The asteroid won’t hit us, but ignorance of science might

mytwocentsFrom an MSNBC article on the asteroid buzzing Earth today (not picking on them, as this is typical of science reporting):

Asteroid 2004 BL86, which is about 1,800 feet (550 meters) wide, will come within 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of our planet Monday — about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. While this flyby poses no threat to Earth, it does present a rare opportunity to get a good look at a near-Earth asteroid, NASA officials say.

Note how they switched from meters to kilometer from one scale to the next? Imagine how dumb it would have sounded if that second number had been “1.2 billion meters.”

Well, it was still dumb, because the SI system has a unit of measure for that scale: 1.2 million kilometers = 1.2 gigameters.

MSNBC had a perfect opportunity with that “three times the distance” clarification to give readers a sense of how big a gig really is. And instead they punted.

As I bluntly put it before:

Long ago, one might have made the argument that people can’t grasp the thousand-fold relationship between SI prefixes, but the enthusiasm with which consumers rode the electronic ramp-up from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes to terabytes proves otherwise …

And, anyone who talks about how many “million kilometers” it is to Jupiter or Saturn should be euthanized. “Meter” is the base unit and “kilo” means “thousand.” Are you telling us that Jupiter is eight hundred million thousand meters from the Sun? Forgive me, but that’s unforgivably dumb. If you mean “gigameter” then say it. If you think people need reminded how big “giga” is, try a  parenthetical statement or, hell … let them Google it.

Let’s drop the timid writing, because people have proven they don’t need it. They understand that gig is bigger than meg and meg is bigger than kilo, even if the scale of it strains human comprehension. They got it. Let’s move on.

For those who want a visual guide to SI units of distance, check this out:

SI-Units-Rough-Guide

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