WC encountered a car with this bumpersticker on Hayes Street in Boise, recently. WC suspects that three-quarters of Americans won’t get it. Physics isn’t a required course in high school and red shift/blue shift is pretty esoteric, even for physics. It doesn’t help you understand football, baseball, hockey or even soccer. Unless you know that the speed of light is a constant, and moving towards an object very, very fast can can shift light reflected from that to the bluish end of the spectrum, well, you won’t understand.1 “Very, very fast” in this case means a substantial fraction of the speed of light.
It’s a droll bit of intellectual snobbery.
WC has friends who, if WC explained the physics to them, would feel obligated to test it. You can imagine the conversation, visiting them in the hospital: “Oh yeah, I saw the sticker on the car ahead of me. I dropped back a bit, gunned it, and watched the sticker right up until I rear-ended the car, and it damn sure never turned blue.”
You probably have friends like that, too.
A bumpersticker like that is really a way of saying, “Hey, I’m in the Smart Guys club, and if you don’t get it, you aren’t.” It’s a way of excluding the less well educated.
The late Carl Sagan hated stuff like that. In his outstanding book, A Demon-Haunted World, he made the point that the only way to move forward, to exit the demon-haunted world, was to educate the general public on science. Indeed, Sagan spent most of his too-short life in such an effort. He quoted George Washington, in his address to Congress of January 8, 1790:
There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.
Mocking ignorance isn’t going to help in that effort. It’s counter-productive. It needs to stop.
WC is as guilty as anyone of the same offense. Not that long ago, WC blogged about bumperstickers proclaiming, “Stop Continental Drift,” another bit of vague intellectual snobbery.
The task instead should be to educate, to get a better understanding of science into as many heads as possible. If Oklahoma voters had a better understanding of science, James Inhofe wouldn’t be their senator; he would have been laughed out of the last election. If American voters knew more science, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president.
- For readers who slept through physics. If you move quickly towards an object, the light reflected from it cannot go faster; the speed of light is an absolute limit. Instead, the light acquires more energy, or, more correctly, the observr’s eye or instrument does, and the more energetic light is more blue. Faster still, and it’s violet. ↩