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who?!

So says the title of a science news on The Philippine Star, one of the major newspapers in the Philippines.  The report was about the BPI Science awardees of 2009.  The connection is that the winning research work on analyses of some nonlinear and nonlocal systems can be used to solve our local traffic problems.  It is a bit of a stretch…a loooooong stretch, like Earth-Pluto stretch.

Sadly, The Philippine Star is not alone in this.  How many times have you encountered a ‘science’ article being spiced up as though it could solve all our longings – from traffic problems, to making cash out of nothing, and even on finding one’s true love?

Don’t get me wrong.  Science (including Math) can really do wonders and it has made us  ‘advanced’ this far. But does this mean that any science news should be worth a newspaper’s space? On most research, yes but a newspaper’s space is also a commodity and as such,  should sell.  This might explain why science news needs to be spiced up or laymanize.

I have no problems with making science easily digestible to the public.  Don’t you just love it when everybody is properly well-informed?  The operative word is properly.  There is much to be desired in science news writing in the Philippines though (see example above).  In most universities/scientific institutions outside of our islands,  there is a huge  effort to promote their research works via public lectures or news briefs.  In Dutch universities, a dissertation defense is in two parts – a layman lecture and the formal academic defense.  Imagine presenting Dual Kappa Poincaré algebra in front of your non-science inclined high school pals.

The primary generators of science news should be the scientists themselves (with some professional help from real writers).  This way there’s nothing lost in translation.  The news might not sell but at least the news is accurate and the subtleties of the research are still there.  The Samahang Pisika ng Pilipinas tried to do this at its website.  Sadly (again), the momentum was not sustained.

But it is still a commodity! The main obstacle really is grabbing the attention of the reader, the spicing up.  How spicy is a matter of taste not only in food but also in science.   Again, who can better tell how hot their research is if not the scientists themselves.  I leave it out to the editors to decide if they’ll put it somewhere in their newspaper.  Hopefully not in the obituaries.  Which brings me to my last point.

The consumer. If the above news article’s focus is not on RP’s traffic, does it have a chance of even been glanced upon? Not at all.  This is also the problem besetting mass media.  I don’t have the solution but the best thing that we can do is to be extra vigilant and not to stop writing good science news.

Most used words in this blog post.

spicy.sad.science.news.again.

Oh by the way, did you know that there is a lengthly reply to that article? Thank goodness it’s possible.   Here is his first paragraph,

I am familiar with _____ work as I have read his papers and was present during the final presentations for the competition. The Philippine Star article reflects more about the reporter’s efforts to jazz up something she probably does not understand completely than about the content of the work.  The “nonlinear part” of the work refers to the student’s investigations of relativistic nonlinear oscillators which is potentially useful for the analysis of the spectra of heavy nuclei. The “nonlocal part” of the work refers to the student’s investigations on the effect of time-varying magnetic fields and colored noise on the motion of charged Brownian particles. Such studies are potentially useful in plasma physics. The publications arising from this research include one published in Physics Letters and another one published in Physical Review E. There is no mention of traffic in these published papers.

I have a good guess who this is.  There are only 3 Physicists in that room.  Count me and there are only two left because I didn’t write the comment.  Send me a message for the name.

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