While Western audiences widely oppose the slaughter of wildlife and marketing of tusks, horns, and other body parts, polls show little shift in favor of conservation in Asia, Rachel Nuwer reports in Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. Nuwer traveled to 12 countries to examine the illegal demand for wildlife and efforts underway made to halt impending species extinctions.Member blog name: Advance copy: Backstories on books by NASW membersArticle topic: Science writing news
We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2018 Science in Society Journalism Awards, sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers. Read more to meet the winners in six categories.
Kat McGowan is a journalist and editor focused on medicine and science. As an editor, she currently works with Grist and Neo Life; her most recent bylines were for Popular Science, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and STAT. She was formerly a consulting editor at the autism science publication Spectrum, a special projects editor at Discover, and senior editor at Psychology Today. She also volunteers at a wildlife hospital and is an active member of the crow team. Follow her at @mcgowankat.
Congratulations to Elaine Vitone on her winning piece, “Cut Off,” published in the summer 2017 issue of Pitt Medicine. Vitone is a senior editor at Pitt Med, the magazine of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Read more for details
Last week Jocelyn Bell Burnell was named recipient of the prestigious $3 million Breakthrough Prize for recognizing the first pulsar in 1967 when she was 23 years old. In Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond, Marcia Bartusiak describes Burnell’s discovery and provides the backstory for it and other cutting-edge findings in astrophysics.Member blog name: Advance copy: Backstories on books by NASW membersArticle topic: Science writing news
Election results for the recent board election are in. Thank you to all ran. Read more to meet the new board members, who take office on October 12.
The Storygram series, in which professional writers annotate award-winning stories to illuminate what makes a great science story great, is a joint project of The Open Notebook and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. It is supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Nicola Twilley is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a co-host of Gastropod, an award-winning podcast about the science and history of food. This annotation was done by Rebecca Boyle and is co-published at The Open Notebook.THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING This series is a yearly anthology of popular science magazine stories published in the United States. This story was published in 2017.
Just over a billion years ago, many millions of galaxies from here, a pair of black holes collided. They had been circling each other for aeons in a sort of mating dance, gathering pace with each orbit, hurtling closer and closer. By the time they were a few hundred miles apart, they were whipping around at nearly the speed of light, releasing great shuddersLove this choice of word. It’s much more evocative than “shakes” or “waves” or something similar; they would all sound flat here. And “shudder” has a sensual and even erotic connotation, so it works extremely well with the previous sentence’s description of a “mating dance.” of gravitational energy. Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil.I am always struggling to find appropriate analogies for phenomena on ludicrous scales. I like this one because it’s so familiar. The fact that the story says “galaxies” in the first 10 words gives the story a certain context that might be unappealing to some readers, but by including in the first graf a quotidian example anyone can recognize, Twilley is signifying she intends this to be a story for anyone. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole, sixty-two times as heavy as our sun and almost as wide across as the state of Maine. As it smoothed itself out, assuming the shape of a slightly flattened sphere, a few last quivers of energy escaped. Then space and time became silent again.
The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape. A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein, one of the more advanced members of the species, predicted the waves’ existence, inspiring decades of speculation and fruitless searching.There is so much packed into these few lines. Twilley covers untold eons with one brief mention of the most familiar characters from deep time. Absurd distance is chattily conveyed—50,000 years to travel the galaxy, clearly a long way. All of human culture and history culminate in this one genius and his weird idea, and while you might not have heard about his idea, don’t worry, because you do know him, so you can trust that it’s big. And we even get foreshadowing that we’re going to read about an incredible, improbable feat. Twenty-two years ago, construction began on an enormous detector, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Then, on September 14, 2015, at just before eleven in the morning, Central European Time, the waves reached Earth. Marco Drago, a thirty-two-year-old Italian postdoctoral student and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, was the first person to notice them. He was sitting in front of his computer at the Albert Einstein Institute, in Hannover, Germany, viewing the LIGO data remotely. The waves appeared on his screen as a compressed squiggle, but the most exquisite ears in the universe, attuned to vibrations of less than a trillionth of an inch, would have heard what astronomers call a chirp—a faint whooping from low to high. This morning, in a press conference in Washington, D.C., the LIGO team announced that the signal constitutes the first direct observation of gravitational waves.The breathless pacing of these first two paragraphs obscures the dry fact that this heady physics story was announced from a conference room in Washington. Nicely done.
When Drago saw the signal, he was stunned. “It was difficult to understand what to do,” he told me. He informed a colleague, who had the presence of mind to call the LIGO operations room, in Livingston, Louisiana. Word began to circulate among the thousand or so scientists involved in the project. In California, David Reitze, the executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, saw his daughter off to school and went to his office, at Caltech, where he was greeted by a barrage of messages. “I don’t remember exactly what I said,” he told me. “It was along these lines: ‘Holy shit, what is this?’ ” Vicky Kalogera, a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University, was in meetings all day, and didn’t hear the news until dinnertime. “My husband asked me to set the table,” she said. “I was completely ignoring him, skimming through all these weird e-mails and thinking, What is going on?” Rainer Weiss, the eighty-three-year-old physicist who first suggested building LIGO, in 1972, was on vacation in Maine. He logged on, saw the signal, and yelled “My God!” loudly enough that his wife and adult son came running.Sparing us the packaged quotes that everyone else had from the press conference—such as David Reitze’s “ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it!” which appeared in multiple articles—Twilley immediately gives us high human drama, bringing home that this is a momentous thing. A curse word in The New Yorker, in only the third paragraph! I love that I can feel the confusion and excitement here, and I am eager to learn why these people are freaking out.
The collaborators began the arduous process of double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking their data. “We’re saying that we made a measurement that is about a thousandth the diameter of a proton, that tells us about two black holes that merged over a billion years ago,” Reitze said. “That is a pretty extraordinary claim and it needs extraordinary evidence.” In the meantime, the LIGO scientists were sworn to absolute secrecy. As rumors of the finding spread, from late September through this week, media excitement spiked; there were rumblings about a Nobel Prize. But the collaborators gave anyone who asked about it an abbreviated version of the truth—that they were still analyzing data and had nothing to announce. Kalogera hadn’t even told her husband.This is a nice personal detail that also serves as a signpost for the reader about what type of story this is. It’s not really a scientific-discovery story, it’s not a policy story, it’s not just a news story. This anecdote about Kalogera’s spouse, both personal and mundane, makes that clear.
LIGO consists of two facilities, separated by nearly nineteen hundred miles—about a three-and-a-half-hour flight on a passenger jet, but a journey of less than ten thousandths of a second for a gravitational wave.Twilley is very good at putting the wave first and foremost: It almost acts as a character, helping us walk through this story of its discovery. The detector in Livingston, Louisiana, sits on swampland east of Baton Rouge, surrounded by a commercial pine forest; the one in Hanford, Washington, is on the southwestern edge of the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors. At both locations, a pair of concrete pipes some twelve feet tall stretch at right angles into the distance, so that from high above the facilities resemble carpenter’s squares. The pipes are so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they have to be raised from the ground by a yard at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curves beneath them.This is absolutely fascinating and the kind of detail I would probably not have thought to ask about, but will from now on. “Is your X infrastructure so long that you have to account for the curvature of the Earth?”
