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How Photon Torpedoes Will Mark An End To The Energy Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photon torpedoes come after utopia, at least in Star Trek. Imagining a universe centuries ahead of our own time and technology, the long-running sci-fi shows explored philosophy, morality, and the secluded intricacies of physics. But what was left unstated said the most. By the time Jean-Luc Picard took the captain’s chair, poverty in the 24th century had been eliminated, as was crime. Star Trek made these humanistic zeniths plausible by sheer abundance of energy resources. Without scarcity, standards of living increased. People had no reason to steal or beg. All of this was possible because 24th century humans perfectly realized the fact that inside even a small amount of mass was boundless energy. Star Trek then realized the dreams of Einstein, dreams that indeed were the tides that lifted all starships. Photon torpedoes can show you how.

Other than Newton’s F=ma, Einstein’s E=mc2 is perhaps the most famous equation of all time, and it calculates the end to an energy crisis. According to the equation, mass is equivalent to energy—a gargantuan amount of energy. That’s because even small masses in this equation are multiplied by the speed of light squared (c2), a number with around 20 zeroes (depending on your units of choice). You can think of the energy contained in mass like a calorie. To measure calories, researchers light a constituent of food on fire, and then measure how much that flame can heat a known quantity of water. The greater the final temperature of the water, the more calories the tested food has. Likewise, the “E” in E=mc2 shows how much energy you get if you could “unlock” all of it bound up in the atoms and molecules of some mass. In the Star Trek universe, they figured out how to do just that with antimatter.

Antimatter is simply ordinary matter with an opposite charge. An apple with all the atoms’ and molecules’ charges reversed is an anti-apple. And this small change has enormous consequences. When ordinary matter interacts with antimatter, they both annihilate—or destroy each other completely—and release (in theory) all the energy predicted by Einstein’s equation. Antimatter is therefore the key to a Star Trek-style energy utopia.

Like most science fiction stories that deal with antimatter, Star Trek has the hardest problems are already solved. One is generation. Useable anti-particles such as positrons (positively charged electrons) and anti-protons have been detected in naturally occurring gamma rays. However, they are fleeting, and make up less than 1% of the particles in those rays. Capturing natural antimatter is, for now, impossible. Artificial generation is the other option. We have created antimatter in the lab, but at tremendous costs—in fact, the highest costs. In 1999, NASA gave a figure of $62.5 trillion per one gram of anti-hydrogen.

The other problem with antimatter is containment. Recent movies like The Da Vinci Code make it look easy, but it isn’t. (The movie also shows probably 100 trillion dollars worth of antimatter in that small container.) Antimatter cannot touch any matter or else it will annihilate. Literally a wisp of air in the containment chamber and that’s all it takes. In reality, you need something like a “Penning trap” that uses electric and magnetic fields to suspend antimatter. That solution is not science fiction—they do it all the time at CERN.

Drawing of a schematic Penning Trap shows a charged particle (red dot) suspended in a chamber of electric (blue) and magnetic (red boxes) fields. More information below.

Star Trek, for the sake of narrative, does away with the problems of antimatter production and containment. The warp engines of the Federation can both contain and utilize the massive energy released from matter/antimatter interactions, and fuel availability doesn’t seem to be an issue. Antimatter is abundant enough in Star Trek that kilograms of it can be used in standard weaponry. You wouldn’t destroy material that could power an entire planet unless you had a lot of it.

This brings us, of course, to the photon torpedo.

No science fiction universe is complete without a legion of fans arguing over details, and Star Trek is a seriously complete universe. Looking at a photon torpedo scientifically would mean picking and choosing from one of the many makes, models, weights, payloads, and ranges. However, for simplicity, a standard torpedo to use would be a warhead from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which carries a 1.5-kilogram payload of antimatter. Here is where Einstein comes in again.

If you want to use 1.5 kilograms of antimatter in a warhead, you would also need 1.5 kilograms of normal matter to react it with. The resulting explosion would be incredible, surely to the delight of Lieutenant Commander Worf. An annihilation of three kilograms of material—according to a 100% efficient E=mc2 model—releases one and a half times the amount of energy that the Sun hits the Earth with every second. That’s an amount of Joules (a unit of energy) that has 17 zeroes, so maybe a better way to think about it is in an equivalent amount of TNT. Making the conversion, one photon torpedo is effectively a 64-megaton bomb. That’s ten times greater than the Tunguska Event—a meteor strike that leveled 830 square miles of Russian forest, nearly three times greater than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and larger than the largest nuclear device ever detonated—Tsar Bomba.

