Tepid Feelings about Neutron Clashes

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Newbie journalists love to ask where seasoned journalists find their story ideas. I’ll tell you where I find mine: Editors. They have really good ideas and sometimes they’ll just hand them to you. That’s called an assignment, and I take a lot of them.

Unfortunately, LWON doesn’t give assignments. So when you sign up for an open slot, you have to think of something to fill it. I had nothing for today, until Craig asked me to write about the neutron star thingamajig. (If you haven’t heard, scientists announced on Monday that they had, for the first time, observed evidence of a neutron star collision. Such clashes seem to be responsible for most of the universe’s heavy elements).

I laughed because I don’t do space. (Remember, I’m the one who was surprised to learn that Hubble is a space telescope.) So I responded, “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over.”

I don’t understand physics or astronomy, and I don’t care about them. 

But the more I thought about this, the less certain I became. Maybe, I thought, I actually care about space, but because I think I don’t care, I never take the time to read space stories. And then came an idea: Could my colleagues convince me to care? If I read some stories about the discovery, would I understand the excitement?

There was only one way to find out.

THE EXPERIMENT

I selected seven stories about the neutron collision more or less at random — some were recommended, some I found by googling. I read each of them in the order below.

1. LIGO Detects Fierce Collision of Neutron Stars for the First Time (Dennis Overbye – New York Times)

2. Scientists detect gravitational waves from a new kind of nova, sparking a new era in astronomy ( Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino – Washington Post)

3. The Plume of Gold Ejected by a Cosmic Collision (Marina Koren – Atlantic)

4. Scientists witness huge cosmic crash, find origins of gold (Seth Borenstein – Associated Press)

5. Colliding stars spark rush to solve cosmic mysteries (Davide CastelvecchiNature)

6. Neutron star collision showers the universe with a wealth of discoveries (Emily Conover – Science News)

7. Gravitational Wave Astronomers Hit Mother Lode (Lee Billings – Scientific American)

THE RESULTS

I’ll cut right to the chase. While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. 

But, despite my tepid interest, these articles were not a monotonous slog. I laughed out loud when Denis Overbye wrote that black holes “are composed of empty tortured space-time.” I don’t know what space-time is, but I like the idea that it can be tortured.

And when the writers homed in on the sudden and frenzied excitement that gripped the scientists involved in this discovery, I was transfixed. Here’s a bit from the Washington Post article that gave me literal chills:

Ryan Foley, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studies supernovas with the Carnegie Institution’s Swope telescope, was walking around an amusement park when he got the urgent text from one of his collaborators. He abandoned his partner in front of the carousel, jumped on a bike and pedaled back to his office.

He and his colleagues were up all night, first waiting for the sun to set on the Swope telescope in Chile, then sorting through the telescope’s images in search of a “transient” — an object in the sky that hadn’t been there before.

In the ninth image, postdoctoral researcher Charlie Kilpatrick saw it: a tiny new dot beside a galaxy known as NGC 4993, 130 million light-years away.

He notified the group through the messaging service Slack:

@foley found something

 sending you a screenshot

Foley marveled at Kilpatrick’s measured tone in those messages. “Charlie is the first person, as far as we know, the first human to have ever seen optical photons from a gravitational wave event,” he said.

It’s not at all surprising that I was drawn to this bit. I am a human. And humans like stories, mostly stories about other humans. I might not be interested in gravitational waves, but I am interested in science as a process. Humanize the process, and you’ll hook me every time.

When I was reading about this latest discovery, I remembered another story about gravitational waves that captured my attention. In 2014, scientists operating a radio telescope called BICEP2 found evidence of gravitational waves from the early universe. The finding provided strong support for the cosmic inflation theory, the idea that the universe expanded rapidly after its birth. Chao-Lin Kuo, one of the BICEP2 researchers, decided to surprise one of the main authors of the theory — theoretical physicist Andrei Linde — with the results. Stanford’s press office got wind of the idea, and asked if they could videotape the surprise. The result (below) brought me to tears. Real ones.

I cried again when I watched the video last night. And I wanted to cry even harder when I stumbled across the articles from 2015, the ones saying that the finding wasn’t real. What first appeared to be gravitational waves turned out to be cosmic dust. I thought of Andrei and his wife, Renata (also a theoretical physicist). I thought about how elated they had been, and how shattered they must be now.

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

***

The illustration shows the hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris stripped from the neutron stars just before they collided. This cloud produces the kilonova’s visible and infrared light. Within this neutron-rich debris, large quantities of some of the universe’s heaviest elements were forged, including hundreds of Earth masses of gold and platinum.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

 

 

 

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36 thoughts on “Tepid Feelings about Neutron Clashes

  1. Cassie, for somebody who doesn’t read phys/astro, the reading list you put together was masterly.

  2. I dunno. I could go without most of the human stuff in stories like this. (Then again, when Olympic broadcasts start doing those athlete history pieces, which in the USA they seem to do about 40% of the time, I turn the channel.)

