I’m all for people asking questions. It’s how we learn things. Asking questions is how I became a scientist, and I love answering questions and explaining scientific concepts to people. The trouble arises when the person asking the question really doesn’t have much of an understanding of science: it’s difficult to give an understandable answer, when the person doesn’t really know what they’re asking in the first place. After giving an answer, I’m often greeted with a puzzled look at a gentle “Oh right”. Maybe I need to learn how explain things better. I’ve thought about teaching, but one thing that would hold me back is that I think my way of explaining things would make no sense.

Anyway. One question I heard recently was directed towards a rather well-known astronomer in Northern Ireland.

“If we could travel faster than light could we discover more elements?”

At first, my eyes rolled and I released an inner sigh. But after thinking about it, it’s not the worst question to ask, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it wouldn’t have been asked if the person wasn’t interested in the first place. Secondly, that person knew about the speed of light and the elements. Finally, if humankind had the technology to develop faster-than-light transport, it’s not unreasonable to assume that we’d have the technology to create – even short-lived – very heavy elements.

(If you’re wondering, your ability to discover elements is not dependent on your velocity.)

But of course, I have heard ridiculous questions. One of the most recent involved the weather, which was surprising considering it came from an Irish person.

“It was very rainy last night, and in the clouds I saw some flashing light followed by a loud rumble. Any idea what this was?”

My forte is astronomy, and one thing I constantly come across – particularly online – is people who simply do not understand the level of research that is going into astronomy and astrophysics. They attempt to disprove well-tested theories and observations with their misunderstood and convoluted ramblings, using ‘big’ words to try to make their bullshit sound professional.

I was once watching The Late Late Show, and there was a guest on who was talking about angels and how they are real and how she could talk to them. I’m not going to question her beliefs, but her response to a question from the audience was “Of course it’s real; it’s quantum physics.”

No, it is not quantum physics, you idiot. And stop using scientific words to try to cover up the fact that you do not know what you’re talking about.

In case you’re wondering, quantum physics is not some mysterious voodoo-esque thing that we’re often led to believe. Quantum physics is what turned computers from giant, room-sized machines to small laptops and smartphones. The laser in your CD player is a quantum device. Quantum physics is not a blanket for people who talk inane and nonsensical crap to hide under.

Here’s another one from, from none other than Pope Benedict XVI talking about the Big Bang, quoted from an article in The Irish Times:

“Benedict said that some scientific theories were “mind limiting” because “they only arrive at a certain point … and do not manage to explain the ultimate sense of reality …“”

I’d really like to know what the Catholic Pope knows about science, let alone cosmology. I’d also really like to know what he means by “sense of reality”. If anything, science does the opposite of what he claims: it does explain the ultimate reality and it is not “mind limiting”. Indeed, as I reread his words, I can see they make no sense, but again use the classic ploy of inserting pseudo-intellectual phrases to make it seem like he knows what he’s talking about.

Pseudo-intellectualism. There are many websites dedicated to science/astronomy news and they often allow comments from readers. Non-science websites (such as newspapers, etc.) seem to be less moderated than dedicated sites, so you’re bound to find nonsense there.

I found these nuggets of science on a Daily Mail article, also about the Big Bang:

“Chemistry doesn’t deal with personality, but quantum physics has a lot of impact on free will.”

“Personality or the soul is a human mystification of consciousness, already under investigation in cognitive neuroscience and parallel computing. Eventually, consciousness will be reduced to a digital process in a Complex System, but as the human brain processes 500 trillion bytes of data per second, this will take decades.”

“Starting from the premise of defining the word creator at an absolute point in linear time is a moot point in any case and disregards potential. It is not possible to establish whether God is sentient and foresaw the whole of creation from our vantage point, or even to understand our seperation.”

As you can see, these people are talking lots but saying nothing. Absolutely nothing. What’s worse is that some of these people believe their own tripe so much that they have their own websites claiming to disprove Einstein and so on. They play around with basic equations, throw in a couple of sentences starting with “Clearly, we can see that…” without any justification for their assertion, and end up with a conclusion that makes no sense to a secondary school student, let alone professional scientists.

Here’s an example from TechEye:

“Please read ETHER=GRAVITY=DARK ENERGY THEORY OF GRAVITOETHERTONS and balloon inside balloon theory of matter and antimatter universe on opposite entropy path –as such one reaching zero entropy for big bounce . NEWTONS GRAVITY LAW equation is F=P.G.M.m/R.R WHERE P is permeability of ether soup which may be taken as one in our solar system but near neutron stars it is many times. Actually gravity is not pull of matter but push of graviton towards center of earth on mass at molecular level on molecular marriage…”

Ether. Fucking. Soup. And gravity is made up of “gravitoethertons”, or, as friend of mine said “makey-uppy-tons”. This was written by “Dr. Durgadas Datta”. Do an Internet search for him and enjoy the resulting fail.

At university we were often warned to critically analyse information before using it in assignments and theses, and I think I have shown why. People who have very little understanding of what is essentially basic science go around shouting big words, claiming to everything there is to know. It’s unfortunate that these people continue to embarrass themselves in such a manner. It’s even more unfortunate that some young bright minds will be influenced by that same nonsensical pseudo-science.

I was linked to this video by Richard Feynman, who talks about how it is difficult for a scientist to explain concepts to a non-scientist. Feynman is awesome. (Thanks, Dave.)

“The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it’s comprehensible.” – Albert Einstein, Hero.