Sensation or seriousness?

David Dickson

Aisling Irwin
News and features editor, SciDev.Net


If James Clerk Maxwell had dwelt in the 21st century’s cacophony of mental noise — would he have had the space in which to dream up his theory of electromagnetism?

Possibly not, Nobel prizewinner Ahmed Zewail said in the opening keynote lecture: our preoccupation today with ‘dispatch’ comes at the expense of ‘depth’.

Zewail, a chemist and, to many, a hero of the Egyptian revolution, rehearsed the ways in which social media helped to midwife what emerged on Tahrir Square, transforming weapons that would have been stones and guns in his day, he said, into equally powerful tweets and facebook postings.

Ahmed Zewail, Nobel prizewinner in Chemistry. Credit: Wikicommons/metavid

But he then warned about the downside social media brings for both science and journalism.

Entertainment at the expense of education; business at the expense of professionalism.

And sensation at the expense of seriousness. Would the Nobel-prize winning scientist Lawrence Bragg find today a commissioning editor from a popular magazine brave enough to publish his article about his science, with its bald headline, ‘X-ray Crystallography’, as he did early last century?

Were I such an editor, I doubt I would accept it as it stood. But … with a little editing and a few personal anecdotes, making it accessible to exponentially more people than probably ever read Bragg’s original article, I would see the potential. A picture byline would be a must … and perhaps a headline like: “How X-rays helped me become the first human to peer into the atomic world”.   

Sensation? Yes, but not at the expense of seriousness — in its service.

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