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Scientific Illiteracy in the Press

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Volume 5.1, March 1995

I’m the first to admit it: I have not made a scientific, double-blind study of this phenomenon. I don’t know whether this is really happening. Perhaps it is just a crotchet of advancing age. But it appears to me that the ignorance displayed by members of the press continually grows more pronounced.

This shows up in all sorts of ways, and not just in the supermarket checkout journals. On KYW, Philadelphia’s leading radio news station, I often hear things like: “A fire was reported in the 2800 block of West Cumberland Street, in the Kensington section of the city.” But every true Philadelphian knows that if it is Kensington, it has to be East Cumberland Street. Clearly, their writer is an immigrant fresh from the hinterlands and is ignorant of the city’s geography.

Headline writers are the worst perpetrators, and often behave as though they have not read the story they are headlining. There was a recent spate of articles in the papers about sonoluminescence, a process in which powerful sound waves in a liquid produce air bubbles within that liquid; simultaneously shock waves are produced inside the bubbles that heat the compressed gas to very high temperatures. As a result, the compressed gas emits flashes of light, as any heated gas will. Each light flash lasts less than 50 picoseconds (1 picosecond = 10 -12 seconds). The announcement of this discovery was accompanied by a reasonable conjecture that if you used heavy water (deuterium oxide) as the fluid, you could produce thermonuclear fusion by this method and so generate energy.

So far so good. However, in his or her enthusiasm, the headline writer added the word “cold” to the caption, thus creating an overheated announcement that the experimenters had achieved “cold fusion.” But the body of the story clearly explained that the fusion reaction would occur because of the high temperatures within the bubbles. Automatically the headline writer assumed that if it took place in a beaker of water, it had to be cold fusion. Two kinds of errors were involved. One, the headline writer did not read the story carefully; two, the headline writer did not understand that even in a beaker of cold water there can be local and temporary regions of high temperature (although it is clear that continuous application of these high energy sound waves is going to heat up the water pretty fast).

P.S.: Experiments are under way at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to do this experiment with deuterium and to try to generate measurable neutrons.

Now let us examine a story published in a prestigious news journal: Newsweek, dated Dec. 26, 1994. On page 108 we see an item that is a prime example of what happens when a couple of English majors try to deal with a science- based story. (I am assuming they are English majors, having only their ignorance of science as evidence. Whatever happened to the idea of having science writers who major in science and so know what they are writing about?) The article is about powering vehicles with fuel cells, part of a series predicting the next century. A fuel cell is described as “a sort of battery that never needs recharging.” True, it never needs recharging, but that is because it derives its energy by oxidizing liquid or gaseous fuel. Its main virtue is touted as no release of pollution to the atmosphere.

The falsehood lies in what is left out. We are told: “Fuel cells make possible the dream of running a car on water: separate water into H2 and O and, presto—car fuel.” Unmentioned is the fact that to separate water into its elements requires that you put in as much energy as you get out when you burn the hydrogen and oxygen. And generating that initial energy is going to produce a certain amount of pollution.

Notwithstanding, the authors end with an upbeat. After predicting unlimited and cheap energy from fuel cells in the future, we are told: “And then fuel cells would be even more like a perpetual-motion machine: all the electricity you want without a speck of pollution.” A schematic diagram of a fuel cell inspires the writer to even greater heights. Its caption tells us: “A fuel cell is the chemical version of a perpetual-motion machine.” All this hype disregards the fact that fuel cells have not the slightest similarity to perpetual-motion machines. The defining feature of a perpetual-motion machine is that it produces energy without burning fuel-that is, it would if it existed. But a fuel cell burns-or at least oxidizes-fuel. Certainly if perpetual-motion machines existed they would operate without pollution, but that is incidental to the main point. To compare a fuel cell with a perpetual-motion machine because they are both free of pollution is like saying a centipede is like a lion because they both have legs.

It is clear that the authors needed some sensationalism to puff up a fairly prosaic story. They did this by using the term “perpetual-motion” as though this machine really exists. Actually, since perpetual-motion machines do not and cannot exist, the comparison of a fuel cell with a perpetual-motion machine might be taken to mean that fuel cells do not exist either. Which is not true.

Fuel cells are indeed an active area of research. They have been used for years in space vehicles. Efforts are now aimed at using natural hydrocarbons, such as gasoline or methane, for fuel instead of pure hydrogen. Once the price is reduced from $2,000 to $50 per kilowatt, there are two advantages: less pollution and greater efficiency than with internal-combustion engines. The efficiency of heat engines is limited by the laws of thermodynamics to a low value, while a fuel cell, which does not go through a heat cycle, can approach 100 percent efficiency. But in no way can it be likened to perpetual motion. Now look at the obituary for Eugene Wigner that appeared in the New York Times on January 4, 1995. Wigner was one of the 20th-century giants of theoretical physics. His work in nuclear theory earned him the Nobel prize in physics for 1963. In describing his interest in quantum theory the obit says: “In the ordinary world, an object either exists or does not. But quantum theory provides that something at the subatomic level can both exist and not exist simultaneously.” I know of no textbook on quantum theory that makes such a statement. This kind of thing is typical of certain intellectual types who say things like: “Nothing exists until it is observed.” Which I trashed in my last column.

Quantum theory does say that the state of an object is undetermined until it is detected, so that you might think of a photon reflected from a half-silvered mirror as going in two directions simultaneously (the reflected wave and the transmitted wave) until a photodetector places it in a definite location. But that does not mean the existence of the photon is in doubt.

I’m sure, however, that this new myth will remain in circulation forever.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.