Case 28: It's not real radiation.

14th May 2003

Filed by: Officer Taylor

The Offence

Lasers, eh? Where would we be without them? No CD players, no laser-guided smart bombs, no giant laser-wielding robots. And if there's one site on the web that you can rely on to tell you all you need to know about them (apart, of course, from the legendary Britney Spears's Guide to Semiconductor Physics), it's surely the site of NASA, the USA's National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For example, if you go to the NASA site's technical glossary, you'll find the meaning of the word explained:

laser Light amplified by simulated emission of radiation - a device that produces an intense beam of light that may be strong enough to vaporize the hardest and most heat-resistant materials, first constructed in 1960.

Let us leave aside for the moment the misplaced modifier at the end of this definition, which leaves us wondering what kind of beam of light may be strong enough to vaporize materials first constructed in other years.

The main offence here is a terrible mistake: LASER is actually an acronym for ``light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation''.

The Verdict

NASA are very obviously guilty of

How bad is it? It's bad. Stimulated means ``excited to action or more vigorous exertion''. In other words, a laser works by something stimulating the emission of radiation, which in turn amplifies light. But Simulated means ``assuming the mere appearance of, without the reality; assuming the signs or indications of, falsely; counterfeited; feigned''. In other words, the radiation isn't really emitted at all, but something makes is appear as though as has been; and so the light is amplified.

This is not just careless use of language; it's also very bad physics.

The Sentence

If this mistake were made in a high-school science report, we might be inclined to let the perpetrator off with a severe beating; but since this is NASA - who we'd hope know better - we fail to see that we can justly sentence them to anything other than taking us for a ride to the International Space Station.

We suggest that a NASA official contact us to arrange the details.

Next case!

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