Brain Eater Syndrome

rec.arts.sf.written was conducting a discussion about crackpot science and "Brain Eater Syndrome", or why some respected scientists and engineers seem to get potty ideas. Simon Bradshaw came up with a plausible explanation of why Electrical Engineers seem particularly susceptible...

Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: Re: NASA and SF
Date: Sun, 14 Nov 1999 18:34 +0000 (GMT Standard Time)
From: (Simon Bradshaw)

The classic British case [of Brain Eater Syndrome] being the late and much-lamented Prof Eric Laithwaite, of antigravitational gyro fame. [Electrical Engineers] seem particularly prone to getting daft ideas about other subjects - physics in particular - because the discipline requires a working knowledge of so many related areas.

Unfortunately, a 'working' knowledge is rarely comprehensive or well-founded; with the best will in the world, EE students tend to end up learning just end-product results and first-order explanations rather than the real theory that underlies them. The trouble with such first-order explanations (or, as Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen memorably and accurately term them, 'Lies-to-Children') is that some EE students are bright enough to poke holes in them... and then fall into the trap of assuming that the whole scientific edifice in question is wrong. The next, and deeper, trap they fall into is to use what maths, quantum mechanics or other EE-allied knowledge they have been taught to come up with a 'better' explanation, whilst forgetting that much of that knowledge is, in their case, also based on lies-to-children.

Laithwaite, IMHO, made exactly this error. He (correctly) noted that the quick-and-dirty explanations for the dynamics of gyroscopes were wrong. He then assumed that gyroscopic dynamics is not understood (it is, but he hadn't been taught the full explanation), and jumped on an analogy he knew about EM waves and the nutation of gyroscopes and stretched it all the way, despite that analogy itself being incomplete.

I was present in a lecture he gave in about 1988 at which he went through all this, and got to the point where he started writing equations for gyro dynamics on the board. So far the audience, which was mainly composed of physics undergrads along for entertainment value, had generally gone along with Laithwaite's reasoning. At this point through, he had to do a vector cross product - and announced that he was using his version of the cross product, as the one normally used gave the wrong results!!

I swear to this day that I actually felt two hundred mental gearboxes crashing.

Simon Bradshaw