Geek Trivia: Date with (incan)destiny

What's the largest explosion ever known to have occurred on July 16 -- a date that has seen two other mind-boggling fireballs already, the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the launch of Apollo 11?

What's the largest explosion ever known to have occurred on July 16 -- a date that has seen two other mind-boggling fireballs already, the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the launch of Apollo 11?

The gold medal winner in the Olympic event of July 16 explosions occurred in 1994 with the first collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the surface of Jupiter. That meeting cranked up a 24,000-Kelvin fireball (the surface of the sun is a mere 5785 K) that plumed out to roughly 3,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet (a little less than one-half the radius of the Earth).

For those of you scoring at home, it's important to remember that the July 16 comet collision with Jupiter was the first of 21 separate impacts. Jovian gravitational forces tore Shoemaker-Levy 9 apart as it approached the planet.

Moreover, the July 16 impact wasn't even the biggest, as the Fragment G collision on July 18 produced a 12,000-kilometer-wide dark spot on Jupiter (roughly the diameter of Earth) -- and released energy equal to 6 teratons of TNT. That's 6 million megatons, or roughly 750 times the combined output of Earth's entire nuclear weapons arsenal.

Now, as impressive as these figures are, they're pretty tame from an astronomic perspective. We're not talking supernovae here. Even limiting this to a Jovian context still makes them seem fairly insignificant. Jupiter draws in local debris more or less constantly, and impacts of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 variety occur about once every 1,000 years.

Given that Jupiter is about 4 billion years old, that means it's seen these kinds of fireballs at least 4 million times, give or take the eccentricities of youthful solar system accretion phenomena. Shoemaker-Levy 9 was impressive because humankind was around to see it, and we had the scientific instrumentation to make meaningful observations.

Plus, it began on July 16, which -- as we've argued -- is something of an explosive anniversary. Given that Jupiter has a few million competitors to Shoemaker-Levy 9 in its personal history, there are fair odds that an even larger collision has or will occur on a different July 16, making for another spectacular cosmic demolition -- and even more astronomically incendiary Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the June 27 edition of Geek Trivia, "Tale of the tape (player)." TechRepublic members Wayne M. and edsachs both thought I was off my rocker for using the product name iPod nano as a noun. Here's Wayne M.'s explanation:

"I always thought product names were officially considered adjectives in order to prevent them from being treated as a generic term. That is why we have Sony Walkman Personal Stereos, Kleenex Tissues, and Xerox Copiers."

Well, yes and no -- I refer you to this entry from Language Log, the language- and grammar-analysis blog by linguistics professors Mark Liberman (University of Pennsylvania) and Geoffrey K. Pullum (UC Santa Cruz):

"The bottom line: It is raving, wild-eyed lunacy to say that no trademarks are correctly used as nouns or that they always have to be attributive modifiers. No company respects these principles; no company could. Yet the people at [the International Trademark Association] aren't raving, wild-eyed lunatics. It's just that, like an enormous percentage of the educated population of the USA, they know virtually no grammar at all."

Trademark holders might prefer that you use product names as attributive modifiers (which are different from adjectives, but similar) for legal reasons, but that doesn't make it grammatically correct. (Indeed, Apple itself uses iPod nano as a proper noun all over its marketing copy.)

We may have to do a future Geek Trivia on this subject, considering how bafflingly bizarre all the contradictions appear to be. Thanks for the inspiration, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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