First post, or; how I learned to stop worrying and write a useless blog instead

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle predicted I'd write this blog

I’ve been a newspaper reader for donkey’s years. And it seems every day, some piece of science coverage finds a new and interesting way to annoy me. Rather than fume inwardly about it (can inward fuming cause cancer? Better check The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project) any longer, I’m going to write about it! Now let’s see how long I can keep this going for before I go mad/get bored/die.

So let’s kick things off with a little history of science reporting.

The private notes of Robert Boyle – he of Boyle’s law and The Sceptical Chymist – have recently gone on display at the Royal Society, as part of their 350th anniversary celebrations. These particular notes detail Boyle’s visions for the future of science and they do in fact make for quite interesting reading. You can see the full list on The Telegraph‘s site.

This, you might say, is not a story. I could write a list of things I want science to look into, and as long as I make it vague enough, progress will probably have been made in most of those fields in 350 years time. This is Nostradamus stuff – when Boyle writes “a perpetuall light“, perhaps he’s predicting electric lighting. Or perhaps he’s predicting a light that doesn’t require energy (bear in mind this was all written pre-thermodynamics). Whether or not he predicted the future becomes a matter of interpretation; and if you say he did, do the countless others down the ages who predicted flight or long life count as visionaries?

But enough philosophy, let’s have something harder – media studies.*

Here is the Royal Society’s press release of the exhibition, as reported on by The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. The Telegraph and The Guardian do at least assign science journalists to the story, which is more than can be said for the tabloids – The Mail‘s Beth Hale seems to be a general interests reporter and The Mirror‘s piece is entirely unattributed. As is commonplace these days, the articles are bulked out by material copied straight from the press release – everyone uses the quote “Boyle’s predictions on the future of science are quite remarkable”, and rather entertainingly, everyone also blindly copies an error from the Royal Society’s press release itself.

The word transplant did not mean “to surgically move organs from one body to another” until the latter part of the 18th century (so sayeth the OED) – rather sensibly, no-one bothered creating a word for a procedure that had not been invented yet. Instead, the word referred to “The pretended magical cure of disease by causing it to pass to another person, or to an animal or plant” (a practise that is sadly still believed among a few in parts of the world where HIV is prevalent). In fact, if you look in the dictionary, Robert Boyle is the very person they quote using the word in this sense!

So bear in mind that the newspaper’s fact checkers didn’t even open a dictionary, I don’t have high hopes for the rest of these.

To their credit, The Telegraph and The Guardian both appear to have done a little research here. There’s quotes from people that aren’t directly lifted from the press release, and The Telegraph has a nice little potted history of natural philosophy. The same cannot really be said for the Daily Mail. (The Mirror crammed the whole story into a single paragraph, so at least there’s not real space for any fail.)

There are several sentences yanked completely unedited from the press release buried in there – “Some such as ‘the transmutation of species in minerals, animals and vegetables’ remain at science’s cutting edge” leaps out – and every quote is taken straight from there, but then that’s par for the course. No, where the The Mail‘s coverage breaks down is when they try to tell readers which predictions have come true. Let’s read along with his predictions!

Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.

The Mail asks “Did he realise that four centuries later the wonders of modern dentistry would be granting new teeth to order and that a more youthful hue for greying locks was just a bottle away?” Well, given that tooth implantation and hair dyeing both existed in the 1600s, thank you very much, I’m guessing he did realise that. The give away here is “new hair”. He doesn’t want to just recolour his hair, he wants to regrow it and reverse the ageing process.

The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation

This one is linked to the first kidney transplant in 1954. Leaving aside the abject failure of everyone to realise that the word “transplant” shockingly meant something different 350 years ago, I fail to see how The Mail can call an organ transplant “cure at a distance”, unless that distance is “one scalpel’s length away”.

The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes

Apparently The Mail believes no-one knew how maps worked until the invention of GPS. Clearly the journalist of this has never read the excellent Longitude, more’s the shame, though I do love the fact that a paper that never misses a chance to roar about Britannia ruling the waves doesn’t know how Britannia ruled said waves.

Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men

This one is “proven” by the rise of the coffee shop. Now, based on the fact that he already gives tea as an example, and that he is famous for meeting other scientists and philosophers in coffee houses – just see The Telegraph‘s article – it seems kind of likely he meant something a little stronger. The Telegraph‘s list (which also claims we couldn’t find longitude until the advent of GPS) gives barbiturates as the solution to this one, which seems a little closer to what he intended, though either way, we’re still a long way from any kind of freedom from sleep – the best we can do is put it on hold for a few hours.

Then again, they also claim The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions has yet to come true. There’s about a million emails in my spam folder that say otherwise.

* That’s not a facetious dig at Media Studies, that’s an earnest statement of fact. Taught properly, Media Studies is the one of most important things anyone in modern society can learn.

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  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 15:57 GMT+0100

    Ilu a lot and I will be following you very closely.

    • #2 by atomicspin on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 17:57 GMT+0100

      You should start a blog. You’ve definitely got the kind of insight for it, I think.

  2. #3 by wickedday on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 17:25 GMT+0100

    It’d be funny if this weren’t the only popular representation of science for a lot of people.

    Mad props for mentioning Longitude. Excellent book.

    Will be keeping up!

    • #4 by atomicspin on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 18:07 GMT+0100

      Thanks! Mind if I pop a link to your blog in the sidebar?

      I’d have thought that of all the books anyone writing on science should have read, Longitude would be pretty much at the top (possibly after The Mismeasure of Man).

      • #5 by wickedday on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 20:02 GMT+0100

        No, go right ahead! I was going to ask you the same thing, actually.

        Other books everyone should really have looked at … A Brief History of Time and/or The Universe in a Nutshell, preferably with illustrations. Matt Ridley’s Genome. Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book by Simon Singh, though they’re popular maths and popular cryptography respectively.

        ‘Popular science books everyone should read’ could be a post in itself, really.

        • #6 by atomicspin on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 20:34 GMT+0100

          Go for it.

          I’ve always thought A Brief History of Time is a bit too technical to really work as a popular science book. It’s very interesting, but you need a fairly solid grounding in physics to understand it.

          Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book, definitely, and if maths is allowed then A Very Strange Man, the biography of Paul Erdős, is good too. I’ve not heard of Genome, but I’ll have to check that one out some time. Double Helix, co-written by Watson and Crick, is worth a read, though with the massive caveat that it tries to write Rosalind Franklin out of history and really assassinates her character.

          Perhaps if science journalism magically turns good and I run out of material, I’ll throw up a proper post of recommendations.

  3. #7 by Katherine on Thursday, 3rd June 2010 - 21:22 GMT+0100

    well written and funny.

    Loved the spam comment at the end!

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