Here’s a math word problem that will give you painful flashbacks to the 7th grade:
According to Canada.com, a proton moving at 99.9999991% of the speed of light has the energy of seven mosquitoes.
Also according to that site, three-hundred trillion protons moving at that speed has the energy of a 200 tonne train running at 200 kph.
Using this information, how many mosquitoes would it take to push a one kilogram ball to a speed of one kilometer per hour?
Science reporters for news outlets have an interesting job; some of the smartest people in the world have dedicated a lifetime of work to the most complex phenomena this universe has to offer and these reporters have to distill it down to a few hundred words at an 8th grade reading level. Many of us gripe at the quality of reporting with these restrictions, but it is not an easy thing to do.
One of the tricks of the trade is to convert some of these mind-boggling concepts into things you deal with every day. How many microscopic objects are compared to the width of a human hair? A common analogy has the Earth as the size of a basketball with the moon the size of a tennis ball 24 feet away. Or if you scoop up a teaspoon-worth of a neutron star, it would weigh the same as all the people on earth put together. Everyone can picture mosquitoes buzzing around our heads. But who would have thought of it as a unit of energy?
That’s where some of these crazy conversion rates can get these writers can get into trouble. Take the problem above. If my math is correct, it should take the energy of over 52 million mosquitoes to move a couple of pounds to less than walking speed. That’s over a hundred pounds worth of mosquitoes. With all of these big numbers there are a lot of zeros flying around and its easy for both sides of the equation to not balance out at the end.
So, I guess the moral of the story is to take these scientific analogies with a grain of salt – which, by the way, is the same size as the space those 300 trillion protons would fit into if it were a gas.