Hey AP!! We are IN the Cosmos

We are PART of It!

Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy Blog is always battling dumb portrayals of science in movies, on TV, in the media, etc. You know what I’m talking about—wrong lunar phases in movies, stupid things like having Barbie say “Math is hard!” and mis-statements about physics and astronomy in newscasts. It happens every day, and nobody in the media really gives much of a hoot because to them, science is just another beat, another story, another “weird” thing to write about to keep people from worrying too much about all the other problems in the world. Don’t wanna write about the White House breaking the law cuz it’s too hard on one’s reportorial skills or the editor doesn’t want you to? Well, hey, let’s write a story about weird science. That’ll deflect people’s attention! Don’t understand anything about astronomy or physics or math, Mr. or Ms. Reporter? Doesn’t matter as long as you have a snappy lead, right? (And, just for disclosure, I consider myself a journalist too, even got a degree in journalism and mass communications—so I know their jobs and I know their beats. But I still get to call shenanigans on ’em!)

Okay, so I’m a bit cynical about media portrayals of science and misuse of science terms in movies, TV and news. Wouldn’t you be if your profession were continually misrepresented by the media? If you’re a scientist, you continually read really silly stereotypes about science and scientists, like the one about how scientists are just geeks. Or you go to movies and see scientists being portrayed as loners, or evil geniuses, or lonesome weirdos working at the frontiers of science. Wearing pocket protectors. And thick glasses.

It’s kind of like being an atheist and reading stories about how atheists supposedly worship Satan (hello!! atheists profess no belief in any deity, and last time I looked, Satan was supposedly the Lord of the Underword in several mytho-romantical religious cultures). Or being a Muslim and finding out in the media that you’re a bloodthirsty bomber, or being a Christian and reading that all Christians hate everybody, or being a woman and reading in the media that all women want or need is a good man, or being a teenaged girl and finding out that your biggest goal should be to look anorectic so you can attract boys. Or… well, I could go on and on. Stereotypes and mistakes in the media are an annoyance, but if people who read and watch media are well-educated enough, they can look beyond the stereotype. (And the sad state of science education in my country is another tangent I could go off on, particularly since it seems that many reporters don’t take ONE class in science when they’re in J-School… but I digress…).

What got me up on my Science Mistakes Soapbox today? Reading CNN.com. Which kind of surprised me, because usually their science stories are pretty good and reasonably accurate most of the time. They don’t make the usual bone-headed mistakes that I see so often in much of mainstream media.

So, today I was reading about Sunita Williams, one of NASA’s astronauts on the International Space Station. She was all over the news last week (at least in Boston) because she ran the Boston Marathon in space while the race was being held here on Earth. There was lots of cool coverage about her training and how she’d run it on the treadmill while whirling around the planet at 17,239 miles per hour (27,273 kilometers per hour). Today’s story (which you can read here), talks about Sunita catching a ride home soon, if the Atlantis shuttle launches on time.

The part that set me off on this discussion was the last part of the first sentence (called the “lead” in J-talk), which said:

“…so she doesn’t have to spend more than six months in the cosmos.”
In the cosmos??? That one definitely jarred my attention, and I asked myself, “Okay, what part of “cosmos” doesn’t the story writer understand?”

For those of you following along at home, here’s a nice definition of the word at Dictionary.com. It cites the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of “cosmos” that says, in part:

“the universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious whole.”

The use of the word “cosmos” in the CNN story is wrong. And you don’t even have to be a scientist to know it. Any reasonably well-educated person should know what the word “cosmos” means, right? Probably the writer didn’t want to say “outer space” or “on orbit” (although I don’t know why not). But, substituting the word “cosmos” is just plain wrong. We’re already IN the cosmos! Earth is part of the cosmos. Low-earth orbit is part of the cosmos.The flowers in my yard are part of the cosmos.

The tale comes from the Associated Press, which I used to admire quite a bit for its accuracy and good writing. But, it seems they’ve let their standards slip a bit. I think that somebody’s writer is a little non-cosmos-mentis. and shame on CNN for just running it as is, without correcting the mistake.

He Saw Gravity’s Lens for What it Is

R.I.P. Bohdan Paczynski: 1940-2007

I just got the news that astrophysicist Bohdan Paczynski died last Thursday after a battle with brain cancer. Bohdan was one of the most helpful and insightful scientists I ever had the opportunity to talk with. Some years ago I was writing an article about gravitational lensing (one of his specialties) for Sky & Telescope magazine and I had an extensive correspondence with Bohdan about his work. In a few well-spoken sentences he helped me understand several aspects of gravitational lensing, not an easy thing to explain on the best of days. He kept in touch with me, and as deadline time drew near for me to turn in the article, he was quite helpful in emailing me updates of the latest work being done in the field. I remember getting an email from him asking if I could give him a call. As luck would have it, I was on a cruise ship serving as an astronomy lecturer for a couple of weeks, and we had just left Montevideo, Uruguay. I wrote him back and said that I was onboard a ship and that I could do emails quickly and cheaply. And thus we finalized my article, him in his office at Princeton and me 500 miles offshore in the South Atlantic. I’ll never forget how helpful Bohdan was, and I’ll miss him greatly.

So, time passes and things change. There are a good many helpful people out there in the astronomy community who love to talk about their work. I often think about the time Gene Shoemaker escorted a group of us down into Meteor Crater in Arizona one year. I miss him, too, even though I didn’t correspond with him nearly as much as with Bohdan or others in the astronomy community. So, I salute their passing and hope that new generations of astronomers will rise up to continue the paths they started.

Speaking of things changing, Mark Petersen sent me a link to a movie that will shift your thinking a bit. Check it out!