Mar 25, 2008
So you're thinking, "April 1st... isn't that already supposed to be April Fool's Day?"
Yes—and that will provide the ideal cover for celebrating Amazing Breakthrough Day.
As I argued in "The Beauty of Settled Science", it is a major problem that media coverage of science focuses only on breaking news. Breaking news, in science, occurs at the furthest fringes of the scientific frontier, which means that the new discovery is often:
People never get to see the solid stuff, let alone the understandable stuff, because it isn't breaking news.
On Amazing Breakthrough Day, I propose, journalists who really care about science can report—under the protective cover of April 1st—such important but neglected science stories as:
Note that every one of these headlines are true—they describe events that did, in fact, happen. They just didn't happen yesterday.
There have been many humanly understandable amazing breakthroughs in the history of science, which can be understood without a PhD or even BSc. The operative word here is history. Think of Archimedes's "Eureka!" when he understood the relation between the water a ship displaces, and the reason the ship floats. This is far enough back in scientific history that you don't need to know 50 other discoveries to understand the theory; it can be explained in a couple of graphs; anyone can see how it's useful; and the confirming experiments can be duplicated in your own bathtub.
Modern science is built on discoveries built on discoveries built on discoveries and so on all the way back to Archimedes. Reporting science only as breaking news is like wandering into a movie 3/4ths of the way through, writing a story about "Bloody-handed man kisses girl holding gun!" and wandering back out again.
And if your editor says, "Oh, but our readers won't be interested in that—"
Then point out that Reddit and Digg don't link only to breaking news. They also link to short webpages that give good explanations of old science. Readers vote it up, and that should tell you something. Explain that if your newspaper doesn't change to look more like Reddit, you'll have to start selling drugs to make payroll. Editors love to hear that sort of thing, right?
On the Internet, a good new explanation of old science is news and it spreads like news. Why couldn't the science sections of newspapers work the same way? Why isn't a new explanation worth reporting on?
But all this is too visionary for a first step. For now, let's just see if any journalists out there pick up on Amazing Breakthrough Day, where you report on some understandable science breakthrough as though it had just occurred.
April 1st. Put it on your calendar.