In short, the Enterprise was exploring new worlds and new civilizations with a more powerful arsenal in just one torpedo than all the energy in all the explosives detonated during World War II. Good thing they are explorers, not a military operation.

But the incredible destructive power of the photon torpedo speaks to a larger good. Energy in a Star Trek future is basically free—enabling society to move past poverty and crime—precisely because they have enough fuel that they can even put it in their weapons. The energy in just one photon torpedo could power the entire United States for a whole day! And that’s just 1.5 kilograms of antimatter. The prevalence of the weapon indicates that 24th century humanity has more than enough to go around. Power is cheap. People are liberated.

Once humanity progresses to the point that it can afford to put the best source of energy in the known universe into a disposable torpedo, the energy crisis is over. Humanity could end all the fighting over resources and begin to readjust focus on the cosmos. Maybe that was one of Einstein’s dreams; it was surely one of Gene Roddenberry’s.

Image Credit:

Photon torpedo shot from the Enterprise reproduced under a fair use license for educational purposes in published, fact-based content

Penning trap diagram by Akriesch

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. terribletony 11:27 am 12/3/2013

    The energy scales and yields of weaponry in Star Trek always seemed a bit off to me. I simply don’t see how any starship would survive a single unshielded hit from any of these planet-busters they’re carrying. (To be fair, I’m not sure they usually *did* survive them in the show.)

    If you read further, it seems like the physical structure of the ship isn’t even that important. They need “structural integrity fields” to let the fragile framework survive the energy-scales required for deep space travel and warfare.

    In the realm of computer technology, the writers were clever enough to use non-specific and invented units of measurement for processing and storage – probably because they knew that no matter how outlandishly powerful it seemed, pretty much any hard number they threw out there would quickly seem quaint for near-future viewers.

    That’s the great thing about being a fan of a show – the more you love it, the more you’re allowed to nitpick it!

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  2. 2. sault 12:54 pm 12/3/2013

    As we have seen with rising income inequality and the massive income gains of the very wealthy over the last 30 years, sometimes too much is never enough for some people. The only way for the cornucopia of the “Star Trek” universe to eliminate poverty, crime and (intra-species) warfare is for the folks that keep wanting more and more for themselves, especially when it is clearly destructive to everybody else, to be recognized as psychopaths and prevented from achieving positions of great influence in society. Failing this development, all the gains of whatever free energy sources and material resources await humanity when we reach beyond Earth will always be concentrated into the hands of a small group of people. And as long as human labor is necessary to maintain those huge resource flows to the wealthy few, we will never see the elimination of poverty or need, for what other motivations can keep someone toiling away for decades mostly for the benefit of a fabulously wealthy individual they will probably never even meet?

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  3. 3. plswinford 3:04 pm 12/3/2013

    If you had 1.5 kg of antimatter, the rest of the torpedo provides the matter.

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  4. 4. BruceWMorlan 3:08 pm 12/3/2013

    In our current universe, anti-matter is a storage device, not a creation method. Like a rechargeable battery, it must be charged before it can be used, and generating THAT charging energy is real issue. Unless you can make a Penning trap that runs on little or no energy and that can act as a collector of those stray cosmic particles that happen to be anti-matter.

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  5. 5. Profitsup 4:18 pm 12/3/2013

    How about a simple plan using existing technologies that could accomplish much of the desired economic freedom . .

    A BOLD NEW ENERGY POLICY TO SAVE THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE!!!

    We put millions of skilled workers on manufacturing jobs building 500 to 1,000 Nuclear power plant of a low cost standard design. This will provide all the energy to accomplish a full restoration of our industrial base. How will this happen you ask?

    First we “MINE” the oceans for gold, silver, copper, uranium, methane, manganese and other valuable minerals and metals. It has been estimated that it will be profitable to mine gold from the seas at around $ 3,000 per ounce. Second we use cheap nuclear power to extract these metals which could make a profit to pay off the national debt. Third we use the byproduct “WATER” to farm the huge vacant dry south west feeding the entire planet with low cost food.

    Finally we use the cheap nuclear power to build factories to manufacture everything the entire planet needs and we return to zero unemployment and can pay good wages because we have free energy that makes a profit in it’s creation.The money generated can payoff all debts, build nuclear reprocessing plants, research and develop a system to render nuclear waste harmless.

    Just think, full employment, no energy crisis ever, gold to make money valuable, make the dollar the strongest currency on earth, end inflation, end government debt. Just imagine “AMERICA REBORN AND THE DREAM FULFILLED!!!

