I Get Email

By Sean Carroll | July 2, 2011 9:37 pm

Few things warm the heart of a scientist more readily than a query from a young, curious mind, eager to learn about our universe. Why, just now I received this inquiring email:

R xxxxxx xxxxxx@hotmail.com to me


Neutrons have no chemical properties and reflect no light, but they do have mass and occupy space =matter, and clouds of them will never be visible in space!

I find it difficult to believe people who are supposed to be so smart are suck fucking retards!

Cheers Retard ,


For the curious:

Always happy to help a fellow seeker of knowledge.

  • Moshe

    You might want to invest in a spam filter, the space=matter bit should be a trigger all by itself.

  • Randall

    To quote the Doctor, “What. What? WHAT?!”

  • Christian Ready

    How very thoughtful of Robert. Any idea what brought that on?

  • AJ

    And here we see the infant crank, being kept down by The Man for the first time. In but a few years, he will have matured into a truly conceited beast, convinced that his theory of vortex energy makes him the one true successor of Einstein and Newton.

  • Dutch Railroader

    The reward for any scientist who has accomplished something noteworthy enough that it reaches beyond the confines of academia will be a slew of letters from crackpots, each one insisting that the recipient is a hide-bound drone too cowardly and unimaginative to understand the real truth of the Universe.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    you should have posted his email. perhaps it was attached to a facebook account?

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee


  • vakkanal

    Perhaps he was confusing neutrons with neutrinos… though I don’t exactly see how you could have clouds of neutrinos either…. well perhaps held together by gravitational attraction.

  • http://blog.modernmechanix.com Charles Shopsin

    This reminds me of the last episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage (http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/timc). I swear I could hear Brian Cox grinding his teeth when Billy Bragg insisted that since you couldn’t taste it, touch it, see it or smell it then believing in dark energy/matter (he doesn’t realize they’re different) is just the same as believing in god.

  • eric gisse

    Yeah, that’s the quality I have come to expect from “alternative theories”.

  • Steve


  • Mike

    Wait… what was the point he was trying to make?

  • NW

    At least he said “cheers”.

  • NewEnglandBob

    He probably got his PhD from Liberty University.

  • Clamski

    Judging from the language, odds are that the person was just a Troll trying to provoke a response. Best to ignore such people. http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Troll

  • http://sievemaria.com sievemaria

    It is frustrating when you find = people you think are so smart are really … it happens !

  • http://jacobi.luc.edu Robert McNees

    Sean, please reveal his email address so I can add him to my “Personal Idols” circle on Google+. Also, this “Clamski” person in comment 15 sounds like a troll.

  • Bjoern

    Sean, you should have pointed him to this:

  • Michael Pierce

    Enjoy the human interaction.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    So….Robert thinks that it never occurred to astrophysicist types to consider neutrons as a source of dark matter.

    It’s like those creationist rants that revolve around how evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Never thought of that, did you, biologists?

  • Thomas

    That’s a real intellectual challenge, Sean. Can you possibly answer that question?

  • JimV

    Somehow I got through four years of a minor in physics without learning (or not remembering) that neutrons decay that quickly, so at least I learned something interesting as a result of Robert being a jerk.

    My first reaction was the same as RK’s, that I would have published his email address so that all civilized bloggers could have proactively banned it, but on reflection, your choice was classier.

  • http://rtootattoo.blogspot.com rtootattoo

    I think perhaps he misplaced a comma. His closing was meant to be:

    Retard Robert

    There, all fixed.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience Ed Yong

    “That’s DOCTOR Retard to you, young man.”

  • Hephaestus

    Ed (and others), the ‘R’ word is a derogatory slur on the order of the ‘N’ word:


    Do you really want to reduce yourself to that level?

  • George Musser

    I feel your pain. I get these regularly, and it’s demoralizing.

  • http://www.qwertyous.blogspot.com/ John R Ramsden

    @Moshe “You might want to invest in a spam filter, the space=matter bit should be a trigger all by itself.”

    My physics-related emails usually went unanswered, until after sending one from my home email to my work email I found it was picked up by a spam filter on account of the phrase “via gravity”. This was rather mystifying, until I noticed the word “viagra” !

    @AJ (#4) That was my first thought, and what the email’s style suggests. But recalling some of the wilfully ignorant denisons of sci.physics, there’s every chance the sender is an adult, even a stubborn old timer.

