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Equational Entertainment

January 11, 2010

I am a great fan of the webcomic xkcd, and having studied both physics and computer science, I am proud to understand most of the technical references and jokes it uses. For today’s comic, I imagine a lot of people like myself will be scouring the internet for values and units for these four terms, to check if it really is dimensionless, and if it does equal pi. Sadly, pi does lie just outside the accuracy boundaries, but since the range is 2.827 to 3.087, it’s pretty close (and yes, it is dimensionless). I do wonder exactly what will happen if Toyota do make a more efficient Prius; will the British Isles float further into the Atlantic, or will Continental Europe shrink!?

It also led me, indirectly, to The God Equation. Don’t read on yet, go and read that article, even if you only skim through it. You won’t regret it, although you may despair at your fellow Human.
All done? Good.
Yes, The God Equation is yet another attempt to ‘prove’ mathematically and scientifically that God exists, although even by those standards it fails miserably. The creator, David Cumming, says “I am a scientist and as such I didn’t at first really believe it myself. But physics is physics, and maths is maths, and you can’t argue with it.” Yes, David, physics is physics, but this is not, and I can argue with you.

The main points why this is hilariously wrong:
1. The units are wrong. This point alone makes the xkcd equation above infinitely more valid. There are only two units in the equation, which means they must be the same, but Hz (which in SI units is 1/seconds) most certainly does not equal metres/second (or Megalithic Yards/second, for that matter).

2. The numbers are wrong. See the above point, the bit about Megalithic Yards. As I am no expert on the subject of Megalithic Yards, I will give them the benefit of the doubt on both their existence (which is doubtful) and their precise value of 0.82966 metres (which is incredibly accurate for an ancient unit of measurement), which gives the result that c in this equation does equal exactly the speed of light – except that in Megalithic Yards, using this same conversion value, the speed of light would be 3.61 x10^8 Megalithic Yards/s, not 2.99 x10^8 m/s! So the equation still doesn’t equate despite their pathetic fudge factor.

3. The terms are arbitrary. Yeah, c and pi are fundamental constants of the universe, but there are more than just this; where are e, the exponential constant, and the Golden Ratio? Planck’s constant? The article author makes the point about Base 10 not being the ultimate counting system in the universe (surely if any would be, it would be Base 2, the binary system?), so the preposterous Omega is gone, but what’s so special about the 21cm Hydrogen Line frequency? I’ll tell you why – it’s the most famous. Anyone can open a book on astronomy and read all about the 21cm H line, it’s done wonders for modern astronomy, despite being incredibly rare and well outside the range of other H spectral lines. Our amateur physicists here must have heard people using it and thought it sounded perfect!

4. Just how does this equation prove the existence of God? This is a genuine question, how do you use an equation to prove the existence of God? It certainly doesn’t prove the existence of a creator; if I ignore everything I’ve just said and take this equation at face value to be true, what it proves to me is that the process which emits at the 21cm H line must have some connection to the properties of space that determine c, and that pi/Omega is the constant relating the two. The next step would be to figure out exactly how and why these two are related – that is physics.

I’d finally like to point out that Dr Cumming has several degrees in Artificial Intelligence, and not Physics. Admittedly, I have degrees in neither, but I’m not trying to prove the existence of God, merely point out some obvious mistakes that I was taught to watch out for while I was studying. He was also taught by Kevin Warwick, the famous professor AI and Cybernetics who had electronic implants inserted into his body to remotely control objects, like a robotic limb. As much as I admire Captain Cyborg and his wacky cybernetic stunts, I don’t think he is a good role model for serious science and philosophy, especially in subjects that are very little to do with his field of expertise.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. wickedday permalink
    January 11, 2010 4:47 pm

    I edited in that ‘science’ category you wanted 😀

    This reminds me of a story I once read about Euler (I think it was in Fermat’s Last Theorem, truly excellent work of pop mathematics). The story goes that he was at the court of Catherine the Great when Denis Diderot, the philosopher, challenged him to a debate over the existence of God. Euler allegedly stood up, said “Sir, (a+b)n/n = x, hence God exists; reply!”

    Diderot, who didn’t know enough mathematics to point out how stupid this was (to demand that he define a, b, n and x, for a start) was, as the story has it, laughed out of court.

    Sadly it isn’t true, at least according to this bio of Euler. It does, however, show that the idea behind the ‘God equation’ has been floating around for centuries.

  2. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    January 11, 2010 4:54 pm

    Actually, having stared in wonder at this equation some more, I realise that their fudge factor works in a sense. What they mean isn’t that Hl times pi over Omega = c, they mean Hl times pi over Omega = X, where X is the speed of light in a vacuum measured in Megalithic Yards per second. What they should have done really was say that Omega = 0.0123456789 multiplied by this ridiculous Megalithic Yard conversion factor, although that would probably spoil the magical effect. I also forgot to mention, that since the Megalithic Yard was determined from Stonehenge and suchlike, shouldn’t the ‘god(s)’ proven be Pagan?

    Additionally, by some staggering coincidence, I have also discovered light travels at pi Jays per second, because 1 Jay = 299,792,458/pi metres. Isn’t that amazing. I must be some kind of pagan god, or something.

  3. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    January 11, 2010 4:55 pm

    That very story was on the thread on the xkcd forum where I found this link! Great minds think alike (note; I didn’t post it there!)

  4. Seamus permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:44 am

    I’ve always suspected you were some kind of pagan god.

    Incidentally, force equals mass times seamus times acceleration, where seamus equals one.

  5. Seamus permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:48 am

    The story seems slightly less badass when you try to imagine it said out loud, because no one sounds that cool saying “Sir, open brackets a plus b close brackets…” I’m glad it’s not true for another reason, which is that I really like Denis Diderot, and I wouldn’t want Euler to have laughed him out of court over something so palpably unfair, because then I would have to track down Euler and KILL HIS GHOST.

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