Popular Science or Dumbing Down?

On 12 November Rosetta finished a 10 year, 6.4 million km journey and, hurtling through space at 55,000 kph, delivered a landing craft to the surface of a comet.  Big numbers.  But relevant? To answer that we need to delve into the world of relativity.  But don’t worry, we’re only talking about the basic principles of relativity introduced by Galileo (1564-1642) and which laid the foundations for the works of Newton (1642-1726) and Einstein (1879-1955).

Galileo wrote:

“any two observers moving at constant speed and direction with respect to one another will obtain the same results for all mechanical experiments”

Well, that sounds complicated, but what it boils down to it this – Individual objects might have attributes such as mass, colour and shape that permanently belong to that object.  But this is not the case with speed.  Speed is always relative to an observer.

Consider a train travelling along a track at 60 mph.  And consider a passenger walking forward along the corridor at 3 mph.  How fast is the passenger going?  Well, relative to an observer standing to the side of the tracks he is travelling at 63 mph, but to a fellow passenger observing he is travelling at 3 mph.  If the observer were in a car on a road parallel to the track, and travelling at 63 mph, the train passenger would appear stationary.  A man on the moon would observe the passenger travelling at something like 1,000 mph, as the rotation of the earth would need to be taken into account,  And from further away the observer would also notice the movement of the earth about the Sun.

So what of the Rosetta and that comet?  Perhaps the comet was travelling at 55,000 kph relative to the earth.  But was the movement of the earth, which Rosetta had not seen for over ten years, important?  Perhaps it alluded to the difficulties overcome by the scientist who had to get the spacecraft to match the movement of the comet, but having done that the only speed relevant is that of the comet as observed from the space ship (or vice versa), which as it turns out, was a less-headline-grabbing 2.2 mph.  Even at this low speed the lander bounced a couple of times before coming to rest two hours later.

So what do you think?  Is it right to introduce words such as, “hurtle”, in order to attract people to the story, or is this unacceptable dumbing down?


8 thoughts on “Popular Science or Dumbing Down?

  1. Pingback: Blogging 101: Keep Personalising | This Troubles Me

  2. Oh, Dave, I can understand where you’re coming from only in that I’ve heard your words, except in stronger, less polite language, from the wholly frustrated and embittered mouth of my daughter. Long ago I realized that the two of us share very little common language. In fact the venn diagram illustrating our shared verbiage has edges that barely touch. It’s mostly things like conjunctions and prepositions, but that’s about all. She is all aero/astro and I am all artsy fartsy. That aside, one of her constant frustrations is the way that science “dumbs down” nearly everything for the average Joe. Speaking as an average Joe, unless she, or someone such as yourself, will patiently take the time to eloquently and thoroughly explain many of the universe’s mysteries to me in terms that resonate, I am left in the dark.
    Action words are attention grabbers. So yes, I’ll likely glam onto a headline that has the word hurtle in it, and hope there is an aha moment around the corner. Popular science–in a very watered down sense–is the only way I can continue to show support and enthusiasm for a child of mine whom I’m fairly certain will be purchasing a one way ticket to Mars.
    Lovely post!

    • Thank you for your lovely comment. The way you describe yourself you are probably the sort of person I had in mind when writing the article. In fact, the actual person in mind was my sister. An interesting and intelligent lady who despite her wide range of impressive skills, was once moved to describe herself as innumerate in an interview. I’m not sure she completely got it, but I did manage, I hope, to sew some seeds.

      Have you seen my article, Letters of Praise to Peak Practice and Pockets of Chaos?

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