  • http://rtootattoo.blogspot.com rtootattoo

    @ Hephaestus

    When you’re right, you’re right; especially when there are so many creative ways to insult someone without using that word even once. Would stupid, ignorant, backwards, uneducated, or addlepated be more acceptable, or is it a whole turn-the-other-cheek type thing?

    100 movie insults
    **As a word of warning, almost every other obscene word is used.**

  • FmsRse12

    I don’t know much about particle physics but as far as I know proton is highly stable but it’s antimatter ani-proton is not, but neutron and antineutrons both are unstable, I mean like for proton if one was stable and it’s anti was unstable or vice versa then antineutron would be stable and the crackpot theory might work….or did I miss something???….i am into biophysics, mostly biology…

  • Charon

    FmsRse12 : “an[t]i-proton is not [stable]”

    It’s pretty stable… otherwise you might have just solved the matter-antimatter asymmetry problem, and I would steal your idea and win a Nobel Prize. It’s harder to set limits on the antiproton lifetime than the proton lifetime, but Wikipedia directs us to astro-ph/0003485, which uses reasonable-sounding methodology to set limits of > millions of years.

    The particle physicists on here could tell us if there are any predicted asymmetries here, but my guess is no. As I said, matter/antimatter asymmetries are super exciting.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean
  • Brian Too

    See, I subscribe to the attitude that these kinds of things are invigorating. You really see that humanity comes in all kinds, including those that are not worth talking to. We know this and yet we need reminding from time to time.


  • abadidea


    “He probably got his PhD from Liberty University.”

    “Liberty” “University” (which of course is neither) is actually *quite tame* by creationist standards. It’s hardly even an insult anymore; they’re just *boring* since the Lynchburg Cracker Barrel’s #1 customer went to the big barrel in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, LU and I have a very personal dislike of each other, but this just isn’t their style. They at least *act* educated, usually.

    Higher on my list of really terrible “schools” are Bob Jones, Pensacola, Brigham Young, Patrick Henry, and a really stupid little place called Appalachian Bible College, plus the imaginary place that Kent Hovind got his “degree” from.

    This guy, though, is just some crank; I’m not even sure what he is trying to say.

  • Cranks-R-Us!

    The problem with cranks is that they know more physics than about 99% of the population but know less physics than about 90% of all physicists. So, they sound convincing to those that don’t know better but are easy to spot by those who do.

    Imagine this guy putting together some sort of youtube video where he explained the evidence for dark matter, patiently explained its properties, and then declared it to be neutrons without so much as a nod to big bang nucleosynthesis. Suddenly, you’ve got a bunch more people doing weird stuff like this: http://thunderbolts.info/npa/convergence.htm

  • Baby Bones

    Now I come from an era of the universe before the standard model was called such, and I took astrophysics and general relativity in undergrad physics as electives. Back then, before inflation came around, we got lectures on nucleosynthesis, the matter-antimatter asymmetry, and the Hubble constant, but none on why there are not enough neutrons to account for dark matter.

    I happen to be a bit on the cranky side today since reading those Wikipedia articles did not really address that problem, so I have to leave it to my own wits to speculate about why this albeit rude e-mail is worth answering.

    Here goes: If there were so many neutrons out there in the vastness of space to outnumber protons by say five or ten to one, then we’d see a lot more absorptions of neutrons by various neutron absorbing materials such as gadolinium. Also a lot more decays as prompted by those absorptions. That is, nuclear physics would be way different. A possible counterargument is that galactic normal matter has long since swept away the excess ultracold neutrons (by absorbing them and sometimes re-emitting them as hot neutrons that escape into intergalactic space). If so, the composition of extragalactic dust would still be very much weirder (more like an isotope chart than the periodic table). We don’t see that, so nix the neutrons as dark matter speculation. Note that this argument does not appeal to any theory such as the predictions of Big Bang Nucleosynthesis since that would be a theory appealing to another theory about which not everything is clear.

    This hereby ends speculation by me…except on the dineutrons, tetraneutrons, etc., that some French researchers have claimed to see.

  • Baby Bones

    repost failed

  • Baby Bones

    Whoops. I just fell prey to the free-neutron lifetime trick again. Oh well, something stupid in my brain has this fixation on the lifetime of the neutron being on the order of a billion years. Even then, there’d be more protons than neutrons. But there’s still tetra neutrons as a possible explanation!

