Tag Archives: science writing

The Irish Times and the God particle

Today, The Irish Times has an article of mine on its weekly science page. In the piece, I describe the tentative results from CERN and Fermilab on the famous Higgs boson, amidst some explanatory background on particle physics. I put some thought into the piece, but I suspect what will be remembered is the headline ‘Nearer, my God particle, to thee’. This was not the title I submitted, to put it mildly.

I have no particular problem with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs boson (unlike many of my colleagues). I admit the moniker is both catchy and reasonably apt as the Higgs field is thought to endow all other particles with mass. It is also appropriate because the Higgs is an important keystone of our model of particle physics, yet it has proved remarkably elusive – so something of a Holy Grail.

However, I’m not comfortable with the Irish Times headline. The hymn ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’ has a lot of resonance for people who have lost loved ones (think Titanic). A pun based on such a hymn isn’t very clever in my view; it manages to trivialise both science and religion, all in my name.

This keeps happening to me. I put time and thought into expressing science clearly, and what eventually appears does so under a headline I dislike. Journalist friends tell me not to be precious but I think language is important.

This morning, I suspect my name is mud in the coffee room of every physics department in Ireland. As for the humanities, we can expect some outraged letters to the editor from professors of theology or philosophy - to the delight of The Irish Times. Sigh.

The article is here.

Caution: silly puns trivialise both science and religion and may cause offence

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Filed under Particle physics, Science and society

‘Verdict out on relativity questioning experiment’

What does the headline above mean? I’m not sure, but it is the title of an article in today’s Irish Times, written by your humble correspondent. (I had suggested ‘Faster than light?’ or ‘Was Einstein wrong?‘, but the above is what appeared).

It’s always nice to have a science article published in a national broadsheet, and I thought it was worth revisiting the OPERA experiment before the end of 2011. I enjoyed writing the article and colleagues tell me the question and answer format worked well.

But what about that title? And the opening line? (see print edition). Both were super-imposed by the sub-editor and I find them quite poor. This keeps happening; I take time and effort to write science pieces for the public as clearly as I can, and a professional writer comes along and superimposes something quite sloppy. It’s a pity because nine out of ten cats will read no further than the title and opening sentence.

If the article and headline were submitted as student work, this would be my verdict:

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The headline used for this article breaks almost every rule of science writing

1. The English is poor  – it is not clear what a ‘relativity questioning experiment’ is

2. ‘Verdict out’ is also not clear – ‘jury out’ would be better, but is still clumsy

3. The title is also intimidating – never use a word like relativity in a headline if you can avoid it.

As a result of points 1-3, the title does not clearly describe the content of the article – hence few readers will read further.

The writer should consider alternate titles such as ‘Faster than light?’ or  ‘Was Einstein wrong?’

These titles are both clear and succinct. Most importantly, they draw in the reader in, rather than drive her away

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Update

There is also a major problem with the opening sentence; luckily, it is only in the print edition

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Filed under Science and society