LIGO is part of a larger effort to explore one of the more elusive implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The theory, put simply, states that space and time curve in the presence of mass, and that this curvature produces the effect known as gravity. When two black holes orbit each other, they stretch and squeeze space-time like children running in circles on a trampoline, creating vibrations that travel to the very edge; these vibrations are gravitational waves. They pass through us all the time, from sources across the universe, but because gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces of nature—electromagnetism, for instance, or the interactions that bind an atom together—we never sense them.This is a really thorough and yet very digestible nut graf about one of the most complicated ideas anyone ever had—general relativity. What we perceive as gravity is actually a bending of space, which is pretty hard to get your head around. But almost everyone has seen a kid on a trampoline, or can at least imagine the brief warping of the fabric that results from the jump. Again, bringing in relatively universal, fun analogies works really well here, both for explanation and for pacing/tone. Einstein thought it highly unlikely that they would ever be detected. He twice declared them nonexistent, reversing and then re-reversing his own prediction. A skeptical contemporary noted that the waves seemed to “propagate at the speed of thought.”
Nearly five decades passed before someone set about building an instrument to detect gravitational waves.This sentence kicks off what ultimately leads to a long section of history, describing early efforts to build a gravitational-wave detector and why they failed. We go all the way back to the 1960s. Structurally, this kind of departure from the action can be hard to pull off. Leaving the news for, by my count, 2,080 words, a writer runs the risk of losing readers’ attention. Twilley chose to organize the story this way because she felt it was a story of a “modern pyramid,” in her words—an incredible feat decades in the making. Hearing about the long, checkered past of gravitational-wave science gives the ultimate discovery more heft. The first person to try was an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, named Joe Weber. He called his device the resonant bar antenna. Weber believed that an aluminum cylinder could be made to work like a bell, amplifying the feeble strike of a gravitational wave. When a wave hit the cylinder, it would vibrate very slightly, and sensors around its circumference would translate the ringing into an electrical signal. To make sure he wasn’t detecting the vibrations of passing trucks or minor earthquakes, Weber developed several safeguards: he suspended his bars in a vacuum, and he ran two of them at a time, in separate locations—one on the campus of the University of Maryland, and one at Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago. If both bars rang in the same way within a fraction of a second of each other, he concluded, the cause might be a gravitational wave.
In June of 1969, Weber announced that his bars had registered something. Physicists and the media were thrilled; the Times reported that “a new chapter in man’s observation of the universe has been opened.” Soon, Weber started reporting signals on a daily basis. But doubt spread as other laboratories built bars that failed to match his results. By 1974, many had concluded that Weber was mistaken. (He continued to claim new detections until his death, in 2000.)
Weber’s legacy shaped the field that he established. It created a poisonous perception that gravitational-wave hunters, as Weiss put it, are “all liars and not careful, and God knows what.” That perception was reinforced in 2014, when scientists at BICEP2, a telescope near the South Pole, detected what seemed to be gravitational radiation left over from the Big Bang; the signal was real, but it turned out to be a product of cosmic dust.Ooh, liars and frustrations and mistakes. The BICEP2 findings were a huge controversy in science (and science journalism, as it happens) and it would have been tempting to rehash what happened there. But Twilley gives us just enough to grasp that this is a controversial field, and to convey the, um, gravity of what these people are claiming. Weber also left behind a group of researchers who were motivated by their inability to reproduce his results. Weiss, frustrated by the difficulty of teaching Weber’s work to his undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began designing what would become LIGO. “I couldn’t understand what Weber was up to,” he said in an oral history conducted by Caltech in 2000. “I didn’t think it was right. So I decided I would go at it myself.”
In the search for gravitational waves, “most of the action takes place on the phone,” Fred Raab, the head of LIGO’s Hanford site, told me. There are weekly meetings to discuss data and fortnightly meetings to discuss coördination between the two detectors, with collaborators in Australia, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector,” Raab said. “That’s how intimate they have to be with it,” he explained,Twilley originally wrote this section without this quote, and her editor, Alan Burdick, asked her to find something to help with the transition. As she tells it: “He was like, ‘we need something else here. I need a quote, I don’t know what it is, but find it.’ And I found that one, and he was like, ‘Exactly. That’s what was needed here.’ I thought it was a good transition without it.” I think this quote makes you realize that the people who built it, and work with it, have to be a special sort. Because Twilley used this fun quote up high, I am more inclined to be curious about the subject of all these dreams, which covers the next two paragraphs. to be able to make the fantastically complex instrument that Weiss conceived actually work.
Weiss’s detection method was altogether different from Weber’s. His first insight was to make the observatory “L”-shaped. Picture two people lying on the floor, their heads touching, their bodies forming a right angle. When a gravitational wave passes through them, one person will grow taller while the other shrinks; a moment later, the opposite will happen. As the wave expands space-time in one direction, it necessarily compresses it in the other. Weiss’s instrument would gauge the difference between these two fluctuating lengths, and it would do so on a gigantic scale, using miles of steel tubing. “I wasn’t going to be detecting anything on my tabletop,” he said.
To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, Weiss suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam would now be covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any previous device, and it would require delicate tuning in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.
Weiss wrote up his design in the spring of 1972, as part of his laboratory’s quarterly progress report. The article never appeared in a scientific journal—it was an idea, not an experiment—but according to Kip Thorne, an emeritus professor at Caltech who is perhaps best known for his work on the movie “Interstellar,” “it is one of the greatest papers ever written.” Thorne doesn’t recall reading Weiss’s report until later. “If I had read it, I had certainly not understood it,” he said. Indeed, Thorne’s landmark textbook on gravitational theory, co-authored with Charles Misner and John Wheeler and first published in 1973, contained a student exercise designed to demonstrate the impracticability of measuring gravitational waves with lasers. “I turned around on that pretty quickly,” he told me.
Thorne’s conversionA word with religious connotations, which I find appropriate here for many reasons. People have dedicated their careers, and much of their lives, to making discoveries like the one made at LIGO. It seems appropriate to talk about it, and about their devotion, in terms that would also describe faith or a religious experience. It also reflects the grandeur of general relativity and the scales of the universe. Can you imagine how differently this would scan if she had instead written, “Thorne’s change of mind”? occurred in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., in 1975. Weiss had invited him to speak to a panel of NASA scientists. The evening before the meeting, the two men got to talking. “I don’t remember how it happened, but we shared the hotel room that night,” Weiss said. They sat at a tiny table, filling sheet after sheet of paper with sketches and equations. Thorne, who was raised Mormon, drank Dr Pepper; Weiss smoked a corncob pipe stuffed with Three Nuns tobacco. “There are not that many people in the world that you can talk to like that, where both of you have been thinking about the same thing for years,” Weiss said. By the time Thorne got back to his own room, the sky was turning pink.Give Twilley an award for these sentences. How many questions must she have needed to ask to get to these incredible gems? Read our Q&A for more on this scene.
At M.I.T., Weiss had begun assembling a small prototype detector with five-foot arms. But he had trouble getting support from departmental administrators, and many of his colleagues were also skeptical. One of them, an influential astrophysicist and relativity expert named Phillip Morrison, was firmly of the opinion that black holes did not exist—a viewpoint that many of his contemporaries shared, given the paucity of observational data. Since black holes were some of the only cosmic phenomena that could theoretically emit gravitational waves of significant size, Morrison believed that Weiss’s instrument had nothing to find. Thorne had more success: by 1981, there was a prototype under way at Caltech, with arms a hundred and thirty-one feet long. A Scottish physicist named Ronald Drever oversaw its construction, improving on Weiss’s design in the process.For the first time, I felt an inkling of boredom right here. It’s important to show the history behind this discovery, but I started to worry this section would bog down in the minutiae. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t!