  3. Since you hate astronomy so much, please, I beg of you, never write about it again. Actually maybe don’t write about science at all, since you can’t respect it. This was an amazing, wonderful observation, and no, I don’t give two shits about “the human drama” or whatever.

  4. Kelly, you won’t find me writing about astronomy. I’ll leave that to the pros. And it’s totally possible to respect the science and the scientists without being all that interested in their results. I’m so glad we have physicists and astronomers. And I’m so glad people are writing about their work. I just don’t have much interest in reading about it. But you and bitguru bring up a good point: Some readers don’t need or want the human drama. The science is enough. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication talks about there being six unique audiences that all respond to the issue of climate change in different ways. That’s surely true for physics and astronomy too. And I don’t know how science writers can appeal to all of them. Maybe it’s not possible.

  5. Sometimes the human drama is the only story. I spent some time at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory when I was working on my degree in Astrophysics. Before I went I was excited about the fact that well over 100 astronomers and astrophysicists worked together in the same building. I expected I’d get to see first-hand the collaborations and “idea factories” that make science great. Instead I saw whining, back-stabbing, paranoia, and out-right data theft among a bunch of people who were so desperate to make names for themselves that they missed every opportunity to talk to their peers so that they could “do it first” themselves. Right there was where the real story lie. It eventually drove me into the much more collegiate field of Earth Sciences. Human drama is important.

  6. I love this post. As a fellow space shrugger, I’m glad that some writers keep trying to show me the wonder of space — or, at least, show me a bit of other people’s wonder.

  7. Dr D, had the same experience at the CfA. Ended up leaving the field for nearly a decade in disillusionment. Anyhow, Cassandra — I have to agree with Kelly: next time, maybe refer this story to a writer who actually cares about the material. Because people *should* care about this, and it’s a science journalist’s job to explain why they should. It’s a very big story for astronomy, and science in general.

  8. But, Dr. T., lots of stories are covering those merging neutron stars and Cassie’s not one of them. And this is a blog, not Science or Nature, so we’re really writing only about what does or does not interest a science writer. I’m covering the neutron star merger myself but in a larger context and as a longer feature for a respectable, paying publication; but my joy in Cassie’s post is the joy of someone now allowed to never read another story about CRISPR.

    Also I’m not surprised about CfA.

  9. Hearing about space from someone not in love with it is refreshing and I believe offers a unique form of respect and fascination. Not all stories are cheerleading. Some are just authentic.

  10. Amazing -or maybe it isn’t – how a few commenters here apparently read Cassie’s honest-but-uncomfortable essay and the point they take away is that she shouldn’t write about astronomy. Good…effin…grief. Can someone’s ego be threatened because a writer declares she has no interest in space? The point here is that providing insight into how a discovery was made and how the discoverers felt could draw in readers who would otherwise stop reading. That’s a good lesson. (And it’s a good essay).

  11. Personally, I’m a big proponent of occasionally assigning news coverage to someone unfamiliar, and even uninterested, in the subject at hand. They’ll bring a fresh perspective and the potential to come up with a story no one else has. Stuff that seems “unimportant” to the more experienced crew will pique their interest. I’m thinking here of David Foster Wallace, for example, being assigned to write about lobsters for Gourmet magazine. I never used to write about cosmology and now, sometimes, I do (I am dejected that Cassandra did not review my neutron star piece; perhaps I was the lone writer who could make her care!) and I love those pieces. Similarly, the words “UN climate change negotiations,” did not exactly stir my soul, but I forced myself to write about them repeatedly in an effort to inform and amuse the indifferent masses.

  12. This article was bad and you and your editor should feel bad. I will never click a link to this lastwordonnothing website again.

  13. Just in case you do click on LWON again, Thomas, we have no editors, just writers free to write for free about whatever interests — or does not– a science writer.

  14. I very much astonished that you see the human element in any positive light. While the physics and astronomy in this event are the most interesting and arguably the grandest observation in recent years, I wonder what part of the human aspect, work-life balance is OK here?

    Surely in the snippet you’ve chosen gives me a chill, too but I’m sure for other reasons. Leaving the partner and do an all nighter payed off this time, but not every transient alert can be turned to a series of papers, quite the opposite. And my limited experience shows that people who do this themselves are also expect this as the norm from their students. Brilliant way to create a toxic environment and thus this behaviour, in my opinion should not be celebrated at all.

  15. Love this so much. Not a science writer but married to one. I have zero interest in space, but loved the human element of the Slack conversation. My spouse, who wrote about the discovery for one of the universities involved, just sent this post to me … no doubt knowing how much it would resonate with me.

    I disagree strongly with those who think that people not particularly interested in space should not write about it. How do people think funding for science happens? Do all members of Congress and the Senate care about science for science’s sake? Do most Americans? Hardly. Good science writing involves multiple perspectives. That Slack conversation made me care about the discovery because the people involved so obviously did. It humanized them–and made an English major like me connect to the discovery on a different level. I went on to read more about the discovery BECAUSE of that anecdote … and just maybe I became more knowledgeable and interested in space as a result.

