most spectacular events in the Universe, producing the same amount of energy as trillions of nuclear bombs detonating simultaneously.
Which makes as much sense as saying:
Nuclear bombs, or fusion devices, are the most powerful man-made explosives, producing the same amount of energy as trillions of firecrackers detonating simultaneously.
Except that a firecracker is probably closer to a Trident warhead by a few orders of magnitude than the Trident warhead is to a supernova.

(H/T to Marko)


Dr. StrangeGun said...

Well, it's better than leaving it at "Exploding stars, or supernovas, are so powerful they're whamdigious."

Tam said...

Is it? Is it really?

OA said...

To be fair, as the internet has shown repeatedly, Americans don't have the market cornered on ignorance and brute stupidity. What we have here is rather like trying to explain a Hemi Cuda to a Eurodandy that only knows a Vespa. Pigs don't sing, but you can piss 'em off...

José Giganté said...

Well, the problem resides in that there isn't anything close to a supernova that the humans comprehend. Its like saying the US national debt would buy 18 trillion ho-hos.

At very large numbers or magnitudes, humans fail to comprehend the size of the, in this case, explosion. If not a nuclear bomb, what DO you compare it to? You don't.

Anonymous said...

What SPF sunscreen do you need to watch a supernova?

Mark said...


I'm working on visualisations for a new fusion project at the moment. It pops up in the nooz from time to time.

Always - without fail - inducing a Migraine Salute. Teh atom boms will kill all the babies, you know. And the puppies.

Parallel said...

Well, darn you, you've made me look it up.

According to Wikipedia a white dwarf supernova emits about 10^44 joules in a few seconds.

Also according to Wikipedia, a megaton bomb (about the largest effective nuke) releases about 4 x 10^15 joules.

Estimates of firecracker energy release vary widely, ranging from 30 to 4000 joules.

Turns out that Tam's estimate of firecracker versus nuke is spot on, if you assume a 3000 joule firecracker. 4 x 10^15 joules (nuke) divided by 3 x 10^3 joules (firecracker) is about 1.3 x 10^12, which is close enough to a trillion. Good job Tam! :-)

Owen said...

isn't a supernova actually a giant fusion bomb?