Monday, January 10, 2011

How do we talk about planets that rock?

Ever wonder about where journalists get the pithy and cleverish (and often cliche) images and metaphors they use to explain new scientific discoveries? Well, I do. And because I'm not really here working - and I don't have to worry about being clear or informative or thorough or pithy or cleverish - I can let my mind wander to cynical questions like this. Sorry, sorry, sorry for those of you that disapprove of cynicism.

This morning, as I attended the first press conference of the week, Exoplanets and their Host Stars, I realized that sometimes scientists try really hard to plant them.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, there were some truly cool things announced at the press conference about exoplanets, or planets that are outside of our solar system:

  • Edward Guinan of Villanova announced that big planets orbiting super close to stars can actually give away some of their angular momentum to the star, causing old stars to rotate faster than scientists previously thought they did. (This one is taking a while for me to wrap my head around.)
  • Adam Kowalski of University of Washington has found that small stars (much smaller than the sun) in places where astronomers are looking for exoplanets can actually make really big, intense flares. That doesn't look good for the possibility of life on potential exoplanets there.
  • (Hint, hint) This is the big discovery that we are all supposed to get excited about: Natalie Batalha of San Jose State announced that NASA's Kepler mission - which is looking for Earth-like exoplanets - has found it's first "unquestionably rocky planet." (There are other planets out there that are "questionably rocky," it seems.) (Here's the press release.)
I enjoyed the press conference because each speaker focused on the scientific process underlying each discovery. They talked about the problems they were trying to solve and the logic behind what kind of data they collected and some of the weird/confusing things they found along the way. It's something I wish showed up more in popular science stories: Don't just tell us what the we now knows (or, now think we know), but tell us why and how we got to that knowledge. So, good job on that one, scientists!

I am sure other science writers out there will describe the science for you better than I can, so back to what I enjoy most: analyzing the narrative/communication techniques of the press conference and the images that will serve to represent these findings in popular media. 

During Batalha's presentation, she called the rocky planet, Kepler-10b, "our Vulcan." This is an extended metaphor that harks back to one of the first telescopes designed specifically to search for exoplanets. It was named, yup, Vulcan. The namesake comes from a planet that early astronomers thought might be between Mercury and the sun. Turns out, Vulcan didn't exist - not in our solar system, at least. But if it did, it might look a lot like Kepler-10b, which is 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun. This makes Kepler-10b very hot (2500 degrees F, so almost as hot as some of the colder stars), near the melting point of iron.

The other narrative imagery Batalha used to inspire us about Kepler-10b was to focus on the fact that its star is 560 light years away. That means that when we look at Kepler-10b's star today, we are observing light from the year 1450. During 1450, Europeans were beginning to attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean and were on the brink of discovering the new world. And searching for planets with the Kepler mission is our 21st century exploration. A Euro-centric metaphor, sure, but it makes a nice story.

After the three speakers finished their presentations, Geoffrey Marcy from Berkeley, an "indepdenent commentator" and exoplanet big-wig, shared his reactions. As far as I could tell, the reason he was there was so that people could use a pre-packaged "other source" in their stories. (I already apologized for my cynicism...why do I feel I need to keep apologizing?) Anyway, he basically told us that the discovery of Kepler-10b is really awesome and important (just in case we didn't realize that). He told us that we need to remember Kepler-10b, because it will end up in all the astronomy text books (I felt that was a bit condescending...), and then, here it comes...

He called Kepler-10b a "planetary missing link." And this, my friends, is where I cringed.

Missing link is one of the biggest, baddest, most persistent science cliches. Bigger and badder, even, than "key to understanding" or "holy grail." The Knight Science Journalism Tracker derided science writers for leaping on the missing link train in anthropology, but the metaphor has an amazing ability to cross into completely non-related fields.

So, people like to make fun of science journalists (and rightly so) for relying heavily on cliches and tired metaphors.  Science journalists even like to make fun of themselves for it.

But, I just wanted point out that although journalists are guilty of being too lazy to find new (and probably more appropriate ways) to describe things, so are scientists. True, it's worse if a journalist falls back on a tired cliche, because it is a journalist's JOB to communicate. But, this may explain where some of it comes from. Journalists are taught to use the voices of their sources - instead of their own voice - as much as possible.

Anyway, I'll stop before this turns into an outright tirade - because it's not. Maybe I'll do a follow up post where I go back and count the number of cliches I used here...after all, pointing out that something is cliche is maybe the second-biggest cliche of all time. I am just poking around at some of the reasons accurate, interesting communication can be so hard.

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