Friday, 29 January 2016

Another competitor for 'overblown science headline of the year'

Thanks to Ian Bald for pointing out the impressive headline 'The Death of Relativity Lurks in a Black Hole's Shadow' in Wired.

What's so impressive here is just how much it's possible to get wrong in a single headline. Black holes, of course, don't have 'shadows.' I think what they mean is its event horizon, though the article is so fuzzy it's difficult to be sure.

However, the real shocker is the apparent claim that general relativity is dead. Here's the thing. No it isn't. What the article actually says is that if a black hole's 'shadow' (event horizon?) isn't perfectly spherical or isn't just the right size for it's mass, then general relativity's predictions would be wrong. Well, duh. This would also be true if it were pink or singing the Stars and Stripes. Note however, that no one has discovered that its shape or size is different from prediction. (Or that it's pink.) They're just saying that we might be close to being able to make a measurement to see if it lives up to prediction. That's all.

Even if there is a disparity, as the article says 'If Einstein is wrong, general relativity won’t go away—it’s too good at what it does. It just won’t be the whole story anymore.' Right. And that fits with the headline how?

I appreciate editors want headlines that grab people's attention, but if they are going to deviate so far from the facts in order to do so, why not go the whole hog? I look forward to the headline on an article about a new extrasolar planet, where the story is that it's about the right size for life to read:

NEW PLANET HOME TO KILLER BEES, PROVED TO BE THE UNIVERSE'S BIGGEST COLDPLAY FANS.

Why not? It makes as much sense.


1 comment:

  1. I agree that speaking of the death of GR is pretty bold, not to say brazen. Overstated headlines, whether or not they stand above science stories, have been peeving me lately. I recently saw one, also in Wired, announcing that driving will be outlawed by 2030. The article itself was merely a proposal that the world should move away from allowing people to drive cars so that it's no longer allowed by 2030, on the assumption that autonomous vehicles will do a better job. A proposal isn't a prediction; for some reason, the headline writer didn't think it'd work to say "Let's ban human drivers by 2030" or something of the kind.

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