Scitech  Summer science in the media

While most of us were getting some well-deserved rest this summer, the ever-expanding science world was doing anything but. Some recent scientific breakthroughs have been highly emphasized in the media, but what makes these so important for the science world and our everyday lives?

Recent media attention has been focused on the landing of Curiosity, the Mars rover. After a journey of about eight months, the rover made it to Mars’ surface and safely landed in Gale Crater on August 6. The landing set off a storm of enthusiasm back on Earth among aerospace enthusiasts as well as mainstream media.

At the NASA headquarters, scientists and engineers – the brains behind the project – closely followed the landing in its last seven minutes, nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror” to emphasize the critical nature of the moment. Indeed, with a seven-minute delay in both incoming and outgoing signals to the rover, it was impossible to track – and thus control – the state of the rover in real time. The online video of the same name, although arguably dramatized, nonetheless does a very good job of conveying how important those last minutes were for the mission. The cheers and vivid emotional reactions from the team, broadcast around the world, made for a truly inspirational moment, and rightfully so considering how much was at stake. Now that the car-sized Curiosity is up and running, scientists hope to uncover some traces of past life on Mars, which may enlighten us about human origins.

Another big discovery of the summer was the observation of a never-before-seen particle, the Higgs boson. The observation was made at the CERN laboratory, using the Large Hadron Collider, and has similarly received a good deal of media coverage. The existence of the Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model, which seeks to synthesize our knowledge of the world by explaining every physical phenomenon; the importance of identifying the boson is in that it supports this model.

Although this observation is indeed important for the Standard Model, the media are notorious for sensationalizing it by calling Higgs boson “The God Particle,” after the title of a book by physicist Leon Lederman. (Reportedly, Lederman wanted to call it “The Goddamn Particle,” as it is very difficult to observe, but this was censored.) The majority of scientists working on this project, (and even Peter Higgs himself, who theorized the existence of the particle) consider this designation a misnomer, as it goes nowhere near explaining the nature of God. Rather, the Higgs boson explains why objects have mass, and our understanding of this mechanism may lead to future breakthroughs in engineering. Sadly, this misnomer is one of the main reasons the discovery got so much media attention.

Finally, some of you may have heard in the news of two HIV-positive patients who received bone marrow stem cell transplants, which effectively erased all detectable traces of HIV in the immune system cells of these patients. Although occasional news of potential HIV or AIDS treatments, such as new retroviral medications, are not uncommon, the complete obliteration of HIV traces, including within the lymphocytes themselves, is unprecedented.

This discovery is made even more interesting when comparing these two cases to that of an earlier patient, nicknamed “the Berlin patient,” who is the only known person to have been ostensibly cured of HIV after – and this is the important part – a stem cell transplant. He has remained HIV-free for five years since. Scientists, however, are cautious about calling all of these cases a “cure,” as it is sometimes referred to in the media, because there is speculation that the virus may lie dormant within certain tissues and could resurface eventually. Even if, hypothetically, the stem cell transplants were decisively proven to work, bone marrow transplant is a very risky and costly procedure, and it is uncertain how realistic it would be for HIV-positive people to undergo it with the sole purpose of being cured. In any case, these are interesting new developments in the field of AIDS research, and every new hope of the sort is worth further investigation.

The aforementioned breakthroughs are important developments in the science world, but they are definitely not the only ones. In fact, in taking a trip to the Wikipedia page entitled “2012 in science,” we find two full computer screens of discoveries for every single month of 2012! Why, then, do the mainstream media show such a pronounced interest in Curiosity’s trip to Mars, yet we hardly hear about the newly-identified causes of extinction of woolly mammoths?

Certainly, one reason is the relative importance and magnitude of the different discoveries. Dr. David Harpp, a chemistry professor involved with the Office for Science and Society in McGill, said in an email to The Daily that the Higgs boson and the Curiosity landing were undoubtedly important for the science world, and their extensive media coverage is justified. But the events that get media coverage also share the common feature of appeal for the ordinary person because we can relate to them, or find them barely believable.

For instance, space exploration has always seemed like something out of this world to humans, so sending a functional robot 563 million kilometres away from Earth showcases the power of human enterprise. Calling the Higgs boson “The God Particle” – however misguided this may be – has substantially contributed to its appeal as it gives the illusion of uncovering one of the fundamental mysteries of this world, and HIV/AIDS is one of the major challenges currently facing humanity as a whole, so any news of a cure can be expected to gain attention.

Woolly mammoths, on the other hand, are a thing of the past, and so have no such appeal. Unfortunately, our appetite for the novel and extraordinary leads to media coverage leaving out some impressive scientific advances. For instance, researchers recently released part of the first comprehensive map of the mouse brain, which was hailed as a milestone for neuroscience, but the media’s lens was pointed elsewhere.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: science is moving forward, and at an astounding pace at that. Judging from the extensive media coverage, science continues to arouse the common mind, but it sometimes does so at the expense of truth. It is up to us to dig deeper.