  • http://init.sh Pikoro

    Wait. I thought everyone knew that the “missing matter” was packing peanuts:

    “Scientists spent a huge amount of time and money looking for the missing matter, before realizing it was the white pellets that all their equipment used to search for missing matter was packed in.”

  • Anchor

    @Cranks-R-Us! #34: Exactly.

    What also bugs me is their absolute certitude, which not a single scientist or authentically knowledgable person pretends to.

    RIGHTEOUSNESS: a cultural disease cultivated by religion.

    @abadidea#33: “This guy, though, is just some crank; I’m not even sure what he is trying to say.”

    He’s saying that he’s absolutely right, and he’s sticking his tongue out at Sean to prove it.

  • David George

    #1 Moshe — Why should “space=matter” be discounted (even though it’s not what the ignoramus was saying)? Matter is simply space that is rotating.

  • TedL

    Robert’s short email is so rich with irony I can’t stop chuckling. I’ve filed this one away as a model for a future book character. The “Cheer Retard” line is just brilliant.

  • Dogg

    This is the best email I’ve ever read. It starts as an honest naive thought of a child (a pretty smart one too!) and then, like in “the Exorcist” turns to a nightmare of dumbness :)

    Cheers ya’all!


  • http://andromedachild.blogspot.com Andy Fleming

    Depressingly familiar e-mail.

  • Eric Habegger

    I hate to say this, actually I like saying it 😉 , but the reaction to Sean’s post is more illuminating than the post. I think the post and the way Sean framed it is hilarious. Sean struck exactly the right tone. But by far the majority of comments to it were stating the obvious – that the emailer was wrong. Duh!!!

    There sure seems to be a cranky need in people to pile on when something is obviously wrong. Does it ever occur to anyone commenting here that it is equally depressing to see how many people following this blog need to find absolute safety before daring to venture an opinion. I find it amusing that the emailer was so sure of himself. But I also find it amusing that so many scientific types, both professional and amateur, are equally sure about the latest theories (last thirty years) that have a rabid following but no physical proof. What this man is saying is very similar to the evidence string theory has. But unfortunately the emailer does not have the blessings of the gurus of physics so it is very SAFE to criticize.

  • Jack Zodiac

    Why x out the e-mail? I wanna help him with his problem. With SCIENCE!

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Are normal protons stable?

  • AJKamper

    Lab Lemming:

    Some theories predict they won’t be stable, but the half life is 10^31 years or more. Thus, trying to observe proton decay has been tricky, and so far we haven’t done it. I don’t recall what the most recent reasonable lower limit is, based on the experiments we’ve done.

  • Anchor

    “Does it ever occur to anyone commenting here that it is equally depressing to see how many people following this blog need to find absolute safety before daring to venture an opinion.”

    Does it ever occur to anyone like Eric Habegger that a person’s first encounter of a posting can happen over an appreciable span of time AND may perchance never in the slightest be influenced by previous respondants when “daring to venture” a perfectly legitimate and original opinion utterly unmotivated by any daft notion of “absolute safety” in numbers?

    Does it ever occur to anyone like Eric Habegger how “depressing” it is to encounter yet another control-freak policeman on a blog thread, on which almost everyone else presumes a liberty [shudder] of venturing an opinion?

    “What this man is saying is very similar to the evidence string theory has. But unfortunately the emailer does not have the blessings of the gurus of physics so it is very SAFE to criticize.”

    Ah. Yes. Beware those boogyman “gurus of physics”. (Notice the clear implication that ALL such ‘guru physicists’ are necessarily String Theorists). It’s just not “SAFE” to disagree with them, is it? Even when you’re armed with an authentic understanding of the subject. (HAH). Just as long as folks like you and Robert can declare your outrage and your ‘Constitutional Right’ to harbor the Truth with God-like Certitude, that’s all that counts.


  • Anchor

    Lab Lemming #46 asks: “Are normal protons stable?”

    Estimated mean lifetime of protons : >2.1×10^29 yr (long enough to be confidently considered ‘stable’)

    Even the abnormal ones.

  • Anchor

    In case that got muddled in some browsers, the figure is ‘more than’ 210,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

    Or over 700 billion times as long as the current 13.7 billion-year age of the universe.

    Curious, isn’t it, that but for a single quark switch, a free neutron’s mean lifespan before decaying into a proton is a digestible span of only about 15 minutes.

