30 March 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Powers of Ten - Part 2.003

What's wrong with this item?

NASA fired three microsatellites into space over the Pacific Ocean Wednesday morning to study the earth's magnetic fields, a week after a planned launch was scrubbed due to a technical malfunction.  The 55-pound (24.75-kilogram) ST5 satellites, which will test new technologies for future science missions, were carried aloft from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a Lockheed L-1011 jet... (CNN 22 March 2006)

No two things that couldn't be fixed easily if CNN weren't innumerate.  Not that I mean to double out CNN.  Show me a news outlet that doesn't make this sort of mistake on a daily basis and I'll show you a weekly publication.  (Sound familiar?  See this less-than-a-week-ago blogentry.)

To begin with, let's type "55 pounds in kilograms" into the Google search engine.  It returns the following: "55 pounds = 24.9475804 kilograms."  So our first discovery is that CNN has deficient multiplication skills, or perhaps simply ignored the "94" after the decimal place.  Am I saying, then, that they should have used that unwieldy number in their parenthetical translation?  No: It should have read "The 55-pound (25-kilogram) ST5 satellites..."  The reason is not that 55 pounds isn't 24.9475804 kilograms.  It's that, even though the weight of the satellites came from NASA, they truly didn't weigh 55 pounds.  NASA, despite some English/Metric lapses in the recent past, presumably does know the weight of the satellites to the nearest gram or so.  But they also know that nobody cares, and so they delivered a reasonable approximation to the media.  Fifty-five pounds means "closer to 55 than to 54 or 56."  Nobody old enough to disclose his weight gives it or even knows it to the nearest ounce.  Likewise, when NASA approximated the satellites' weight only to the nearest pound, there was no justification for giving it to the nearest 10 grams, i.e., less than half an ounce, in the metric translation.

I often puzzle over these frequent blunders and wonder why they continue to make them.  The only plausible explanation is that they are doing it to irritate me. 

This has been part 2.003.  I'm sure there will be more, probably soon. 

Richard Factor