By Hamish Johnston
…is it hype or reporting a neat idea?
Sorry for the navel gazing but I thought I would point out an interesting discussion of one of our news stories over on Chad Orzel’s Uncertain Principles blog.
The article in question is about a proposal for using ultracold atoms to make precise measurements of neutrino mass.
The question that Chad asks is whether it is appropriate for us to report as “news” what is really just an interesting idea that may or may not ever come to fruition? By doing so, are we guilty of hyping the importance of the proposal?
We decided to go with the story for two reasons — the first is that this experiment is a very clever way of using developments in one field of physics (ultracold atoms) to solve a fundamental problem in a seemingly unrelated field (particle physics).
The second reason — perhaps a bit more woolly — is that this proposal comes from a respected experimental physicist, which suggests to me that there is at least a chance that it could be realized.
Chad alludes to the idea that a blogger with expertise in the field of ultracold atoms would probably take a more cautious approach to reporting this proposal because they would have a better understanding of the technical challenges involved.
However, I’m guessing that if you asked a circa 1970 semiconductor physicist whether it would be possible to mass-produce CMOS devices with 32 nm features, you would be given a list of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.
I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with reporting on what a reputable group of physicists thinks may be possible, without getting too caught up in the nitty gritty of why it might never come to pass.
Indeed, coming up with such ideas (and having them shot down) is an important part of the scientific process, so I don’t think that we should shy away from reporting on informed speculation.
So should we have taken a more cautious approach? I don’t think so — we did after all make it clear that this was a proposal and that it would be difficult to implement.
However, I do agree with Chad that we perhaps should have toned down the headline a bit. I like one of the suggestions put forward in the comments on Chad’s blog: put a question mark at the end of the headline.