In 1990, after years of studies, reports, presentations, and committee meetings, Weiss, Thorne, and Drever persuaded the National Science Foundation to fund the construction of LIGO. The project would cost two hundred and seventy-two million dollars, more than any N.S.F.-backed experiment before or since. “That started a huge fight,” Weiss said. “The astronomers were dead-set against it, because they thought it was going to be the biggest waste of money that ever happened.” Many scientists were concerned that LIGO would sap money from other research. Rich Isaacson, a program officer at the N.S.F. at the time, was instrumental in getting the observatory off the ground. “He and the National Science Foundation stuck with us and took this enormous risk,” Weiss said.
“It never should have been built,” Isaacson told me. “It was a couple of maniacs running around, with no signal ever having been discovered, talking about pushing vacuum technology and laser technology and materials technology and seismic isolation and feedback systems orders of magnitude beyond the current state of the art, using materials that hadn’t been invented yet.”Oh man, what a quote! It’s so friendly and accessible, showing Twilley’s interviewing skills as well as her care for the reader. But it’s also packed with physics ephemera, layering detail on detail to show how audacious this thing is and how impressive its success is. But Isaacson had written his Ph.D. thesis on gravitational radiation, and he was a firm believer in LIGO’s theoretical underpinnings. “I was a mole for the gravitational-wave community inside the N.S.F.,” he said.
In their proposal, the LIGO team warned that their initial design was unlikely to detect anything. Nonetheless, they argued, an imperfect observatory had to be built in order to understand how to make a better one. “There was every reason to imagine this was going to fail,” Isaacson said. He persuaded the N.S.F. that, even if no signal was registered during the first phase, the advances in precision measurement that came out of it would likely be worth the investment. Ground was broken in early 1994.
It took years to make the most sensitive instrument in history insensitive to everything that is not a gravitational wave. Emptying the tubes of air demanded forty days of pumping. The result was one of the purest vacuums ever created on Earth, a trillionth as dense as the atmosphere at sea level. Still, the sources of interference were almost beyond reckoning—the motion of the wind in Hanford, or of the ocean in Livingston; imperfections in the laser light as a result of fluctuations in the power grid; the jittering of individual atoms within the mirrors;“Jittering”—that sounds like quantum fluctuations! All elementary particles— photons, Higgs bosons, etc.—are also waves, in a corresponding quantum field, and quantum mechanics holds that all these particles/waves are constantly in flux, a notion called quantum fluctuations. That means, essentially, that they are always jittering around a bit. So using the word “jitter” here is a nice little treat for the uber physicsophile (like me). But Twilley handles it very deftly: Readers who don’t geek out on quantum physics can nonetheless appreciate this line as simply offering a great detail to show how hilariously sensitive LIGO is. distant lightning storms. All can obscure or be mistaken for a gravitational wave, and each source had to be eliminated or controlled for. One of LIGO’s systems responds to minuscule seismic tremors by activating a damping system that pushes on the mirrors with exactly the right counterforce to keep them steady; another monitors for disruptive sounds from passing cars, airplanes, or wolves.I’m sorry, what? Wolves? I read this sentence three times. My brain wanted to read cars, airplanes, or motorcycles. Cars, airplanes, or bikes. Cars, airplanes, or garbage trucks. The paw-steps of wolves? This is a shockingly incongruous and wonderful detail. It is so out of place that I can’t help but notice it, and laugh. It’s also an example (one of many) of Twilley’s deep reporting. Another reporter might have been satisfied with three types of vehicles, but she obviously pressed for more unusual examples.
“There are ten thousand other tiny things, and I really mean ten thousand,” Weiss said. “And every single one needs to be working correctly so that nothing interferes with the signal.” This quote demonstrates Twilley’s skill in deciding which details to share with readers. A few interesting nuggets help build our appreciation without bogging us down in, well, ten thousand details. When his colleagues make adjustments to the observatory’s interior components, they must set up a portable clean room, sterilize their tools, and don what they call bunny suits—full-body protective gear—lest a skin cell or a particle of dust accidentally settle on the sparkling optical hardware.
The first iteration of the observatory—Initial LIGO, as the team now calls it—was up and running in 2001. During the next nine years, the scientists measured and refined their instruments’ performance and improved their data-analysis algorithms. In the meantime, they used the prototype at Caltech and a facility in Germany to develop ever more sensitive mirror, laser, and seismic-isolation technology. In 2010, the detectors were taken offline for a five-year, two-hundred-million-dollar upgrade. They are now so well shielded that when the facilities manager at the Hanford site revs his Harley next to the control room, the scientist monitoring the gravitational-wave channel sees nothing. (A test of this scenario is memorialized in the logbook as “Bubba Roars Off on a Motor Cycle.”) This is great, because I thought the Harley example was a hypothetical. But no, it’s a real test they did, and of course they logged it. Excellent reporting. The observatory’s second iteration, Advanced LIGO, should eventually be capable of surveying a volume of space that is more than a thousand times greater than its predecessor’s.
Some of the most painstaking work took place on the mirrors, which, Reitze said, are the best in the world “by far.” Each is a little more than a foot wide, weighs nearly ninety pounds, and is polished to within a hundred-millionth of an inch of a perfect sphere. (They cost almost half a million dollars apiece.) At first, the mirrors were suspended from loops of steel wire. For the upgrade, they were attached instead to a system of pendulums, which insulated them even further from seismic tremors. They dangle from fibres of fused silica—glass, basically—which, although strong enough to bear the weight of the mirrors, shatter at the slightest provocation. “We did have one incident where a screw fell and pinged one, and it just went poof,” Anamaria Effler, a former operations specialist at the Hanford site, told me. The advantage of the fibres is their purity, according to Jim Hough, of the University of Glasgow. “You know how, when you flick a whiskey glass, it will ring beautifully?” he asked. “Fused silica is even better than a whiskey glass—it is like plucking a string on a violin.”Twilley says she wanted to spend time explaining the instrument, “because it’s insane.” This is another example of a section that could get bogged down in the weeds or a string of numbers, but it works well, in part because she writes about the machinery with such enthusiasm, and in part because she had such wonderful descriptions from the people who work on it. The note is so thin that it is possible for LIGO’s signal-processing software to screen it out—another source of interference eliminated.A LIGO optics technician inspects one of LIGO’s core optics (mirrors) by illuminating its surface with light at a glancing angle. It is critical to LIGO’s operation that there is no contamination on any of its optical surfaces.
Preparing Advanced LIGO took longer than expected, so the new and improved instrument’s start date was pushed back a few days, to September 18, 2015. Weiss was called in from Boston a week prior to try to track down the source of some radio-frequency interference. “I get there and I was horrified,” he said. “It was everywhere.” He recommended a weeklong program of repairs to address the issue, but the project’s directors refused to delay the start of the first observing run any longer. “Thank God they didn’t let me do it,” Weiss said. “I would have had the whole goddamn thing offline when the signal came in.”OMG. Can you imagine? I love this admission and the drama it carries. See the Q&A for more on this.
On Sunday, September 13th,From billions of years in the lede down to the calendar date here, the use of days and dates changes the pacing of the story, just as we’re nearing the momentous hour. It helps build the tension. Effler spent the day at the Livingston site with a colleague, finishing a battery of last-minute tests. “We yelled, we vibrated things with shakers, we tapped on things, we introduced magnetic radiation, we did all kinds of things,” she said. “And, of course, everything was taking longer than it was supposed to.” At four in the morning, with one test still left to do—a simulation of a truck driver hitting his brakes nearbyagain, love the detail—they decided to pack it in. They drove home, leaving the instrument to gather data in peace. The signal arrived not long after, at 4:50 A.M. local time, passing through the two detectors within seven milliseconds of each other. It was four days before the start of Advanced LIGO’s first official run.
