It’s almost a new year, which of course is the time that everyone writes retrospectives of the year before. I don’t really want to write a retrospective; I’d rather start a new tradition: criticizing someone else’s retrospective. So to begin: I draw your attention to CNN’s Top 10 science stories of 2012.
Let me start by emphasizing that this list was not written by a scientist. It was written by the CNN Health beat reporter. So maybe I shouldn’t be so critical: maybe I should give that reporter a pass. But come on, shouldn’t we expect at least half of the “top 10 science stories” to actually be science? Is that so much to ask for? Ideally, such a list should be written by several scientists, or at the very least one scientist. Having the CNN Health reporter compile a list of the top 10 science stories is a kind of near miss—like having Bob Vila comment on the top 10 advances in mechanical engineering, or having Tiger Woods list the best Cricket players in Australia (be sure to mention Michael Clarke, Tiger).
I am a scientist, so I feel qualified to comment on CNN’s list. Therefore, in the spirit of new year snarkiness, let’s evaluate each “top 10 science story” for import, for scientific value, and for “wow” factor. And let’s see how the health reporter did. Remember, that reporter got paid for their work (and I am not getting paid). Go figure.
1. Curiosity lands, performs science on Mars
OK, this is cool, and maybe some science will be done eventually—I am not aware of any actual results published yet in a peer-reviewed journal. But the Curiosity landing on Mars is in itself not science; it’s a remarkable feat of technology and engineering. So it shouldn’t be on the list.
2. Higgs boson — it’s real
I don’t have a problem with this being on the list. This is big, and important, and exciting to most physicists. The one thing it is not is surprising: most physicists had faith in the Standard Model, and most expected the Higgs to be found in the 125 GeV/c2 range. Now the real work begins: determining all the properties of the Higgs, and all the interactions that it might participate in.
3. James Cameron’s deep dive
Seriously? How is this science? Avatar-boy goes on a vanity jaunt to the heart of the ocean, and we pay attention why?
4. Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump
This is an even more embarrassing entry than the previous one. An idiot pushes the envelope, and we call it science? Does the CNN Health reporter even know what science is?
5. Planet with four suns
Planethunters.org discovered a quadruple star system with a planet in a (somehow) stable orbit. This is an interesting discovery and an impressive feat by an amateur collective. Maybe someone will get a journal article out of this someday, but that’s it. A bigger story is how many extrasolar planets have been discovered so far—854 by Dec. 24, 2012.
6. Nearby star has a planet
So Alpha Centauri B has a planet. That’s nice. But didn’t we already cover extrasolar planets in the previous entry in the list? A good list should vary its entries: if you were listing your top 10 favorite comfort foods, and if #5 were pepperoni pizza, would #6 be sausage pizza? I didn’t think so.
7. Vesta becomes a ‘protoplanet’
Sigh. What’s with all the space stuff? Hey CNN Health reporter: only a small percentage of physicists are astronomers, you know, and there are many other branches of science than just physics. Did you consider asking a chemist what’s hot in chemistry? Did you think of calling a geologist, or a neuroscientist, or a paleontologist, or a solid-state physicist? I didn’t think so.
8. Bye-bye, space shuttles
Again? More space? And this isn’t even remotely science. This is about the retirement of a vehicle. Good riddance, I say: imagine all the real science that could have been done if the space shuttle money had instead been used to send out hundreds of unmanned probes, to Europa, Titan, Callisto, Ganymede…
9. SpaceX gets to the space station, and back
And still more space?
Dear lord, you’d think from this list that space exploration is the only kind of science that anyone does. And again: not a science story. It’s a technology story. Look up the difference, CNN.
10. Baby’s DNA constructed [sic] before birth
“For the first time, researchers at the University of Washington were able to construct a near-total genome sequence of a fetus, using a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father. The study suggested this method could be used to detect thousands of genetic diseases in children while they are still in the fetal stage.”
This is interesting, and may be important, but I have an issue with the list item as the CNN Health reporter wrote it. The baby’s DNA wasn’t constructed before birth. The DNA was present before birth, sure; fetuses do have DNA. The baby’s genome was sequenced before birth, which is a completely different thing. You’d think a health reporter would know better.
So what’s the final tally? By my count, only of 6 of the items on the list are science, and that’s being very generous. Of those 6, the fields of science represented are astronomy, particle physics, astronomy, astronomy, astronomy, and biology/medicine. Nice, balanced list there. Way to go.
So what stories did deserve to be on the list? I don’t know. I am a (mostly) solid-state physicist, and I could mention that researchers successfully used neutrinos to communicate, built a room-temperature maser, and found Majorana fermions. I’ll stop there, and let chemists, neuroscientists (that means you, Mayim), and geologists add items of their own.
Happy New Year, everyone!