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March 21, 2013

Science Writing in the Media and Why It Sucks

Interesting story.

I guess. I can't tell from this reporter's writing. I don't think he understands anything at all. If he does, he sure is hiding that fact.

The map, the Planck team said in news conferences and in 29 papers posted online Thursday morning, is in stunning agreement with the general view of the universe that has emerged over the past 20 years, of a cosmos dominated by dark energy that is pushing it apart and dark matter that is pulling galaxies together. It also shows a universe that seems to have endured an explosive burp known as inflation, which was the dynamite in the Big Bang.

Does that sentence clarify or obscure? He thinks his metaphors are pretty nifty; I think they're awful.

Vague bad-novelistic metaphor is the First Sin of Media Science Writing. The next sin is to just quote people talking about how awesome whatever is, without ever explaining that whatever.

You'll just have to take experts' word for it: It's awesome. For some reason.

In a statement issued by the European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain, its director general, said, “The extraordinary quality of Planck’s portrait of the infant universe allows us to peel back its layers to the very foundations, revealing that our blueprint of the cosmos is far from complete.”

It's probably time for Deepak Choprah-like How-It-All-Really-Just-Fits-Together quote, which indicates without explicating.

Marc Kamionkowski, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who commented on the work at a news teleconference sponsored by NASA, called Planck “cosmology’s human genome project,” saying, “It shows the seeds from which the current universe grew.”

You may have lost some non-science readers who want to pretend they're "pro-science" with that one. It's time to take this up to the 20,000 100,000 foot level. Let's get really basic now, and just say it's very pretty.

David N. Spergel, a Princeton University cosmologist, described the new results “beautiful,” adding that “the standard cosmological model looks even stronger today than yesterday. The universe remains simple and strange.”

After explaining the universe is slightly "lumpier" than previously thought (why? Maybe add some details here about the structure of space itself? Nah) we're back to faux-mystical take on things to comfort the liberal arts majors.

Now cosmologists will have to take them more seriously, said Max Tegmark, an expert on the early universe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not part of the Planck team and who termed the new results “very exciting.” It could be, he said, that “the universe is trying to tell us something.”

Like? Ooh, good. Let's hear the details.

In fairness I think the next paragraph is supposed to add some meat to that bone, but it itself is vague. It just says that some hope to create a "new physics" to explain why space is made up of clumps of matter rather than evenly-distributed matter.

But as it stands that paragraph is just soft-soap for the Mystics who aren't reading for the science, just for the whispered It's Full of Stars drama of it. The people whose understanding of, for example, Chaos Theory, is pretty much limited to the Depak Chopra version of it: Shit happens, dude.

Read the article and let me know if you find yourself knowing anything more than you did when you read it. Or if you've just had a bunch of pop-science bookcover-blurb buzzwords tossed at you. It all just seems like hype, trying to let you know that there's a fantastic party going on -- a sentiment I don't mind at all -- but the writer himself apparently never got into the party so can only tell you about some of the music he heard out on the street.

And these guys, by the way, are the experts who tell us the Science is Settled on global warming.

A Better Account: From Business Insider.

This cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, is still detectable today, and interestingly, it's not evenly spread out across the universe. There are tiny fluctuations that make it "clumpy," and that shapes the universe around us. The clumpiness was the seeds of galaxies and clusters of galaxies that we see in the universe today.

It is clumpy because of fluctuations in the temperature and density of the universe at the moment the radiation waves started moving through it. Planck is able to look back at the universe when it was just 370,000 years old — when this radiation started moving.

Then they graphically illustrate the finer detail of the Planck map, comparing it to past maps of background radiation.

It does start off shaky, telling us the universe is 100 million years older than we thought -- no one sweats 100 million years in a guestimate of something 13+ billion years old. And then it tells us the early Big Bang was "white hot... blindingly bright," which is... gee thanks, I didn't figure on it being blindingly bright. I figured it was more like 300 watts, who knows, maybe even 400.

Anyway, though, after that stuff for dumb people, it does a better job than the "science" writer at the NYT.

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posted by Ace at 05:23 PM

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