The fact that gravitational waves were detected so early prompted confusion and disbelief. “I had told everyone that we wouldn’t see anything until 2017 or 2018,” Reitze said. Janna Levin, a professor of astrophysics at Barnard College and Columbia University, who is not a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, was equally surprised. “When the rumors started, I was like, Come on!” she said. “They only just got it locked!” The signal, moreover, was almost too perfect. “Most of us thought that, when we ever saw such a thing, it would be something that you would need many, many computers and calculations to drag out of the noise,” Weiss said. Many of his colleagues assumed that the signal was some kind of test.I can see why, given how many descriptions of tests we just read.
The LIGO team includes a small group of people whose job is to create blind injections—bogus evidence of a gravitational wave—as a way of keeping the scientists on their toes. Although everyone knew who the four people in that group were, “we didn’t know what, when, or whether,” Gabriela González, the collaboration’s spokeswoman, said. During Initial LIGO’s final run, in 2010, the detectors picked up what appeared to be a strong signal. The scientists analyzed it intensively for six months, concluding that it was a gravitational wave from somewhere in the constellation of Canis Major. Just before they submitted their results for publication, however, they learned that the signal was a fake.This is wild, and I really wanted to know more about it! Do other observatories do this? I want to talk to the guy who did the faking.A LIGO technician installs a tube baffle to control stray light.
This time through, the blind-injection group swore that they had nothing to do with the signal. Marco Drago thought that their denials might also be part of the test, but Reitze, himself a member of the quartet, had a different concern. “My worry was—and you can file this under the fact that we are just paranoid cautious about making a false claim—could somebody have done this maliciously?”I admit this would never have occurred to me, but now I am worried too. Who would do this, and why? It seems like a weird aside, but it serves to show how seriously they took this discovery and how cautious scientists can be. he said. “Could somebody have somehow faked a signal in our detector that we didn’t know about?” Reitze, Weiss, González, and a handful of others considered who, if anyone, was familiar enough with both the apparatus and the algorithms to have spoofed the system and covered his or her tracks. There were only four candidates, and none of them had a plausible motive. “We grilled those guys,” Weiss said. “And no, they didn’t do it.” Ultimately, he said, “We accepted that the most economical explanation was that it really is a black-hole pair.”
Subgroups within the LIGO Scientific Collaboration set about validating every aspect of the detection. They reviewed how the instruments had been calibrated, took their software code apart line by line, and compiled a list of possible environmental disturbances, from oscillations in the ionosphere to earthquakes in the Pacific Rim. (“There was a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time,” Stan Whitcomb, LIGO’s chief scientist, told me. “But our magnetometers showed that it didn’t create enough of a disturbance to cause this event.”)I laughed out loud at this. A lightning strike in Africa, are you kidding me? I love that this happened, and that they knew about it, and I love that Twilley did such detailed interviews that she got this information. Eventually, they confirmed that the detection met the statistical threshold of five sigma, the gold standard for declaring a discovery in physics. This meant that there was a probability of only one in 3.5 million that the signal was spotted by chance.
The September 14th detection, now officially known as GW150914, has already yielded a handful of significant astrophysical findings. To begin with, it represents the first observational evidence that black-hole pairs exist. Until now, they had existed only in theory, since by definition they swallow all light in their vicinity, rendering themselves invisible to conventional telescopes.This is the first real description we get of the magnitude of the discovery. Invisible to conventional telescopes = this is an entirely new way of seeing the universe. Gravitational waves are the only information known to be capable of escaping a black hole’s crushing gravity.
The LIGO scientists have extracted an astonishing amount from the signal, including the masses of the black holes that produced it, their orbital speed, and the precise moment at which their surfaces touched. They are substantially heavier than expected, a surprise that, if confirmed by future observations, may help to explain how the mysterious supermassive black holes at the heart of many galaxies are formed. The team has also been able to quantify what is known as the ringdown—the three bursts of energy that the new, larger black hole gave off as it became spherical. “Seeing the ringdown is spectacular,” Levin said. It offers confirmation of one of relativity theory’s most important predictions about black holes—namely, that they radiate away imperfections in the form of gravitational waves after they coalesce.
The detection also proves that Einstein was right about yet another aspect of the physical universe. Although his theory deals with gravity, it has primarily been tested in our solar system, a place with a notably weak gravitational regime. “You think Earth’s gravity is really something when you’re climbing the stairs,” Weiss said. “But, as far as physics goes, it is a pipsqueak, infinitesimal, tiny little effect.”The six sentences that precede this quote are dense with lots of detailed astrophysics. As someone who traffics in these things, I’m curious about all of that, but I concede that others may not be. And that’s what makes this wondrous Rai Weiss quote so perfectly timed. It pulls the reader back to a more easily shared reality, without losing the meaning or consequence of the discovery. Near a black hole, however, gravity becomes the strongest force in the universe, capable of tearing atoms apart. Einstein predicted as much in 1916, and the LIGO results suggest that his equations align almost perfectly with real-world observation. “How could he have ever known this?” Weiss asked. “I would love to present him with the data that I saw that morning, to see his face.”Weiss is such a great character in this story; so lively and relatable, and Twilley uses his quotes to great effect.
Since the September 14th detection, LIGO has continued to observe candidate signals, although none are quite as dramatic as the first event. “The reason we are making all this fuss is because of the big guy,” Weiss said. “But we’re very happy that there are other, smaller ones, because it says this is not some unique, crazy, cuckoo effect.”
Virtually everything that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum.This line kicks off what may be the meatiest argument in this piece. We’ve spent a while now reading about all of LIGO’s superlatives, but it’s taken until now to bring home why it all matters. We’ve heard how LIGO is so super sensitive, how LIGO was controversial, how it might not even work! How the things it’s measuring might not even exist anyway! All of that is interesting for its own sake, but really, what makes LIGO special is that it was like opening an entirely new portal on the universe. It is hard to overstate how momentous this is for astronomy. I would have put this higher up in the story, or at least alluded to it somewhere earlier than this. I asked Twilley about it, and she explained it this way: “This is not a piece about the promise of gravitational waves, per se. This is a piece about that first detection and what it took to get there. … To be totally fair, if you were a physicist, there are things you would hope to read that were not in this piece. But that was not my target audience.” And that’s true. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy. Gravitational waves may not illuminate the so-called dark energy that is thought to make up the majority of that obscurity, but they will enable us to survey space and time as we never have before. “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.” If what we witnessed before was a silent movie, Levin said, gravitational waves turn our universe into a talkie.
As it happens, the particular frequencies of the waves that LIGO can detect fall within the range of human hearing, between about thirty-five and two hundred and fifty hertz. The chirp was much too quiet to hear by the time it reached Earth, and LIGO was capable of capturing only two-tenths of a second of the black holes’ multibillion-year merger, but with some minimal audio processing the event sounds like a glissando. “Use the back of your fingers, the nails, and just run them along the piano from the lowest A up to middle C, and you’ve got the whole signal,” Weiss said.This is a deftly handled example of how to use an analogy that works well even if it might not be universally relatable. I didn’t know what a glissando was, but who hasn’t run her fingers along a piano’s keys at some point?
Different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves, which means that LIGO and its successors could end up hearing something like a cosmic orchestra. “The binary neutron stars are like the piccolos,” Reitze said. Isolated spinning pulsars, he added, might make a monochromatic “ding” like a triangle, and black holes would fill in the string section, running from double bass on up, depending on their mass. LIGO, he said, will only ever be able to detect violins and violas; waves from supermassive black holes, like the one at the center of the Milky Way, will have to await future detectors, with different sensitivities.
