Friday, 14 February 2014

Con-fusion

It's not surprising when the beam lines have to go through two of these
that a bit of energy is lost.
(Photo courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
I'm a bit embarrassed that the day after moaning about the Today programme's handling of a climate change story, I'm getting at the way the press dealt with a science story today. Some may rightly say something about pots and kettles.

After all, I am a science writer, and I get things wrong too (most recently calling the Harwell facility the National Physical Laboratory rather than it's true name of the Rutherford Appleton - though, to be fair, I think the Harwell lab probably deserves the title more). But the problem I'm describing is more about mainstream media misunderstanding the science, rather than a simple factual error.

The last couple of days, most of the papers have carried excited reporting of a breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility, the vast nuclear fusion site at the Lawrence Livermore lab in America, where they are experimenting with creating fusion for energy by zapping small amounts of material with vast lasers. Typical of the write-ups was the Guardian with 'Sustainable nuclear fusion breakthrough raises hopes for ultimate green energy'. They tell how the scientists have achieved a world first by getting more energy out of the nuclear fuel than they put in.

What some of the other papers never mention, and the Guardian doesn't put up front, is that this is true, but not as good as it sounds. It's true they did get more energy out of the fuel than they put into it - but they got a lot less out than they put into the system as a whole, as the vast banks of laser amplifiers all lose a bit along the way. To be fair to the Graun, they did eventually explain this - but I think the way the story is structured doesn't put enough emphasis on it up front. And several other papers never even bothered to mention this bit at all.

However, that isn't really what I've got a problem with, so much as the timing. Most of the articles (including the Guardian one) give the impression that this break-through has just happened. But in fact it took place last autumn and was well publicised at the time. All that's happened now is that it has been written up in Nature, who have put out a press release about it and the journalists reacted to the press release, not the actual event.

Now I know many scientists don't particularly like information about experiments to be publicised before they have a peer-reviewed paper, but this was rather different. Either way, the result was, because of the press's obsession that they can only write about things that are immediate and current, rather than just because they are interesting (which this is), that the truth about the timing was carefully pasted over. And that's a bit naughty.

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