Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Innumeracy at the highest levels

I admire Richard Branson for his many entrepreneurial and adventuring efforts. I am especially wishing for the success of his spaceflight venture -- when Millennium changed travel companies a few years back I put Virgin Galactic at the top of my carrier preference list. Maybe I can arrange a business trip in the future.

But it is clear that Branson isn't the one doing the engineering math -- or let's hope so. I happened to scan a Boston Herald at a restaurant tonight -- I'm no fan of the Herald, but I'm a compulsive enough reader I'll skim it if it's free -- and saw that Branson had spoken before a business group in Boston. He is quoted as saying
You’ll go from (zero) to 4,000 miles an hour in 10 seconds - which will be quite a ride

Presumably Branson's gotten caught up in the thrill of the flight idea, but that's just ludicrous -- not that the Herald caught it. I haven't done such calculations since college physics, but with a little Excel help & my three best-remembered Imperial conversion factors (5280 ft/mile, 12 inches/foot & 25.4 mm/inch) and checking my memory of g in Wikipedia (remarkably, I remembered it!), the miles/h -> inches/hr -> mm/hr -> m/s series puts that at 178.8g! According to Wikipedia, the highest known G-force to be survived was 180+g in a race car accident. Amusement park rides don't even pull 10g (according to the same entry). Given the flight profile of SpaceShipOne, which is the basic technology platform for Virgin Galactic, a more realistic flight profile is 500 miles per hour -> 4000 in two minutes would be a more plausible 14.9g

Such innumeracy is frequently present in media articles in one way or another. Given this poor foundation, how will we ever equip patients to intelligently use genomic profile information? Surely there will be many good, trained persons stepping into that void, and just as surely there will be plenty of hucksters and worse.

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