Totally Flipped

I'm supposed to be writing my thesis at the moment but while idly browsing through the Sunday Times, I noticed an article by Jeremy Clarkson, which frustrated me. It is a complaint of Denmark's claim on the North Pole combined with a review of Doomsday Just Ahead by Ian Rankin. Now I haven't read the book myself so I only had Jeremy's comments to go on but it seems as though it based on some strange ideas - think of a cross between The Core and The Day After Tomorrow. They are so odd that I can't believe Jeremy Clarkson takes them seriously, even if he does so in a humourous way.

I have only managed to find a review, of the ideas in the book, on Amazon and in (sorry, PDF file) and they seem to be pretty confused. What doesn't help is that Jeremy is even more confused than Ian Rankin as he doesn't make a distinction between the magnetic pole and the geographic pole which Mr Rankin does. The central argument is that if the Earth was to flip its rotational axis every x years, it would cause mass disruption to life on Earth. He even goes so far as to say that this could happen within the next 30 years and would only take about three days. What isn't clear is if the Earth's axis direction moves (like in the precession of the equinoxes which takes 26,000 years) or if the surface moves with respect to the axis of rotation. Jeremy seems to think it is the latter and having the North Pole (NP) in a different place takes up the rest of his article. He also has major problems with his understanding of how seasons work as he associates the NP with cold and ice. There is no reason, in general, for the poles to be the coldest location. They are the coldest places on the Earth because of the low tilt (23.5) with respect to the Sun; the Sun's rays always travel through more atmosphere (compared to at the equator) and are spread over a larger area making them weaker and so it is colder.

There is no disputing that an event such as this would cause massive disruption - an entire planet turning itself on its head does that dort of thing - but it isn't seriously going to happen in the first place. Imagine if your house spontaneously flipped itself upside down for no reason. It that likely? No. He uses the analogy of a spinning beach ball which can easily be turned so that its rotation axis points in a different direction. I agree with that example but you can't compare a beach ball to the Earth. The only similarity is that they are spherical and spinning but that is where it ends. A beach ball is mainly filled with air; that is, all the mass (stuff), is in the thin plastic skin. This is very different to an iron ball which contains rather a lot of 'stuff'. A beach ball is easy to spin compared to an iron ball which takes a lot of effort to get turning and once it is, it takes a lot to change it. The Earth is, in many ways, like the iron ball and would need rather a lot of energy to do anything so dramatic as suggested. A good job really.

It seems that he continues to get all confused about gravity and 'centrifugal forces' and claims that the Sun is orbiting a black hole. Apparently it is the black hole which provides a 'pull' to the Earth and the solar wind gives us a 'push', keeping us in orbit. Hmmm. Perhaps some brushing up on gravity is required here. I should point out that the Sun does actually orbit around a point which isn't at its centre. This point is still within the Sun though so the cover illustration isn't very accurate. Presumably the black hole would be in the Sun then?

What dismays me is that this seems to be another of those books that comes up with dramatic revalations that say 'science' is wrong without any real evidence. They are defended with claims that science classes these people as heretics against the orthodoxy. Science is not religion and doesn't (and shouldn't) work on the basis of belief. Scientists are constantly challenging theories to see if they do or do not work. If a theory is rubbish it is rejected and others are tested. I'll finish with a quote:

It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.

Konrad Lorenz

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 24th Oct 2004 (15:47 UTC) | Permalink
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