Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, May 10, 2002  |  Number 8
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Talk of the Lab

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing butů

When K.C. Cole writes about science, she knows that the scientists she's interviewed are likely to be disappointed with the final result. She likes to remind them that her approach is actually similar to theirs.

"When physicists are running an experiment, they get rid of 99 percent of their data to find the really interesting and important stuff," she said at her Colloquium presentation at Fermilab on March 27. "Writing a story works the same way. I often feel bad about leaving someone out, but not everything you've talked about makes it into a story."

Cole began her journalism career by covering politics and government. She has worked at The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and the Los Angeles Times as both a reporter and science columnist. She teaches writing at UCLA. She is the author of "The Hole in the Universe: How scientists peered over the edge of emptiness and found everything;" "First You Build a Cloud, and other reflections on physics as a way of life;" "The Universe and the Teacup: The mathematics of truth and beauty," along with countless news and feature stories about science and scientists, primarily physicists.

Yet her Colloquium presentation carried the title, "Lost in the Translation: Writing About Science for the General Public." If the connotation appears to be that writing about science is not an exact science-in fact, cannot be an exact science-that is pretty close to the actual message she delivered.

In fact, the rule atop her list of tried-and-true techniques in science writing is: "Lie," with "Cheat" and "Steal" not far behind. Kidding aside, she justifies the usefulness of less-than-total accuracy by quoting unimpeachable sources-scientists.

One of her first contacts in science was the late physicist Victor F. Weisskopf (see Milestones), himself the author of "Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It" (MIT Press, 1979). Cole's first rule is a distillation of a principle voiced by Weisskopf: "We always have to lie a little to tell the truth."

Weisskopf fully appreciated the challenge inherent in the contrast between "the crisp clarity of equations and the fuzzy reality of metaphor," as Cole put it in her talk. Even the late Niels Bohr, not noted as a literary figure, said, "there is an uncertainty relationship between truth and clarity." Cole acknowledged the frequent criticisms by scientists that science writers leave out or simplify the wrong information, and use quotes out of context.

"Technically, everything you quote is out of context," she said. "The only way to use a quote in its full context is to include everything that someone said."

She also confirmed something that scientists usually suspect of science writers: a lot of what is said goes over their heads. But that's the nature of reporting, and the nature of learning, and the only way to gain knowledge is to keep coming back for more.

"You need the patience to let it sink in," she said, "while you're feeling like a dope. Eventually, ideas will begin to resonate."

Even experienced writers sometimes are left to chagrin and bear it over their mistakes. Cole recalled the time she referred to the tau particle and spelled it "TAO."

"I got a lot of letters about that," she said with a laugh.

But in the long run, a little occasional embarrassment is a small price to pay for being a witness to new discoveries and new thinking. For, as she quoted another early science mentor, physicist Frank Oppenheimer: "Scientists and artists are the official noticers of society."

last modified 5/10/2002   email Fermilab