Several such detectors are in the planning stages or under construction, including the Einstein Telescope, a European project whose underground arms will be more than twice the length of LIGO’s, and a space-based constellation of three instruments called eLISA. (The European Space Agency, with support from NASA, launched a pathfinder mission in December.) Other detectors are already up and running, including the BICEP2 telescope, which, despite its initial false alarm, may still detect the echoes of gravitational waves from even further back in the universe’s history. Reitze’s hope, he told me, is that the chirp will motivate more investment in the field.
Advanced LIGO’s first observing run came to an end on January 12th. Effler and the rest of the commissioning team have since begun another round of improvements. The observatory is inching toward its maximum sensitivity; within two or three years, it may well register events on a daily basis, capturing more data in the process. It will come online again by late summer, listening even more closely to a celestial soundtrack that we have barely imagined. “We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”I think the ending is the only thing I wanted to change. I enjoyed Twilley’s voice so much in this piece that I would have preferred a written kicker, with some poignant observation or left-field detail gathered from her exquisite interviews, rather than ending on a relatively mild quote from Thorne. But after I asked her about this choice, I understood why she handled the ending this way. “I thought it was an incredible story of what it took for us to finally detect these things, and then you end the piece by opening up into what it might tell us, which we don’t know, because we’ve spotted something we have never been able to see before.” In that context, she argues, the “We don’t know” doesn’t seem so weak. Fair enough.
Rebecca Boyle is a freelance journalist based in St. Louis. She is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a frequent contributor to FiveThirtyEight, Scientific American, and other magazines. She focuses on history and astronomy, and her story on the gravitational-wave detection of a merger between neutron stars was anthologized in the 2018 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Follow her on Twitter @rboyle31.
The post Storygram: Nicola Twilley’s “How the First Gravitational Waves Were Found” appeared first on Showcase.
The following story diagram—or Storygram—annotates an award-winning story to shed light on what makes some of the best science writing so outstanding. The Storygram series is a joint project of The Open Notebook and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. It is supported in part by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. This Storygram is co-published at the CASW Showcase.
Black holes, general relativity, and gravitational waves are not subjects you’d necessarily associate with high drama and excitement. Many readers, writers, and even some science journalists consider such hefty physics concepts boring, or too unrelatable or inaccessible. Physics—including astronomy, cosmology, theory, and the machinations of the universe at the very biggest and very smallest scales—is sometimes relegated to the science-writing sidelines. A handful of writers and readers watch it with interest, but it only earns a bright spotlight in the case of a momentous discovery or a gargantuan screwup. But in Nicola Twilley’s hands, high-energy physics is gripping, surprising, even funny—and that’s what makes her coverage of the first gravitational-wave detection so interesting. Almost every publication that covers science wrote about the discovery in February 2016, but no one else had exclusive access to the team beforehand. Twilley used her access, her curiosity, and her self-effacing manner to expertly convey the excitement and bewilderment of a discovery even Einstein thought would be impossible.
We are now accepting applications for the next two rounds of The Open Notebook/Burroughs Wellcome Fund fellowship for early-career science writers. (See here for stories written by our previous fellows.)
The next TON/BWF fellowship period will begin on January 2, 2019 and end on August 31, 2019. The subsequent fellowship period will begin on July 1, 2019 and end on February 28, 2020. Applicants may express interest for one or both fellowship periods.
During the eight-month fellowship period, fellows will report and write six articles for publication at The Open Notebook—a mix of “story behind the story” interviews and reported features—with the guidance of a mentor who will help shape story ideas, provide reporting and writing guidance, edit final copy, and offer career-development mentoring. Fellows (and mentors) will also be part of a professional discussion group composed of former fellowship participants and TON editors.
The fellowship will be remote and will be part-time. Thanks to a generous grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, each fellow will receive a stipend of $4,200.
The fellowship is open to early-career science writers with fewer than two years of professional science writing experience. (Internships and student work do not count toward this requirement). Graduate students interested in science writing are eligible. Prospective fellows must be available to devote sufficient time to completing articles as specified in the fellowship description. (International applicants are welcome. Note that applications, including writing samples and letters of recommendation, must be in English.)
Priority will be given to applicants who demonstrate an ability to propose good feature ideas and who show strong writing ability.
Required Application Materials
- A resume or CV
- A letter of interest explaining why you are seeking the fellowship and what you hope to learn from the experience (500 words maximum)
- Proposals for two TON features or multimedia stories. These can take the form of a behind-the-story writer interview; a reported feature on some element of the craft of science writing; or some other creative, feature-length project centered on the craft of science writing. (Combined length of these two proposals must be no more than 500 words.)
- Up to three writing or multimedia samples
- One or two (no more) letters of reference
Applications, including letters of reference, must be received by 11:59 p.m. U.S. Central time on October 11, 2018. Note: The Submittable application process requires applicants to provide an email address for each person writing a letter of reference; the system will then send a unique link to each reference. Applicants should complete applications early enough to allow references to also submit their letters on time.
Selections for both fellowship periods will be announced by November 30, 2018.
In the Apollo 8 mission, December 21, 1968, humans left earth’s gravity for the first time, and flew to the moon, circling it 10 times. They took now-iconic photos from space. To mark Apollo 8’s 50th anniversary, Robert Zimmerman collaborated with a fan of his 1998 book Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8: The First Manned Flight to Another World to produce the work’s first ebook and audio versions.Member blog name: Advance copy: Backstories on books by NASW membersArticle topic: Science writing news
The PIO Committee issues a statement on one of this fall's proposed amendments.Article type: Governance
In our continuing series on problematic public relations news releases, we add another entry to our category on claims made about animal studies. The reason we’re continuing to hammer away on this issue is that, as you’ll see in these examples, many news releases deliver misleading messages that can easily be misinterpreted by readers. We think the problem is so large that we extend an unprecedented offer of help to those who write news releases, hoping to prevent flaws like the ones seen below – in PR releases about sperm quality, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, cardiovascular disease and inflammatory bowel disease.Father’s diet could affect the long-term health of his offspring
If the father and his offspring are mice. Which was made abundantly clear in this University of Nottingham (UK) release, once you got past the headline. But while this release is clear about the mouse model employed, it says that “this new study bridges a gap” because little is known about the impact of lifestyle factors on the long-term health of a father’s offspring. We don’t think that you can bridge a gap with a single mouse study. That’s a leap over the gap that still exists between a mouse study and human relevance. But throughout the release, direct inferences about human implications were made – including a heading, “Improving dietary advice given to prospective fathers.” Seriously? Based on one study of a couple dozen mice?World-first breakthrough for difficult-to-treat breast cancer
You already know the punchline: in mice. But think of the impact of a headline like this from Hong Kong Baptist University on women diagnosed with breast cancer. The scientific paper, on which the news release is based, is far more conservative: “We anticipate that (this) may be used as a novel scaffold for the further development of more potent epigenetic agents against cancers.” If the university isn’t going to do a better job on a news release, perhaps the EurekAlert service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – which distributed the release – needs to do some enforcement of quality measures (such as our 10 criteria). Because doesn’t the advancement of science depend on the advancement of responsible communication of scientific research?Researchers identify new potential biotherapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
It bothers me when I see women with breast cancer jerked around by sensational headlines, as in the last example. It bothers me just as much or more to see Alzheimer’s disease patients and their families misled. This release comes from The Rockefeller University Press, based on a study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine which it publishes. The opening line further drives home a direct human inference: “Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered that a modified version of an important immune cell protein could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.” Only then do we learn that the research was in “the brains of Alzheimer’s disease model mice.” The release later quotes the lead author admitting that this mouse model may not capture the entire range of Alzheimer’s problems, meaning that this early research would need to be “further explored in multiple models of Alzheimer’s disease. Hmm. Not quite as sexy as the headline or the first sentence promising something that “could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”In test with rats, cannabidiol showed sustained effects against depression for seven days
Well, at least this Brazilian news release put “rats” in the headline. And the news release was very detailed. First, if you’re into details about how animal studies are done, you must read about the “forced swim test” the animals did. The release discussed “rat and mouse lines selected by cross-breeding to develop symptoms of depression” – which should lead readers to wonder whether this is a good model from which to make a projection like this about human studies that aren’t even done yet:
“they could result in an important advance in the treatment of depression, potentially helping patients who suffer for weeks, often with a risk of suicide, until the treatment starts working.”Lower cholesterol treatment breakthrough
I was lured in by the first sentence of the release: “The American offshoot of Australian biotech Noxopharm, Nyrada, believes it is within reach of achieving a major advance in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.” That was “breakthrough” and “major advance” within the first 20 words. But I went through the entire release several times searching for details on what stage the research was in – in order to see how close we might be to this breakthrough. All I could find was this:
NYX-330 currently is undergoing studies in France and elsewhere designed to optimise its function, with an anticipated 15-18 months before it will be ready to bring into the clinic.
