The Declining State of Science Writing

With the media frenzy over the LHC’s ‘first beam’ eventually abating, Slate looks at the failing of science journalists to write coherent and accurate articles on this and other scientific topics of interest to the general public.

No one ever said writing about particle physics was easy—the field of quantum mechanics shares a kind of proverbial inscrutability with rocket science, and nonscientists are understandably reluctant to dig in. But the best way to meet that challenge is to address it head-on, with clear analogies and straightforward language. The puzzles of the subatomic world […] are interesting and entertaining in their own right; dressing them up in florid language only adds another layer of confusion between the author and the reader.

On the whole, the best writing about physics for a general audience seems to come from physicists, not journalists. This isn’t due to the fact that physicists understand the subject matter better—if anything, people who spend all day in the lab are often the worst at explaining the big picture. Rather, they’re better at writing about physics because they don’t try so hard to make you care. They don’t believe their readers must be seduced with colorful wordplay or end-of-the-world melodramas. Journalists writing popular treatments of subatomic physics could take a lesson from the scientists: Tell it straight and have a little faith that the subject matter itself—a major advance in our understanding of the cosmos—can generate its own wonder and excitement.