Sometimes scientists can be their own worst enemies.
Please note that I am saying this with a great measure of affection; I have the utmost respect for the way in which pure research has allowed us to understand our universe. But in trying to bring their research to the masses, scientists inevitably have to dumb down what they've discovered. Most scientific discoveries are couched in abstruse mathematics that is incomprehensible to anyone without an advanced degree in the field, and strewn with specialized vocabulary that the majority of us don't know. So in order to give us non-scientists a glimpse of the amazing worlds that scientists view head-on, they have to find ways to communicate their knowledge accurately, but simply.
But in the desire to make their research catchy, and attractive to the media (and media consumers), they often give their discoveries clever names. And that's when they get into trouble.
Look at "The God Particle," which was the subject of yesterday's post. Leon Lederman, the physicist who coined the Higgs boson's popular nickname in the title of his book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?, has lived to regret his choice of words after the nickname of the recently-discovered particle has been taken literally by countless woo-woos, religious folks, and people who simply don't understand physics. (Lederman famously quipped that he really wanted to call it "the goddamn particle" but doubted that his publisher would have allowed it.)
Today, we have another example of this phenomenon, with the announcement by scientists at NASA of the discovery of a phenomenon that has been nicknamed a "magnetic portal." Before I tell you what it actually is, here are the responses to the discovery from a few websites:
"Science-fiction writers have toyed with the concept of a portal for many years, and scientists have been trying to discover such a structure in real life. A new study backed by NASA has revealed the existence of a so-called magnetic portal, connecting the atmospheres of the Earth and the Sun. Usually, a portal is defined as an opening through spacetime that enables a traveler to move over great distances, or over time, instantly. In other words, it represents a shortcut, or maybe a guiding pathway to a particular destination."
"Presently there are over 100,000 magnetic portals in existence on Earth with 40% of them located over large bodies of water. Magnetic portals all lead into another dimension. When you find one, you can step in and out quickly and nothing will happen. However, when you step in and have the courage to go all the way through, you will find yourself in a different dimension."
"Visualize the magnetic portal connection as a large umbilical cord tethering the Sun and Earth together allowing varying amounts of magnetized subatomic particles to pass from highly-charged areas (the Sun) to lesser-charges areas (the Earth) on regular eight-minute cycles. The slightly-smaller portal connection attaches, detaches and reattaches to our planet due to regular Earth rotation at just about 1000 miles per hour. The magnetic portal connection has a series of internal conduits that are active and inactive with a percentage of active conduits depending upon proximity to the Sun. In other words, the highest percentage of internal conduits are actively transferring magnetism through the magnetic portal, when the Earth is in perihelion position nearest the Sun. The lowest percentage of active conduits is present when the Earth is on the far side of the orbit in aphelion position farthest away from the Sun. And it won't come as any shock to you to hear that the highest percentage of active conduits is predicted to occur on December 21, 2012."And so forth and so on. "Portal" means "doorway;" so laypeople are perhaps to be forgiven if they immediately assume that the "magnetic portals" discovered by NASA's research team, led by Jack Scudder, are going to be some kind of Deep Space 9-style wormhole through space.
However, if you actually read the press release from NASA, you find that the reality is that the "portals" are simply places where the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun intersect, creating a gap that allows highly-charged particles to strike the Earth's upper atmosphere. So the only thing that will be passing through these "conduits" are particles in the solar wind -- a phenomenon of interest to atmospheric scientists, physicists, agencies that operate communications satellites, and possibly folks who like to watch the aurora borealis.
So why did they pick the word "portal?" Probably because the other names -- "electron diffusion regions" and "flux transfer events" -- aren't nearly as sexy. To be fair, the name "portal" is technically accurate (in that it's a gap allowing something in), but you know it was going to be misleading. Even the NASA-created video (which you can watch here) starts out talking about science fiction and "extraordinary openings in space or time." As soon as I saw the first fifteen seconds of the video, I did a facepalm, because I knew how it was going to be interpreted by people who already had a woo-woo view of the universe. It took me about another fifteen seconds to find the three websites I quoted above. And those were three of thousands. The whole "portal" thing has the UFO/aliens/alternate universes/extra dimensions crowd leaping about making excited little squeaking noises, making me wonder if they got beyond the first fifteen seconds of the NASA video.
So, anyway. Why do scientists do things like this? I suppose it's to give their discoveries a certain cachet among the non-scientist multitudes. The problem is, it so often backfires -- as it did with Lederman's "God Particle," and even as the choice of the term "global warming" for planetary climate change did, giving non-climatologists the erroneous idea that anthropogenic climate change would trigger a smooth, steady rise in temperature everywhere simultaneously. I understand the necessity of bringing scientific research to the masses, and I applaud the work of popularizers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Michael Shermer, and (in the previous generation) Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau. However, the inevitable simplification necessary to allow non-scientists to understand complex research engenders a responsibility that they watch their wording of things carefully -- the intent to explain can very quickly devolve into an accidental muddying of the waters.