Hmm. Sounds like the studies don’t even need to be done if the company can anticipate FDA approval as a fait accompli, allowing clinical use within 18 months. So I looked further on the company website and found:
NYX-330 now has passed a series of critical tests conducted by the Company and involving both laboratory and animal studies designed to confirm its potential ability to meet those marketing objectives.
And that’s why a news release touting a breakthrough and a major advance ended up on this page about problematic PR releases about animal studies.Strawberries could help reduce harmful inflammation in the colon
This is about research on inflammatory bowel disease – a painful problem that can cause severe diarrhea and fatigue in perhaps 3 million adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, alas, this news release is only about mice. But it took the release 363 words and 6 paragraphs to disclose that. This release came from the American Chemical Society. And look at just a sample of all the news it generated:Strawberries could treat bowel disease: The little red fruits may reduce diarrhea and weight loss in people with Crohn’s disease or colitis – First sentence: “Eating a handful of strawberries a day could help millions of people cope with inflammatory bowel disease.” Strawberries could reduce colon inflammation, study finds Strawberries: What to Eat to Fight Inflammatory Bowel Disease Strawberries may reduce gut inflammation Can strawberries help cure intestinal inflammation?
And that is why we have reviewed more than 550 health care PR news releases. Because many – indeed, most that we’ve seen – abdicate the responsibility to educate in favor of hyping results.
Put “mice” in the headlines and you’d go a long way toward establishing a more responsible framing for the research. (Except that didn’t save the Brazilian depression release above.) Step two would be to ensure that you clarify how big may be the leap from animal studies to human implications. Of course, the front office is worried that putting “mice” or caveats in the headlines won’t result in a high click rate. Or it won’t generate new research funding. Or it won’t help lure new superstar scientists. So other interests, besides the readers’ interests, explain why we get what we get every day.
Before abortion was legal across the United States, underground networks of women—such as the Jane Collective in Chicago—worked secretly to help end unwanted pregnancies. They used herbs, pills, and homemade devices to discreetly provide abortions at the homes of the women who needed them. Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the landmark case Roe v. Wade, asserting a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Soon, clinics opened and doctors started providing abortion care openly. Many women who had fought hard in the legal battle for abortion rights thought the days of underground medical care were over.
Forty-five years later, that hasn’t been the case. Today, approximately 200 women are operating outside the law and the medical establishment to provide cheap and accessible home abortions. But the reasons this work is thriving are more complicated than just access to legal abortion procedures: These women serve clients who can’t afford clinical care, live far from clinics, or simply dislike and distrust medical settings.
In March 2018, investigative reporter Lizzie Presser brought their work into the light.
During six months of reporting, she met with nearly a dozen women who are part of an underground network, followed them on home visits to clients, and read their 800-page training manual.
Many times she doubted whether her reporting would ever become a story. There were legal issues to consider in reporting on an illegal practice. There were practical issues of getting permission from the women to tell their stories. Once they agreed, there were ethical issues with anonymizing the subjects of her story enough to protect them from harm, but still including the details that would bring the story alive.
Ultimately, the piece was published in The California Sunday Magazine, in partnership with the Investigative Fund, under the headline: “Whatever’s Your Darkest Question, You Can Ask Me.”
Here, Presser talks to Aneri Pattani about how she was able to get access to such a sensitive story, how she reported it out with diligence and compassion, and how other investigative reporters can do the same. (more…)
Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans is a modern teaching hospital offering the latest innovative treatments from a staff of highly trained experts.
So why do its communications about prostate cancer sound like they were crafted on a bayou backwater that’s 20 years behind the times?
Their PR team is promoting an event called Man Up! Geaux Get Screened, which exhorts local men to sign up for this “quick and relatively painless blood test called a PSA to screen for prostate cancer.”
Painless? Tell that to the thousands of men who’ve been unnecessarily biopsied or operated on based on results from a PSA test.
Here’s a sampling of the event’s marketing pitch — a football-themed guilt trip mixing machismo and memorabilia:
Rickey Jackson knows what it takes to be a man. But it’s more than dominating a football field, winning a Super Bowl or earning his way into the NFL Hall of Fame. Jackson knows being a man means taking care of yourself so you can take care of the people in your life.
That’s why he – along with several other New Orleans Saints legends – is again partnering with Tulane Health System to raise awareness of prostate cancer and provide free PSA screenings to any eligible men.
Jackson, a former NFL linebacker, will apparently be on hand to offer a personal story about his diagnosis and recovery from the disease, and other former players (pictured above) will be available to take photos with attendees and compete in athletic contests.
Attendees will also have the chance to take control of a da Vinci surgery robot courtesy of Intuitive Surgical — which is no doubt eager to stoke demand for more of its costly surgery machines.
And If that’s enough to get men pumped up about PSA testing, they’re even offering a chance to win signed memorabilia to anyone who actually goes through with the screening.What’s wrong with this message?
There is growing realization that PSA testing for prostate cancer is not something to be entered into lightly — that the very small possibility of lifesaving benefit may be outweighed by the much larger likelihood of suffering mental or physical harm from the test or related treatments.
That’s why just about every major medical society recommends against mass screening events such as this one that typically promote a mindless pro-screening message. Guidelines from the American Urological Association state: “We recommend against organized screening in settings where shared-decision making is not part of routine practice (e.g., health fairs, health system promotions, community organizations).”
The American Cancer Society makes it abundantly clear that PSA testing demands careful consideration from both clinicians and patients, and that it’s not something that should be incentivized with photo-ops and signed footballs. Their guidelines state:
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that men have a chance to make an informed decision with their health care provider about whether to be screened for prostate cancer. The decision should be made after getting information about the uncertainties, risks, and potential benefits of prostate cancer screening. Men should not be screened unless they have received this information.
A one-page screening fact sheet — buried at the bottom of the Tulane event’s promotional web page — provides no certainty that the men being tested understand the risks and tradeoffs that they are signing on for. Not when it’s competing against a blizzard of marketing brouhaha designed to entice and shame men into getting screened.We must do better
It’s hard to believe that in 2018, a modern health care facility like Tulane Medical Center could be putting out this kind of coercive, reckless messaging to lure men in for prostate cancer screening. But Tulane is far from the only brand-name institution that resorts to these kinds of promotions.
We saw it from Yale Cancer Center which promoted free screenings with the participation of a local TV weatherman.
