Monday, 16 November 2015

Tearing of hair - the sequel

Not long ago I reported on a piece in the Metro paper claiming that a 'maths theorem could pave the way for installer travel.'

I was delighted to receive an email from one of the paper's young authors, Ivan Zelich, pointing out that the media had distorted his message.

The Metro carried a quote from Zelich that read '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.' However, I'm told that this 'quote' was never said. Zelich pointed out 'I actually meant the following, and you will understand how it could be misinterpreted':
The main lemma we developed to prove our theorem was highly projective in nature, which indicates to us that it could be generalised to possible more complex structures in high dimensional projective spaces. Since we are talking about applications, I would like to find a way, after such generalisation, to link this in order to understand the structure manifolds better and perhaps ultimately find something new to help aid (super-)string theory. 
Why does this help with intergallactic travel? 
It doesn't really show us a link with it, but of course solutions to one of Einstein's equations is a bridge, called wormholes if you will. 
And with planetary travel, structures etc... the Fermat point is the minimal possible sum of the distances from the vertices of a triangle, and this has been generalised to polygons, so I said there may be connections there.
This is certainly very different from the story as reported, though I was confused how wormholes came into it at all, as the Einstein-Rosen bridge came from a paper in the 1930s based on the general theory of relativity long before string theory was a glint in a physicist's eye. A further clarification from Zelich was to say that he did not mention intergalactic travel 'They asked me about it.' Which makes it puzzling as to why the media types thought of it. He then added, in danger of revisiting exaggeration 'What I meant to say was that if we understand the universe and this solution is true, then we have these short cuts in space. If the theorem is generalised it could have implications in algebraic geometry, and the leap I suggested was from isopivotal cubics to algebraic cubics in high projective spaces, which to my knowledge are important in the mathematics behind string theory.'

As I suggested in the original post, the main problem here is the way that the media exaggerates science stories to make them more eye catching. It shouldn't have been necessary. I would have been happy as a science journalist with 'Teenagers come up with theorem that could be pivotal in major physics theory,' even though my suspicion is that string theory is a dead end that will fade away over the next couple of decades.

However I do hope that the teenagers have also learned an important lesson - a lesson that working scientists and university PRs also need to learn - that it can be dangerous to give the media the tools with which to misinterpret you, because, given the opportunity, they surely will.


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