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Modern Myth-buster

Laboratory employee examines our scientific assumptions
October 20, 2020
Stockman and his wife take a quick photo after the couple first arrived in Los Alamos in 2017.

Stockman and his wife take a quick photo after the couple first arrived in Los Alamos in 2017.

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Laboratory employee Tom Stockman III of the Safeguards Science and Technology group, has a skeptical nature that draws him to examine things we all pretty much take for granted. And this curiosity led to him writing Physics Today’s most popular article of 2019.

He explains, “When I look at anything that is widely accepted, I try to unravel it, and sometimes I have the opportunity to ‘myth bust’ some assumptions. My approach to this type of analysis exemplifies in a playful manner what truly is an integral component of scientific investigation—an exploration of our assumptions.”

Earth’s closest neighbor

Until one of Stockman’s recent myth-busting campaigns, most people with some knowledge of astronomy would tell you that Venus was the Earth’s closest neighbor. The assumptions that led to this conclusion caught his eye. “What does ‘closest’ even mean for objects in constant motion?” he asked himself.

Stockman’s interest grew while on a road trip headed to Alabama. “I was listening to a radio station called Venus-XM,” he notes. “They had this little tagline, ‘closest to the Earth’ or something like that, and during the trip—hearing that tagline over and over—I started playing with that idea in my head until I decided to calculate for myself if Venus was indeed the planet closest to the Earth.”

After some more thinking and dedicated research, Stockman applied mathematics that have been around since 500 BCE. He found that, when averaged over time, Earth’s nearest neighbor was actually the planet Mercury. In fact, Mercury ends up being every solar system planet’s nearest neighbor, on average.

“What I found is a contradiction to both published tables and to ‘common sense’ in the world of astronomy,” he says. “The math is just geometry. Technically, Pythagoras could have figured it out.

“My finding is hardly of benefit to the scientific community, though—no one is reprogramming their satellites. But that’s what makes this sort of thing fun. It’s just a little toy discovery, counterintuitive yet easily derived by any academic who decided to actually think about it rather than accepting their off-the-bat assumption.”

Myth-bust goes live

“You know what happens when we assume . . . we draw reasonable, otherwise impossible conclusions from incomplete information. Assumptions are vital to scientific progress—we just have to be careful with them,” Stockman says.

With several friends serving as co-collaborators, he decided to publish his findings. He submitted the story to Physics Today, which published it in March 2019. Although Stockman believed the story was at best mildly interesting, he soon discovered that his analysis gained a lot of traction in outlets such as Popular Mechanics, Business Insider, Gizmodo, Big Think and Space.com. To his surprise, his article was declared the most popular story for 2019 in Physics Today.

Since his publication in Physics Today, Tom has continued to assess science-based claims held in place by various assumptions. It’s a hobby he never tires of.