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  6. 6. jerryd 4:28 pm 12/3/2013

    The only problem is even free power once it goes through utility corporate parasites it’s at least $.06/kwhr to the customer just for overhead, profit, etc.

    Vs now PV and soon wind, CSP, biomass, tidal under $2k/kw are already under $.04/kwhr or will soon be as production of the simple equipment needed to catch, make RE in home, building sizes.

    Since they last 20-50 yrs the energy price doesn’t go up so nearly free power for 18-50 yrs after payback in 2-5 yrs depending on site, etc.

    Facts are most developed world utilities will shrink and much new in the undeveloped world will not grow as thought as home, building size much lower cost RE passes them by.

    Now you’ll hear the fools that bring up easily fixed or just not problems to show it won’t work.

    But most US 100×100′ lots get 5Mwhr/day of sun average. If one can’t get 10-50kwhrs/day from that cheaply you are not very good. Afterall most are just 2-3 kw alternators and steam/heat engines or just 3 6′ blades, just not a hard or expensive thing to do.

    So while photon torpedo’s might help some, I have that big free nuke in the sky that easily makes the power needed delivered to my front door.

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  7. 7. SigmaEyes 4:43 pm 12/3/2013

    I’m far from a “Techie.” but I am of the age of those who grew up as the franchise “grew up.”

    Scarcity was not eliminated on Star Trek, but I get the authors point. Star trek still dealt with issues of natural resources in terms of limits or time requirements with extraction and transportation (scarcity), but obviously, processing did not seem to be and issues as the author postulates.

    Capitalism is a mechanism for allotment of scarcity that provides for incentive and reward. Reduce the issue of scarcity, and a society can still maintain incentive and reward. There would be rank as in Captain or Admiral. And types of rewards, even in future centuries, are innumerable.

    I think achieving E=mc2 would not eliminate the need for trade, nor the need for some form of money. Automation would perhaps eliminate most jobs, but Star Trek does not offer a clear picture of societal structure in light of organizational and structural evolutions, other than merchants, and StarFleet or military Command.

    I would imagine a dual system develops: The primary system would be societal as society would be both the source and the dispositioning entity for rank and reward (status within that society). I see the financial system as one that could possibly operate outside or side by side the primary structure, providing an alternative for individual ambition.

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  8. 8. AtlantaTerry 4:43 pm 12/3/2013

    Beam me up, Scotty!

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  9. 9. badger 4:51 pm 12/3/2013

    A very interesting and entertaining read, thanks!

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  10. 10. Greg Angelo 6:22 pm 12/3/2013

    Approximately 50 years ago Scientific American was a serious scientific journal targeting intelligent readers but gradually over time its intellectual content has progressively diminished, and this headline article is a savage indictment of the ever diminishing standards of this once great publication.

    Pseudoscience claptrap has no place in a scientific journal, but does have a place in comic books where this article belongs. Any serious consideration of the scientific principles underlying antimatter would understand that the energy required to create antimatter would be well in excess of what can be delivered at the end point of consumption which of course is appropriate for weaponry, but not if your objective is saving the planet.

    I can only assume that the current editorial staff of SCIAM are wet behind the ears advertising graduates with little or no scientific training for whom attention grabbing headlines are far more important than scientific principles.

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  11. 11. Arbeiter 6:52 pm 12/3/2013

    “one photon torpedo is effectively a 64-megaton bomb” A 32-megaton bomb. About half the energy of hadron-antihadron annihilation boils off as neutrinos that have an infinitesimal interaction cross-section. Electron-positron annihilation gives photons, but they are only 0.03 mass-% of light elements, and less for heavy ones (re the higher neutron/proton ratio). Where do you mine the antimatter, and with what?

    http://www.pd.infn.it/~dorigo/zprod.jpg
    http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/particles/imgpar/muon.gifg

    “To measure calories, researchers light a constituent of food on fire, and then measure how much that flame can heat a known quantity of water.” Had you taken p-chem lab, you’d gag on that statement. Combustion calorimetry is a systematic error nightmare even on a good day.

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  12. 12. Moodie-1 7:00 pm 12/3/2013

    @terribletony:

    What almost everyone doesn’t know is that in space nuclear detonations are quite a bit less powerful. When detonated in a planet’s atmosphere an atomic bomb does most of its damage with the shock wave created by the immense heat produced. But when detonated in space there is no compression wave so what damaging effects are left would be heat and hard radiation. The heat effects would fall off rapidly with distance and the radiation effects could be stopped with adequate shielding. And this doesn’t even take into account Star Trek’s ‘shields’, which are presumably charged grids built into the hull which would create a repulsive energy field around the ship. These would reflect away just about any kind of energy (at least, that’s the idea). So yes, 42MT per torpedo sounds reasonable to me.

