A shorter article about short gamma ray bursts lights up little

  • Identify a simple and well-defined question
  • Describe the question and answer it
  • Get the fuck out

Writing with these three rules in mind makes for a good science article. You stick to the point, you know what details to include and what to leave out and, most importantly, you set straightforward expectations and meet them. The overall effect is for the reader to walk away feeling not disappointed. That’s always a happy ending.

Sadly, not everyone writes like this – rather, more broadly, not all news publishers think of science articles this way. For example, The Hindu regularly publishes science articles so packed with information – about the study as much as its authors – that you’re left confused about what you just read. Was it a profile or was it an explainer? It doesn’t matter because it failed either way.

The latest example of this kind of writing is an article about short gamma ray bursts. The binary neutron star merger known by the gravitational-wave event designation GW170817 was expected by astrophysicists to have unleashed a short gamma ray burst at the moment of collision – but data obtained of the event shows no signs of the expected radio signature. A group of scientists led by Kunal Mooley from Oxford University suggested this could be because GW170817 released a new kind of gamma ray burst.

BusinessLine (a business newspaper with the same publisher and top management as The Hindu) carried an article attempting to discuss all this. Sample the opening para, a mulch of facts and inaccuracies:

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“The one located on the outskirts of Pune”? Sounds like everyone must know about it even if they don’t. “First-ever detection of gravitation waves”? Not really: gravitation waves, a.k.a. gravity waves and unlike gravitational waves, can be observed in Earth’s atmosphere. Also, the first-ever detection of gravitational waves came last year; what came in August was the first-ever detection of a neutron star merger. The three US scientists won the award for building LIGO, not detecting GW170817.

The rest of the article tries to simultaneously explain Mooley and co.’s interpretation of the data and also provide a glimpse of his educational trajectory. Why would I want to know he studied in Pune and Mumbai? Unless this is because the author wanted to drive home the India connection – which is all the more troubling because it plays up an aspect of the researcher’s identity that is irrelevant to their professional accomplishment. I’ve noticed many publications succumbing to this kind of thinking: if researcher is Indian, cover the paper/study/whatever irrespective of the legitimacy, strength and/or novelty of what they’re saying.

The science ought to take precedent, not the researcher’s identity. But when it doesn’t, you typically end up writing something that’s definitely not news and likely trash. You end up wrapping your national pride around a core of stupidity. I recommend the pages of ScoopwhoopThe QuintThe Better IndiaDailyOThe Times of India and The New Indian Express, among others, for examples. It’s also possible that the author was conscious about providing an India connection so readers in India took the article more seriously. I’ve made noise about such behaviour many times before, such as here: science shouldn’t be assessed, or enjoyed, solely according to what it can do for humankind.

Finally, it’s possible that the newspaper itself wanted to establish all details on record for posterity – but AFAIK, the BusinessLine is not a newspaper of record. This of course is a minor point.

By ditching the extraneous details, the author and the editor could’ve had the space to focus on the science more, using better language and without the painful economy of words it’s currently striving to. They could even have devoted some words to discussing whether other astronomers have disputed Mooley’s interpretation (they have), an exercise that would’ve made the article more reliable than it is. And to those who’re saying the article was probably kept short because there might not have been space in the newspaper, I’ve a bigger complaint: why wasn’t a short version published in print and a longer version online?

In all, I don’t think BusinessLine is taking its science journalism seriously. The time is past when they could’ve gotten ahead simply by being one of the few publications in the country to write articles about short gamma ray bursts. But given the complacency with which the article seems to have been composed and edited, maybe that time shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It surely doesn’t now.

Featured image: An artist’s illustration of a bright gamma-ray burst. Caption and credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.