We saw it in Atlanta when several radiotherapy centers and the Morehouse School of Medicine offered Atlanta Hawks NBA basketball tickets.
PSA testing is not “quick and relatively painless” — it’s potentially the first step on a long path that will lead to anxiety, more tests, and surgery that carries grave risks — all for a benefit that any individual man may or may not find compelling.
Tulane needs to do a better job of preparing men for this lifelong journey. And that starts by ditching the door prizes and promoting real conversations about the options men have available to them.
The event is scheduled for Saturday, September 8 — plenty of time for Tulane to reconsider this ill-advised promotion and for men to reconsider their screening options.
DNA makes us who we are. But how? In Genetics 101, Beth Skwarecki starts at the beginning. She aims to build lay readers’ understanding step-by-step, and moves from describing basic building blocks of cellular information to how traits are inherited to topics in the news, including how DNA ancestry services work, ethical quandaries posed by embryonic gene editing, and babies of the future.Member blog name: Advance copy: Backstories on books by NASW membersArticle topic: Science writing news
It’s been a long, hot summer with no small amount of scary headlines. While we’ve covered the topic of summer scare-mongering before, what’s trending this summer is less random and more insect-and-critter obsessed. Bats, ticks, dog saliva, drunken wasps, and a vast array of parasites could truly turn this into a summer of despair (if judging by the headlines, that is).
I’d posit that beaches and summer fun have never seemed so dangerous since the summer of 1975, when Peter Bentley’s novel Jaws hit the big screen, producing a Hollywood-sized level of fear which kept millions of beachgoers at home. The recently released sure-to-be-blockbuster movie The Meg shows us once again, nothing focuses the mind like the chances of getting chewed on by a great white shark, even though the likelihood of that happening are less than the chances of being crushed to death by a vending machine.
Topping the list of summer scare stories has to be Reader’s Digest’s list of “12 Scary Diseases You Didn’t Know You Could Catch at the Beach,” which lists a variety of dangers such as Legionnaire’s disease, hepatitis A, swimmer’s itch, norovirus and even the possibility of hookworm by stepping in infected dog poop.
There are infinitesimal chances of getting most of the scary diseases (or animal attacks) being reported this summer, but that doesn’t change the fact that many readers are captivated by rare but potentially deadly nasties.
The common denominator in most of these stories is the simple fact that being outside is a recipe for disaster. What other features have stood out for a truly scary story? Let’s do a brief rundown:Exaggerated and scary-sounding statistics
For starters, the stats look scary, such as those in this CNN story about a parasite known as cyclospora. We learn that there have been “206 cases of cyclospora infections reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the first of May to the beginning of August,” which is “a 134% increase from the 88 cases reported over the same time period in 2016.”
Let’s do the math here. If there are 325 million people in the US, then an American’s chance of getting a cyclospora infection in 2016 was 0.000027% and that “jumped” to a mere 0.000063%, an absolute difference of 0.000036%. These “US outbreaks have been linked to imported fresh produce such as basil, cilantro, lettuce, raspberries and snow peas,” CNN tells us. Does this vanishingly small increase in risk (maybe about 1 in 30 million) of getting the infection that can cause watery diarrhea, nausea and cramping really mean one should stop eating these products? Probably not.Unexamined conflicts of interest
According to this Gizmodo story, “Lyme disease is a bigger risk to more people in the United States than ever before” — or so says a senior medical director for Quest Diagnostics. His company released a report on Lyme disease hypothesizing that these “significant rates of increase” may back up other research showing that climate change could be allowing ticks to live longer. Which means more concern and more potential danger to the public.
But what is really at stake here?
The punchline: “Physicians who suspect their patients might have been exposed to the bacteria causing Lyme disease can order laboratory tests to confirm the presence of Lyme or other tick-borne diseases.” Who makes the lab tests? Yep: Quest Diagnostics. What’s truly scary here is how this conflict of interest wasn’t reported.Common everyday things can turn on you
At the more bizarre end of the spectrum of summer scaremongering is the “lick of death” story reported in the Washington Post and CBS (among others). A man apparently developed sepsis resulting in multiple amputations after being licked by a dog carrying the Capnocytophaga canimorsus bacteria. While that is a truly horrific story of woe, how worried do we need to be of getting licked by a dog or cat? Here the message seems to be “Very Worried” or, alternatively, “Not Worried at All.”
CBS reported that CDC data shows that “many Capnocytophaga species are considered normal bacteria commonly found in the mouths of humans, dogs, and cats. In fact, up to 74 percent of dogs and up to 57 percent of cats have Capnocytophaga detected in their mouths.” Yet consider this extra factoid: The infection caused by this bacteria is so rare as to be almost nonexistent, and this study said there have been 484 laboratory confirmed cases since 1961.
Let’s see, 484 cases in 57 years. That’s about 8 per year. Even so, in their mission to protect the public, the CDC says if you use alcohol excessively, don’t have a spleen, have cancer, diabetes or HIV or have a compromised immune system, (which is quite a few Americans) you should call “the doctor immediately to describe your animal contact.” They add that “antibiotics are needed to treat a Capnocytophaga infection and should be started as soon as possible to prevent further complications.”
If you take this list of immune-compromised people, add in the huge rate of dog ownership in this country, then clearly the CDC is saying that a good portion of the US population should be quite concerned about the lick of death.
Cue the pharmacy cash registers. (Here’s where I remind people that dog bites are the bigger problem, especially for kids.)Common sense flies out the window, along with the bats
In a strange story of overly helpful humans trying to help a sickly bat, the Austin American-Statesman quotes Austin Public Health (sounding very much like a stern police report) that a few weeks ago “multiple females were seen picking up a bat from the sidewalk and handling it while trying to give it water.” Because the bat tested positive for rabies, the city launched a manhunt for the infected bat’s well-meaning but wayward caretakers. The story then reminds us that rabies is bad, very bad.
Yes, rabies is no cake walk, but let’s not forget that rabies, especially in humans, is extremely rare (about 1-3 cases reported each year in the US). That risk is even lower if you’re aware that picking up ailing bats is probably not a great idea. That low-risk reality didn’t make its way into the Statesman story.New creepy crawlies that aren’t (quite) scary yet
Healthline warns readers a “new Lyme disease” is on the horizon. The emerging infection, from the bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi, is in the same group of bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but adds the caveat that “doctors say people shouldn’t panic.”
Why? Because we learn–despite the story’s whole premise–that it’s quite a stretch to compare this bacteria to Lyme disease, as the only thing the two have in common is that they are carried by the same ticks. So far there’s been 60 reported cases, and so there’s hardly a huge cause for concern. That story did helpfully mention that there are treatments for this new disease and goes into considerable detail about what you can do to prevent tick bites.Why is this news now and why is it a concern here?
In the category of the truly eye-opening is a weird story in the Washington Post about the British artist Ben Taylor, who in 2015 was diagnosed with a parasitic infection known as Loiasis. (Or, more vividly, “African eye worm.”) Taylor complained about the symptoms for several years and got little help from the medical system. We learn that he had spent some time in Gabon, a central African country where he probably picked up the Loa loa worm. We learn that it’s “typically passed on to a host body through bites from insects, in this case, from deer flies,” according to the CDC. And the CDC tells us how to diagnose this parasite, but the real question is: Are there deer flies here in America that carry the Loa loa parasite? We don’t know and we don’t find out. What we do learn, though–and this is the interesting and macabre part of the story–once discovered it can be removed. Taylor’s procedure involved a doctor who “scalped a tiny part of his eye’s outer layer and pulled out the wriggling parasite.” It was an inch-long Loa Loa roundworm. After his doctor placed it in a container, “Taylor watched it die.”
