Mathematical error in static electricity column (03/30/2012)

I enjoyed today’s column on static electricity, but noticed that Cecil makes a pretty sizable mathematical error in the final paragraph: he describes a lightning bolt of 500 megajoules as 370,000 times greater than the lethal dose of 1,350 millijoules. In fact, a bolt of 500 megajoules is actually around 370 million times greater than one of 1,350 millijoules.
~Huw Williams, Lafayette, IN

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, Huwman Being, we’re glad to have you with us.

When you start a thread, it’s helpful to other readers to provide a link to the column in question. Yes, it’s today’s column, but in a few weeks it will float down into the Archives. So, a link saves search time and helps keep us all on the same page. In this case:

No prob, you’ll know for next time. And, as I say, welcome.

To verify, asking Google: What is 500 megajoules divided by 1,350 millijoules?, Google’s reply is: “(500 megajoules) divided by (1350 millijoules) = 370 370 370”.

Also, from Who is this man called Cecil Adams?:

  1. Tell the truth. Has Cecil ever been wrong?

Never. However, certain questionable situations have arisen. Veteran Straight Dope readers may remember that a column once referred to “talking books for the deaf.” Very funny. It was a new copyboy’s first day on the job. His body has never been found.

So, this might get interesting.

whitetho: Thanks for the verification. My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that Cecil erroneously came to the 370,000 figure by dividing 500 million by 1,350 – but forgot that 1,350 represented thousandths of joules rather than whole joules, thus putting his result off by a factor of a thousand. An easy mistake to make and not a big deal… except, of course, for one who’s infallible. :slight_smile:

It was an editing snafu. I feel embarrassed because Cecil even asked me to help review it and I didn’t catch it. It will be fixed; probably later tonight or first thing tomorrow. Thank you very much,Huwmanbeing, for being diligent and catching this.

For the Straight Dope

Edited: Actually, we just fixed it now.

Holy sh*t! One lightning bolt packs enough juice to kill the entire populations
of the US and Canada plus a Mexican province or two?

How does anyone ever survive a strike? How about airplanes?

Or is only on April 1 they get that hot?

No, corny things happen on April 1st, not fiery things.