  • Eric Habegger

    Anchor, if pointing out hypocrisy and lameness is being a policeman then so be it. Actually policemen act within narrower constraints than this and pointing out hypocrisy isn’t within that purview. Obviously for you it is similar to the policeman putting on his siren behind a whole group of highway speeders. The cop nabs the first one that slows down because he was the one with the guiltiest conscience. You were that man, or at least you felt like it.

  • Benjamin

    If free neutrons only have a half life of 15 minutes, why is it that neutron stars don’t evaporate?
    Is it because they’re really made of false neutrons (ie protons and electrons combined) or is it because they’re considered to be inside a giant nucleus?

  • http://www.tevong.com/adlib.php Tevong

    @52. Benjamin: bound neutrons are stable. For free neutrons it is energetically more favourable for them to beta decay into a proton, electron and neutrino, but in a bound state the negative binding energy means the total energy of the system is lower than the total energy after beta decay. For example the mass energy of a deuteron (neutron + proton) is lower than the combined mass energy of two protons, an electron and a neutrino, so the deuteron is stable. On the other hand the free neutron’s mass is greater than that of the combined proton, electron and neutrino, making decay energetically favourable

    @Sean: the original email is actually a good question, if only he wasn’t such a rude crackpot. Too many popular expositions start with “scientists believe that…” without actually explaining the process that leads to such conclusions. Is it any wonder the average person thinks science is just another belief system when it’s presented as such, or that people like the emailer aren’t aware of how much work goes into falsifying theories?

  • Anchor

    Tevong says, “Is it any wonder the average person thinks science is just another belief system when it’s presented as such, or that people like the emailer aren’t aware of how much work goes into falsifying theories?”

    I’m confused: are you appending the object of this concern to the glut of crackpots or to honest but oft timid scientists who refrain from engaging the public in a way that fights crackpottery? Maybe I’m completely missing the target.

    BTW, that was an excellently crisp explanation answering Benjamin’s question. Bravo! Beautiful and succinct. Wish more of same to help thwart the tendency of the average person to think science is ‘just another belief system’.

  • Aaron

    Would you be interested in listening to a few questions on EM characteristics of spherical ferrous liquids?

    via e-mail of course 😉

    or anyone for that matter…


  • psmith

    What was the point of this posting? We routinely meet challenged people. Why elevate this to a blog posting? They deserve sorrow for their diminished cognitive state, not an orgy of self-congratulatory superiority.

  • Mr. G

    [quote]Few things warm the heart of a scientist more readily than a query from a young, curious mind, eager to learn about our universe. Why, just now I received this inquiring email:[/quote]
    Few things warm the heart of a wayward student of complex reality than a teacher who would rather hold you up to public derision than engage you in an informative way.

    Likes neutrons shining no light, or something.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @psmith: Announcing that Robert has a “diminished cognitive state” based on a single short email sure makes you a better, more modest person than those who are merely mocking his arrogance. You and Eric H. should combine your obvious interest in making condescending proclamations about what others are thinking while using plenty of imagery that involves people rubbing their bodies together. Hawt!

  • Eric Habegger

    NBWAW, there are occasions when there is merit in large groups of people seriously discussing an individual taking a wrong turn. That occasion occurs when the individual being discussed either has 1. Created serious harm, or
    2. Has the power or influence to create great harm.

    Power and prestige is the dividing line on how much attention these situations should get. The emailer had neither of these things going for him. If you can’t see that this post and it’s reactions are just about you and yours just feeling better about yourselves then I feel sorry for you. And yes, I do look down on you for not seeing that. But I’m not surprised it would come would from someone elevating Bugs Bunny to an object of prurient interest.

  • Eric Habegger

    Let me add one more thing. I think it was ok for Sean to be offended by Robert’s rudeness. I would have been too. But in retrospect it seems there was no proportionality between Robert’s rudeness and Sean putting his email out on Cosmic Variance. It was the disproportionality and lynch mob response that it engendered in many comments that were pretty bad. In fact, that turned out being much more offensive and ugly than Robert’s original rudeness. Everyone is allowed to be human and get pissed once in a while but it usually is the disproportionality in response to the original insult that cause problems. In fact I would say that disproportionality of response in conflicts is the cause of much of the worlds problems. I think that should be common sense for everyone but it does not seem to be the case among much of the population.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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