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  13. 13. Scottcha 9:42 pm 12/3/2013

    Good read, thanks. One quibble. You say:

    “anti-protons have been detected in naturally occurring gamma rays.”

    Do you mean cosmic rays?

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  14. 14. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 12:39 am 12/4/2013

    Greg Angelo,

    Thanks for the encouragement. If you have anything else to add that actually relates to the piece, feel free to comment.

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  15. 15. Steven 1:12 am 12/4/2013

    Star Trek was a story of a space based civilization.
    Once you’re in space, energy is so abundant, it seems free.
    It’s dangerous, but so is earth.
    The story is, advance the civilization to space, then you can have solar power, unfettered nuclear energy, and living beyond gravity.
    Sure, it’s the big challenge, but otherwise, it’s just more crowding, fighting over resources (wars), famine, and pestilence here on earth.
    It seems like an obvious choice, but calls for great sacrifice to meet the challenge.
    We need room to spread

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  16. 16. jgrosay 11:53 am 12/4/2013

    Long ago, SciAm published an article about the research on ‘Particle Beams’ Weapons’, it was stated there that some prototypes had produced a lot of rather small holes when shot towards a metal plate; exactly the same fact of finding a metal sheet from an aircraft changed into an strainer was reported by some writers about the Roswell incident, but some years before.
    Really, professional writers seem being much more imaginative and having much better data bases than anyone can guess…

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  17. 17. Greg Angelo 2:48 pm 12/4/2013

    Kyle
    I believe the headline of this article was “How photon torpedoes will mark an end to the energy crisis”.

    I am neither an engineer nor a physicist but this headline is complete crap. Febrile fantasising in the realm of science fiction is not science, and if my understanding is correct, any energy released from so-called photon torpedoes would only be the release of energy already input to create antimatter in the first place.

    By all means live in a fantasy world, but don’t confuse “science fiction” with science, even though the fictional account may depend on some scientific principles.

    Ask yourself what relevance the headline has in relation to our energy crisis except as an attention grabber for Gen Y?

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  18. 18. denke42 3:07 pm 12/4/2013

    @ sault: Too true. Eliminating hunger is not a technological problem even today, but a social, political, and economic one. This is probably also the case for poverty, depending what one means by “poverty.” The insatiable greed of the psychopathic is not the only barrier: there is also the all-too-natural desire of most humans to have more comfort, security, and pleasure for themselves – and for their children and grandchildren. Add the widespread urges toward status and power…well, it’s unlikely that even cheap antimatter would eliminate hunger and poverty.
    As for crime, many who have “no reason to steal” still steal. Worse crimes (such as murder, rape, and war) are more often attributable to excesses of such things as rage or dominance or to deficits of judgment, self-control, sympathy, and the like – not to deficits of energy, material goods, or even food.

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  19. 19. choppam 5:13 am 12/5/2013

    Steven writes: “It seems like an obvious choice, but calls for great sacrifice to meet the challenge.
    We need room to spread.”
    Or, as they said in German in the 1930s: “Lebensraum”.

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  20. 20. telstar 9:46 am 12/5/2013

    To Boldly Go… We should begin the “anti matter revolution” by being energy independent, stimulate the US economy and fund it’s brain-trust.

    Build the Keystone pipeline, build new refineries, benefit from the North Dakota oil boom, embrace natural gas trucks, drill in ANWR and support the new safe nuclear reactors.

    We’ll see lower energy prices at home and a live long and prosperous, robust economy.

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  21. 21. badnursie 9:53 pm 12/5/2013

    I’m bemused (I think that’s a combination of ‘amused’ and ‘bewildered’) by folks who take a fun piece and turn it into a platform for their own rather specific political/social/personal issues. Geez! Get over yourselves.

    As for future economies, I have only one question: If capitalism remains the economic paradigm, what happens when most everything is being produced by robots/computers/AI systems? If you look around, you see lower level jobs being eliminated by the millions. Trash collection: instead of a three-person crew, my ‘recycling’ company has a truck with a driver who does all the loading with a robotic arm. Apply that example to nearly every manual job you know, as well as ‘robot’ computer programming, AI systems capable of ‘learning’, and you’re gonna have a lot of folks without the means to buy the crap all these rich guys’ factories produce.

