Friday, 6 November 2015

Sound of tearing hair

Not long ago I mentioned the evils of science exaggeration. It's all too easy for journalists, often aided and abetted by either university PRs or scientists themselves, to make over-the-top claims. I think I've just come across the most dramatic example of this I've ever seen.

'Teenagers' maths theorem could pave the way for interstellar travel,' screams the headline. No, it really, really couldn't. There's a lot to be said for that Metro masthead 'news... but not as you know it'. Though to be fair, they were by no means alone in making this claim.

The origin of this hysterical unlikelihood was a geometry paper by a pair of 17-year-olds. The fact that Xuming Liang and Ivan Zelich produced the paper, published in the International Journal of Geometry is certainly newsworthy. But the leap from Generalisations of the Properties of the Neuberg Cubic to the Euler Pencil of Isopivotal Cubics to Starfleet is considerable.

Here is the phrase that does all the damage. 'The theorem will contribute to our understanding of intergalactic travel because string theory predicts existence shortcuts in space, or so-called "wormholes" to cut through space.' The quote is from co-author Zelich. But the journalists involved don't seem to have given any thought to the possibility that a 17-year-old could be good at geometry without knowing too much about life, the universe and PR.

The first problem with that statement is that string theory doesn't predict wormholes. It doesn't predict anything - that's one of the problems with string theory. Nothing predicts wormholes actually exist, but general relativity does provide a potential mechanism for them with the proviso that they would be  pretty well impossible to travel through. But even if string theory did predict wormholes, so what? String theory is not at this stage a useful scientific theory for anything, and may well end up being discarded. And even if it that weren't the case, a geometry theorem does not somehow turn string theory into an interstellar transport mechanism. To put it politely, it's baloney.

Perhaps slightly more with-it journalists than those on the Metro would have raised an eyebrow at Zelich's other quote 'It also helps finding minimal possible math between certain planets based on their structure,' which I've read ten times and still haven't a clue what it means.

So, thanks to the wonders of science exaggeration, what was a really good story - teens publish impressive original geometry paper - has become a truly naff example of non-science reporting. Nice.

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