The Academy organised a debate at the World Conference of Science Journalists held 2 July in London, attracting 950 science journalists from over 70 countries. The event covered the many aspects of what constitutes science journalism ….
A selection of the discussions are highlighted below.
“You can see the headlines for tomorrow,” said the Guardian’s architecture correspondent Jonathan Glancey as we all started to bake gently in our post-lunch discussion on media hype. “Sun Hell… closely followed by Lightning Hell at the weekend (this being British weather)”. So we were glad to cool down as James Gillies, CERN’s communications director, told us about the world’s coolest (minus 271°C) and fastest racetrack – the 27 kilometre Large Hadron Collider. No-one can have missed the switch-on of the LHC, widely heralded as the (possible) end of the world if the machine produced a black hole that swallowed the earth. “But the black holes have always been there,” said James. The same concern had been raised when the earlier LEP and RHIC particle accelerators were switched on in 1989 and 1999 – the difference was that by 2008 the internet (ironically the web was invented at CERN) allowed mega-hype about the LHC switch-on to circulate globally. James told us how the hype started with Dan Brown’s book (and new motion picture) Angels and Demons, which starts with the murder of a CERN scientist. They decided to seize the opportunity to talk about antimatter and not only allowed Ron Howard to film at CERN but hosted the film’s media launch. And their strategy worked - for two days in September hits at CERN’s web site eclipsed those at NASA’s!
“Can engineering get into the media on its own merits?” asked Richard Knight, Director of PR agency Mission 21. Yes, he reckons – despite the regular competition from Gordon Brown and co and Jordan (aka Katie Price) – and he’s proved it with previous campaigns like Einstein Year for the Institute of Physics. DJ Vader’s specially commissioned E = mc2 hiphop and an “Einstein flip” by a stunt biker at the Science Museum helped. Richard said any subject can be explained, but accessibility and good people who can talk about the drama, passion and excitement of engineering are essential. “It’s not just about boffins and superlatives – web content offers great opportunities for blogs, videos etc.” he said. He is currently promoting the Bloodhound 1,000 mile an hour car project, which has generated huge interest and has already involved over 1,000 schools in its education programme even though the car is not yet built. They deliberately focus on the skills of the many team members, not just the obvious hooks for fighter pilot Andy Green, who will drive the car – billing him instead as the world’s fastest mathematician – and insist that journalists talk to the project engineers as well as to Andy.
The panel’s engineer was Professor John Burland of Imperial College, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering whose claim to fame is saving the leaning Tower of Pisa as part of an Italian Commission. In fact, John told us, the Pisa project was probably the most difficult of his life, technically and politically, with many vested interests and expert opinions. The Tower was in crisis, with the masonry so stressed it was on the point of explosion and the 7th level overhanging the base by 4.5 metres! He eventually supervised a painstaking process of soil extraction at 41 points around the Tower to stabilise it without losing the world-famous ‘lean’. John also told us how he twice advised on protecting Big Ben, the iconic Westminster clock tower, during major underground excavations. He said engineers are often under pressure from clients to present a sanitised version of their work that omits all mention of risk and uncertainty – “almost as if you turn a handle and out pops another tunnel or skyscraper,” whereas in reality each day presents a new drama. Engineers design against uncertainty all the time, he said, facing routinely what Robert Louis Stephenson called “the forces of Nature”. These can be truly terrifying, as John showed by reminding us of some heartbreaking stories, from the 1972 Sau Mau Ping landslide in Hong Kong to the World Trade Centre collapse in 2001.
The panel agreed that openness and honesty is the key to presenting engineering stories to the public. “Throw caution to the winds,” said Jonathan Glancey, “breathe with the media!”