Trick of the light

By Chris Colin

By Salon Staff
Published August 7, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)

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As a scientist-in-training (although certainly not a physicist), I sympathize with the journalists who wrote these "misleading stories" which Chris Colin finds so objectionable. There are any number of reasons journalists would believe that the article by Wang, et al., in Nature is actually about making light travel faster than the speed of light. It says so in the abstract of the paper itself: "Here we use gain-assisted linear anomalous dispersion to demonstrate superluminal light propagation in atomic caesium gas." Translated: "We made light go faster than the speed of light."

For articles of interest to all scientists (and non-scientists), Nature publishes a one- to two-page "News & Views" summarizing the article in lay terms. This article is generally written by another scientist in the field (who is often very critical of the research) and details why the paper is interesting, but also its limitations, caveats, etc. The News & Views of Wang's paper (written by British physicist Jon Marangos) does not focus on "an explanation of anomalous dispersion in light pulses," rather, the title of the article is "Faster than a speeding photon" and contains the quote, "The textbooks say nothing can travel faster than light, not even light itself. New experiments show that this is no longer true, raising questions about the maximum speed at which we can send information." These are not the words of an uninformed journalist, but a physicist in the same field as Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang's behavior is completely unjustified. Nature is one of the top scientific journals in the world. It publishes work that relates to all scientists, independent of their field. Therefore, to publish an article in Nature, a scientist must make an extraordinary claim and then back that claim up with supporting data. Publishing a scientific article in Nature is akin to shouting it from the mountaintop. Dr. Wang must have known that he would receive a great deal of attention for this paper, and should have expected that certain statements (particularly, any statement about exceeding the speed of light) would be reported extensively in the mainstream press. I suspect he is more embarrassed by his notoriety than angry at misinterpretations of his statements.

No one forced Dr. Wang to state that he found a technique to exceed the speed of light, or to publish that statement in the most-read scientific journal in the world, or to write a press release repeating that for all the world to see. He has little reason to be embarrassed, and no reason to hang up on reporters trying to figure out the difference between what he said and what he meant.

-- Michael Kasten

In your article on the non-breaking of the speed of light, you mention that exciting science stories come along once in a light-year. A light-year is a measure of distance (the length light travels in one year), not a measure of time or period. Thus, your statement makes no more sense than saying an exciting science story arrives about once a foot or so.

I also disagree with the premise. The advances in computers, medicine and genetics have been coming fast and furious lately. I have trouble keeping up.

-- Stephen R. Stapleton

As a former newspaper journalist with a physics degree, I've lamented for years the quality of coverage accorded science in the popular media. I've wrung my hands countless times at the high school level errors found in articles or television reports -- perhaps due to English majors covering cops one moment and quarks and leptons the next. (Lest I seem chauvinistic, I've even seen a column in a major trade publication advocating the technical ignorance of journalists so that they can represent the reader's point of view when reporting such stories.) The "gee-whiz" quality of science journalism outside a few select outlets has also left a bad taste in my mouth.

However, not until Chris Colin's thorough treatment of the recent Einsteinian false alarm did I tie it all together. Few Americans care about the beauty of infinite complexity -- why the universe is as it is. We want to know how these developments will make out lives faster, better, cheaper. Will they make our thighs thinner, our commute shorter, our kids smarter? The "hook" required of popular journalism just isn't often present in science, or is so abstract or undefined as to be unintelligible by the layman. Perhaps in this respect science reporting bears more resemblance to the arts than to its other news column brethren. I remain optimistic that well-written science journalism will continue to increase in frequency as our collective technological acumen rises, but episodes such as this serve to temper that enthusiasm.

-- Joseph Galarneau

Salon Staff

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