What's this physics whiz kid saying that is so special?

I saw this little bit in the news and I’m a little baffled why this kid is in the news.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110329/ts_yblog_thelookout/for-12-year-old-astrophysics-prodigy-the-skys-the-limit

I can’t really understand what he’s saying because he talks so fast and unclearly. Something about the speed of light sideways. I thought a photon only goes in one direction, you can’t detect its path unless it hits your detector. Does anyone know what he’s talking about?

Well, he first talks about the (now viewed as somewhat outdated) concept of relativistic mass, then about the definition of force. Part of the reason why one frowns upon the concept of relativistic mass these days, however, is that it may yield confusion when just naively used as the replacement of the rest mass in the formula for force, expecting to get the relativistically correct equation. This only holds for the transverse components of the acceleration, which I think is where he gets his notion of ‘the speed of light sideways’ from.

In short, I think he’s making an error, but a very advanced one for a 12 year old.

I felt like I was watching a snippet of a conversation that is missing its context. He threw around these rather standard physics ideas, but I don’t get what was so special about what he said, except that it was unusual for a 12 year old to be interested in it.

I was very interested in Relativity when I was 12. But then, I’ve always been a science geek.

For what it’s worth, you should be very skeptical about news stories on child prodigies. They often make wild, overstated claims about the prodigy’s intelligence and imply that they are just about to make some tremendous scientific discovery that will revolutionize our knowledge of the universe. I’ve seen a number of news stories recently about Jacob Barnett, and they all look a little suspicious to me. These articles claim that he has an I.Q. of 170. The fact is though that I.Q. tests top out at 160. An I.Q. test has to be normed, and you can only do that by giving it to lots of people. It’s necessary to give the test to about 100,000 people just to norm it so that it will give an accurate I.Q. up to 160. A claim of a higher I.Q. means that this supposed high I.Q. comes not from a test but from someone looking at the person’s accomplishments and somehow, some way deciding that this means that they have some given I.Q.

Some of the news stories claim that he has a higher I.Q. than Einstein. Do I really need to explain that Einstein never took an I.Q. test? By the time that I.Q. tests began to be given to significant numbers of people, Einstein had already published his three papers in one year where he came up with major accomplishments on special relativity, quantum physics, and Brownian motion. He was just publishing his paper on general relativity about that point. Nobody was giving him an I.Q. test. Any claim of what I.Q. Einstein had is based solely on someone looking at his accomplishments and guessing at his I.Q. in some mystical fashion.

There are a lot of people every year who enter college several years before most people. Entering at 12 isn’t actually quite as rare as you might think. Child prodigies in general do pretty well later in life. They don’t tend to do enormously better than smart people who go through the educational system at the normal pace though. Some of the top people in any given field were child prodigies, but a lot more got their degrees at the normal rate. I could give some examples from my own knowledge of how child prodigies tend to do fairly well but not vastly better than other people, but I’m tired of typing and I’ll hold off on that for the moment.

I’m not challenging this but it wouldn’t be the first time a claim of this sort was made.

First he just throws out some formulas: F = ma = m(dv/dt) then the formula for the discredited concept of relativistic mass.

When he talks about light not accelerating except sideways, he’s probably talking about the EM wave having transpose electric and magnetic fields that look like they move back and forth in the envelope of the transverse sine waves.

What he doesn’t understand is these vectors don’t have any physical extension they only represent the strengths of the alternating fields.

It’s all mostly nonsense.

BTW I just picked that site for the diagram I haven’t read and have no idea what it even says.

Heh, Marilyn Savant. Talk about making a little go a long way. Her claim to fame is that a test once showed her to be as smart as an average 22-year old.

Here is an article discussing him.

Boy Genuis.