  16. I kind of feel like I need to make it clear that that Thomas is not this Thomas. I will click repeatedly and thought Cassie’s essay was fabulous.

  17. Oh this is just delightful! You have made my day Cassandra. Thank you so much for helping me feel better about my secret shame! I’m so pleased I’ve found you and this website. I have Ed Yong to thank for pointing this out to me via twitter.

  18. So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

  19. Hi Cassie, did you read Quanta Magazine’s article? They led with the human interest angle and nailed it.

  20. Praise for Cassie expressing an opinion clearly. Also struggling with the question of how much “human drama” should go into writing about science.

  21. I’ve always felt that the challenge for science writers — and really for all reporters who grapple with complex subjects– is to grow the audience. That’s not our only goal but any time we find a way to grab peoples’ attention, seduce them into wonder and astonishment, we should. Reporters, I’ve always felt, should be part wizard, trying to cast a spell on the otherwise uninterested (or intimidated or too busy to bother) people out there. I’m like Cassie. I open the paper, the magazine, the computer, the whatever hoping to be bewitched. There are a lot of people like us out there – the untapped market. Reporters need to be reminded that we are here, waiting. “Come and get us” is what we don’t say. But as Cassie just reminded us, it’s one of the reasons we do what we do.

  22. So, I’m a space writer. And I agree with a lot of what Cassie said here, if not with all the ways she said it. People are (of course) allowed to dislike disciplines. The universe is big and full of things to be interested in. I *also* think lots of physics and astronomy is boring (plz keep giving me jobs, tho)! And I, of course, agree that human- and drama-centric stories are of more interest to people with no inherent interest in a topic, while pure-science-focused stories appeal more tightly to a different audience.

    I think my personal reaction to this story (which was fairly offended at first and less so as time went on, as is the way of humans) was due to its presentation. It seemed (although of course this is just my biased perception) like Willyard believed she had stumbled on anomalies when she found human drama and narrative in space stories, and prescribed “more of that” as a solution to dissatisfaction, when there’s actually quite a bit of that out there, as her story goes on to prove. The article doesn’t seem to acknolwedge the community of space writers who do, regularly, try to tell stories (and have for eons) in that way, precisely to capture the interest of people who previously thought, “Physics sucks.”

    I think that if the top of this article had included the idea that, in her experiment, Willyard found that space writers *had*, in fact, caused her to care about a topic she didn’t care about before–rather than stating only that she didn’t care and so was doing this experiment–that framing could have softened the sentiment. But! That obviously reduces the dramatic unfolding of *this* story, and also Willyard is in no way obligated to soften sentiments for the benefit of space writers.

    To give some context to space writers’ reactions/overreactions to the “I don’t understand physics or astronomy, and I don’t care about them,” I think Jennifer Ouellette’s SciAm post from a few years ago is pretty illuminating: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/science-writer-throwndown-fear-and-loathing-of-physics/. It’s written in response to another LWON piece about which science fields are the best/worst.

    The piece seemed (in my view) to go in with the assumption that space writers wouldn’t take on their stories in the same way any other science writer would: with craft techniques that connect wary readers to an unfamiliar topic. It seemed, then, to come as a surprise that that writing did exist, and you asked for more of it. I agree: More would be great. But there’s a lot to be had already.

  23. This is the most fascinating comment thread I’ve read on LWON for a while. So interesting.

    FWIW, if you ever get around to re-doing the blog’s look & feel, have a look at using some platform like Disqus for the comments. It’s apparently fairly easy to integrate, and I like being notified of interactions on comments.

  24. I admit to being a little baffled by the reactions to this article. I know that there’s an argument to be made for human versus science as some sort of binary opposition but an interest in the neutron star collision through an interest in the cold, hard facts of it and/or an interest in the human elements of it – well, isn’t it all part and parcel of this crazy universe? Micro-, macro-, I feel like these things are best illuminated in relation to one another. But I also respect if one side interests a person more than the other. Thank you, Cassandra, for your perspective. I don’t find it to be mutually exclusive with the other articles you linked. It adds dimension and something more to think about.

  25. As a non-scientist, I enjoyed this blog. I appreciate anyone who can make me care about something I don’t understand or don’t think I need to care about. For me, that often comes through the human-drama angle. But, as all teachers know, there is not one approach that works for every student. Every day, I work to make 7th and 8th graders care about history, reading, writing, math, and music. If I do it only one way, I’ll convince all the kids who are just like me and leave the rest cold. I don’t feel the blogger was saying that only one way is the right way; I think she was noticing what works for her. That’s something I ask all of my students to do. I enjoyed the article, and I found it illuminating that it offended some people. I keep learning, over and over, that I have no idea how other people think. Such an important thing to remember.

  26. Cassie, Anne’s use of “merger” is correct rather than “collision” used by the press. These two stars
    were not on a collison course but were orbiting each other, and gradually got close enough to merge in one star. Cassie, I do “street” telescoping in Baltimore, my three big features being Jupiter, Saturn (rings!) and the Moon. If you’re ever in town, please come HAV-A-LOOK!, and I promise you thereafter be sold on star stuff.

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