But one might ask: Why is this news now? Should we be worried? No: It’s because Taylor painted this month’s cover of Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The managing editor was looking “for an image that would fit the month’s theme: parasites,” and stumbled across Taylor’s painting, which he named “the Host.”
Eye-opening indeed.Wait, wasted wasps? Yes.
Last but not least, Fox News–taking a page from the UK’s Daily Mail— reports on drunk and angry wasps. As someone particularly allergic to wasp stings, this story has some resonance for me. Apparently “lager lout” wasps have been chasing down British residents, “after getting drunk drinking fermented fruit and leftover pub-garden cider, stinging anyone and everyone they can find.” The theory is that the angry wasps are boozing it up on fermenting fruit partly due to the cold winter Britain just had, which allowed the wasps build “larger than normal” nests.
Is there a moral of the story here? Not apparent to me, other than as one who is somewhat fearful of regular, old wasps, having drunk and angry ones hell-bent on stinging me does raise the fear factor somewhat. But mostly it’s just funny.We’re all gonna die, right?
So let’s wrap up. What’s happening here? One thing none of these stories adequately cover is the psychological burden of telling us all to be afraid. Be very afraid.
It’s a message that taps deep into our lizard-brain survival instincts, and it’s a surefire click producer during this lethargic season for health news.
We have a different take. Our prescription might be a tall cool drink and a few hours in the hammock in the shade. In other words: Don’t worry. Be happy.Getty Images
Why? Because there are ever more such studies and ever more news stories and PR news releases about such studies. And few include an important discussion of what these studies can do and what they can’t.We want to be very clear about this
Please note: Observational studies (as with the research that linked smoking to cancer and other problems) can indeed pile up such overwhelming evidence that it would be prudent to make public health recommendations on that basis. In fact, in some cases, observational data from large numbers of people that show associations previously found in other large studies may be stronger than some data from some randomized clinical trials. Not all studies are equal. There can be strengths or biases in any study. However, an observational study cannot prove cause and effect. Statistical association is not proof of cause-and-effect. It is not unimportant. But no one should make it more than what it is. (For more on the limitations of observational studies, see the three links at the end of this article.) For years we have offered guidance to writers about the language that should be avoided when discussing observational data – and language that is better.
So when you analyze news coverage every day as we have done for more than 12 years, you can’t help but be blown away by the amount of news attention that is given to observational studies, often without discussion of limitations.A day in the life of our daily news searches
Eating this much chocolate could cut heart disease risk by 13 percent. – Newsweek (which borrowed from The Telegraph and The Daily Mail – a troubling practice that suggests very little independent vetting is being done by a news organization that was once a leader.)
New Wrinkle in Heart Health: Furrowed Brows May Bode Ill – HealthDay. The story did include this line, “But the study did not prove that forehead wrinkles cause heart risks to rise, and other heart experts remained skeptical.” Given that, why was the story worth publishing?
Deep forehead wrinkles may signal heart disease risk – USA Today. And yes, past observational studies have shown statistical associations between ear lobe creases and heart attack or stroke. Does that mean people who spot wrinkles/creases should run in for full body or full head wrinkle scans? Hardly. So how is this news important in readers’ lives?
(See other news on observational data from the European Society of Cardiology meeting in another post on our site today – What you need to know when it comes to bad news about “good” cholesterol.)
Can an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Improve Your Mental Health? – US News & World Report. The long piece is centered around one woman whose doctor ordered “30-some blood tests” before diagnosing her with this: “Your body is a forest fire,” and then prescribing a strict anti-inflammatory diet. So add tyranny of the anecdote as one more flaw in this story.Not ready for prime time
You could argue that none of these news items was worth publishing. None provided evidence for news you can use.
Instead of reporting on these studies, I would urge journalists to report more on articles like these that are also in the medical literature:
- Media Coverage of Medical Journals: Do the Best Articles Make the News? – Excerpt: “We present evidence that newspapers preferentially cover medical research with weaker methodology.”
- Reporting of Limitations of Observational Research– Excerpt: “Observational research is abundant and influences clinical practice, in part via publication in high-impact journals and dissemination by news media. However, it frequently generates unreliable findings.1 Inherent methodologic limitations that generate bias and confounding mean that causal inferences cannot reliably be drawn.”
- When research evidence is misleading – Excerpt: “Bias in observational analyses currently presents challenges in reliably basing medical practices on this type of work alone.”
Some headlines over the weekend heralded dire-sounding news about HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol:
- Too much good cholesterol could raise risk of death, study suggests (Newsweek)
- Excessive ‘good’ cholesterol can be life threatening: study Indo-Asian News Service (IANS)
But those scary statements are misleading. Here’s why.
The stories are based on an abstract presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2018 in Munich, which showed an association between very high HDL and higher incidence of heart-related deaths and heart attacks.
That observational study did not show that having very high HDL caused those bad events.
The headlines stumbled by using that language that suggested a cause-and-effect relationship.
Newsweek continued the misleading causal phrasing in its lead, which said too much HDL “could raise the risk” of heart attacks and death. IANS did better in its lead, which accurately stated high HDL was “associated with” bad events.
Both stories appeared to rely exclusively on an ESC news release that used similar misleading cause-and-effect framing in its headline: “Too much of a good thing? Very high levels of ‘good cholesterol may be harmful.”
It’s not the first time we’ve taken ESC to task. In 2014 the group earned a spot on HealthNewsReview.org’s wall of shame for a different news release that implied a causal relationship between drinking tea and lower mortality.No change in heart disease prevention
Significantly, the stories didn’t explain that the research doesn’t change guidance on preventing heart disease.
While there’s a plethora of advice on how to raise your HDL level — like consuming olive oil and hitting the gym — cardiologist Christopher Labos, MD, a HealthNewsReview.org contributor, said via email that there’s no evidence behind it:
“There’s not much you can do about your HDL (much of it is genetic) so it’s not clear what people are supposed to do with this information. The general advice we give everyone about diet exercise and the cardiac risk factors holds true whatever your HDL level is. “Also missing: absolute numbers
There were other issues with the coverage.
The stories and the news release said people with very high HDL had a nearly 50% increased risk but provided no precise numbers to help readers understand the size of that risk. The coverage conveyed the incidence of bad events for all patients in the study, but did not break it down by HDL level.
Another important point that readers might have missed — since it didn’t appear near the top of the coverage — was that most of the patients in the study already had heart disease.Researcher gave a more nuanced message
Both stories ran this provocative quote from lead researcher Marc Allard-Ratich, MD, of Emory University in Atlanta:
“It may be time to change the way we view HDL cholesterol. Traditionally, physicians have told their patients that the higher your ‘good’ cholesterol, the better. However, the results from this study and others suggest that this may no longer be the case.”
But Allard-Ratich gave a more nuanced message during a conference presentation, saying HDL is “very complicated” and “significantly more research” is needed. He said it’s unclear how to intervene with the estimated 1 to 5% of people who have very high HDL.
The researcher also offered fellow clinicians a takeaway message that we’re fairly certain won’t grab any headlines. As always, he said, when it comes to risk factors for heart disease, “focus on on things that we can control such as smoking, drinking, obesity and activity level.”—
Please note: Observational studies (as with the research that linked smoking to cancer and other problems) can indeed pile up such overwhelming evidence that it would be prudent to make public health recommendations on that basis. However, it’s rare that observational studies reported in the news media rise to this level of evidence. Moreover, an observational study cannot prove cause and effect. Statistical association is not proof of cause-and-effect. It is not unimportant. But no one should make it more than what it is.