    Ah, the future. Fortunately, it comes along and is what it is. You might try to bend the arc, but with seven billion of us pushing and tugging, I’m not sure you’re gonna change the direction.

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  22. 22. txbodhi 10:42 pm 12/5/2013

    Tesla had virtually free energy in the early 20th century but the evil super rich overlords squashed that. Denial of that is just refusing to see the real roots of planetary problem, a multi-generational cultish mafia of psychopathic bankster world rulers.

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  23. 23. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 1:32 am 12/6/2013

    txbodhi,

    The problem with “free energy” isn’t that ominous corporations killed the idea, it’s that free energy goes against the fundamental laws of the universe. That’s a much bigger problem that stock prices, I assure you.

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  24. 24. Mendrys 12:44 am 12/7/2013

    Greg Angelo,

    I think you are missing the point of the article, well Blog post to be more specific. Rather than saying that we should be trying to find ways of making anti-matter for energy use, it is saying that IF we had the technology to create/mine antimatter in such quantities that we can use it as a weapon, a photon torpedo, then we will certainly have the technology to cheaply create or mine an abundance of anti-matter to the extent that energy will be extremely cheap to produce. As noted above, anti-matter is really an energy storage mechanism in the Star Trek universe though I’m not sure if the initial energy source required to create the vast amount of anti-matter is ever stated. I can imagine a vast array of very efficient solar panels in orbit around a star would be enough. Pure fantasy? Probably so but then again a lot of the technology that we enjoy today was either pure fantasy or not even thought of not very long ago.

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  25. 25. Chryses 6:15 am 12/7/2013

    badnursie (21),

    “I’m bemused (I think that’s a combination of ‘amused’ and ‘bewildered’) by folks who take a fun piece and turn it into a platform for their own rather specific political/social/personal issues. Geez! Get over yourselves.”

    They will when they grow up and become mature adults.

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  26. 26. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 11:51 am 12/7/2013

    Mendrys,

    I think you get the point of the article exactly. If we had to go from the ground up with all science fiction, we wouldn’t get very far. Instead, it’s fun to play around with the science in a stipulated universe.

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  27. 27. Heteromeles 12:06 am 12/8/2013

    Actually, it is rather amusing that we don’t see the enormous energy infrastructure required to produce that much anti-matter. Perhaps they have lots and lots of fusion plants lying around somewhere? There certainly was no evidence for the massive farms of solar panels we’d need. In fact, skeptical viewers might guess that the Star Trek creators hadn’t a clue that anti-matter was an energy storage device rather than an energy production technology, and hence they didn’t bother to include the appropriate infrastructure. Alas.

    Thing is, I’m ultimately skeptical that having unlimited energy would lead to social equality. After all, we’ve had a century of the cheapest energy we’re ever likely to see (fossil fuels), and we’re no closer to social equality than we were a century ago. Similarly, we have this wonderful technology for fixing nitrogen, invented originally to permanently solve the problem of starvation and to end wars over guano (which really happened). Instead, populations quadrupled, we had the horrors of all wars since WW1 underwritten by cheap nitrogen being used to feed machine guns and high explosives, and people are still starving, probably more than were a century ago.

    Technology has made certain social advances possible (and here I’m thinking about advances in the status of women and some handicapped people). Ultimately though, I don’t think that technology by itself will solve the fundamental social inequalities that plague civilization. For example, famine is as much a political failing as a technology failing, as are war and equality.

    Why is it that no one ever calls for political innovation at the pace and scale that we’ve seen technological innovation? It’s bizarre that we’re willing to believe in technology can give us warp drives and the stars, but we don’t think there’s any way to, say, fix Congress without going back to Kings or forward to some discredited worker’s utopia.

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  28. 28. BobWalton 5:30 am 12/8/2013

    I have to congratulate Greg Angelo on his incisive comments. This stuff is perfect for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that I read as a teenager 60 years ago, and even then I had no patience for the Fantasy component. I’ve been a subscriber to SA for only a few years, but I valued it as a challenge to read at first. Sometimes I felt a bit depressed when I couldn’t get my head round a concept, and I was encouraged to read that Einstein had complained that he enjoyed SA, but sometimes he found an article hard to understand. I gave up on Popular Mechanics when I decided that a lot of its content was becoming too trivial, and to my horror find that SA is heading the same way. I wonder if the current requirement for concepts to be fully developed in 140 characters has something to do with this dumbing down?

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