COLM O'REGAN: The restraint of science correspondents is to be admired

Colm O’Regan was impressed by science reporters this week

I wouldn’t have been able to sum it up so succinctly. All over the world last Thursday when the announcement about the gravitational wave was made, science correspondents must have been figuring out, what on earth (and all over the universe) were they going to say to sum up probably the some of the hardest sums in the universe. There aren’t many science stories that make the headlines. Landing a rover on Mars is always a handy one. Everyone knows where Mars is. There was the Canadian fella in space who used to play the guitar and give Ireland a mention. Again that is something that is easily comprehensible: a man up FIERCE high above the world, floating in his tin can.

Every now and then there is news from the Hadron Collider — a giant tube, tens of kilometres long, built into a mountain in order to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang.

“No recession out in Switzerland anyway” says you. But it wouldn’t make big big news. They’d find a new type of quark or higgs boson or some other really small thing that probably could cause the end of the world but sure we don’t know when that’s going to happe…OH MY GOD WHAT’S THAT IN THE SKY…

But last week, they had a big news conference and announced: “We have found gravitational waves.” Now I don’t want to wear my ignorance on my sleeve (unless it goes with whatever else I’ve got on) but I had been happy enough with the type of gravity we had. I think it gave us all a good grounding.

It made the news for two main reasons. Einstein was involved. And we all know who Einstein was — yer man with the hair. And also because he predicted it in 1916. Imagine doing sums so hard that you predict something exists and it takes the rest of the world 100 years to find the thing you said should be there, and it was exactly where you said it would be.

If you want to quantify how amazing that is, think about the last time you were on the phone to someone who was in the house and you were helping them find something. You were saying to them: “OK, go into my room, there should be a chest of drawers. If you open the top drawer,on the left somewhere around the socks … it should be there... You have it? Great.”

Think of how you felt then. Well, imagine something like TWICE as good as that.

But you have to give credit to the science correspondents who reported it on the news. They were able to mention the Big Bang, show a picture of two black holes wobbling around each other that looked like an advertisement for the seductive power of coffee/dark chocolate/Guinness. And just leave it at that.

I admire their restraint. If I was a science correspondent, I don’t think I would have produced anything for the 6 o’clock news. I would still have been stuck in Wikipedia panicking about how much there was to know. For example if you look up Gravitational Constant on Wikipedia, straight away they mention spacetime. If you click that you’ll have to find out what a Euclidean space is and what kind of a manifold is a Minkowski space. If you manage to just skip all that they mention a Hulse-Taylor binary system. And that’s all in just in the easy introduction bit.

Within a paragraph your brain will be stuck on general relativity, Lorentz invariants and pseudo Riemann metrics. It hasn’t all been in vain. My work has added a corollary to one theory: A little knowledge might be a dangerous thing. But a little more knowledge is lethal.


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