Apr. 19th, 2010

petermarcus: (Default)
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space. -- Douglas Adams

I'm a big fan of Space.com. That said, there are parts of the site that bug the bejeebus out of me.

One is the comment boards, which like any media site are either full of ranting know-it-alls, or trolls who masquerade as ranting-know-it-alls just to count how many outraged replies they get.

The other part has to do with the writing. I don't know if it's the voice or the style or editing, it's something technical. Or even beyond that -- any site, especially a site like space.com, which isn't exactly bankrolled like the Wall Street Journal's site, has plenty of typos and stuff in stories that can easily be explained by underpaid staff working in an instant-media culture about a highly technical subject. But there's a...mission or something that's missing.

I had to rant on a post tonight:
http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/zodiac-glow-source-found-100419.html

In an orbit of a half a billion miles, a few million particles can't cause the glow they're talking about (a glow mentioned since pre-history, from Arabic poems to the "false dawn" of sailors and soldiers). Yet, the story mentions millions of particles.

People can understand millions. And when I say "people", I mean everyone, I'm not using it as a euphemism for the unwashed Big Mac eating hordes of America. Rocket scientists, and people with only a poetic interest in space, can understand that Avatar made $77 million the first weekend, or that there are 5 million people living in the Atlanta metro area, or that 30 million people voted on American Idol last week. "Millions" is a graspable number for most people, and so if millions of particles are responsible for the dawn glow, then it diminishes the scale of how vastly, hugely, (um...) big space really is. When space.com mentions a unique supernova in a galaxy 6 million light years from ours, there are already a couple commenters who suggest, innocently (I hope), that perhaps NASA should send a probe there. Most of these commenters aren't trolls, they're people who have a passing interest in astronomy and have no concept of scale.

I don't mean to suggest that space.com should say something like: "the glow is caused by 8.35 x 10^23 particles per milli-AU^3" because even professional astronomers would have to pull out a mental calculator. But, National Geographic was always one for reducing scale to human understandable measurements, like: There could be 50 different species of protozoa in a speck of water the size of this period.

People understand millions. People understand seconds and minutes and days and months and a year. Even the most casual person reading space.com understands that the Earth orbits the sun once a year, even if they don't know it's half a billion miles of travel. A sentence like: "The Earth travels through millions of these particles a second in its orbit around the Sun" makes the scale a little more graspable, even if its every 10 seconds or a tenth of a second (because even after reading the article I have no concept of how many of those particles there are).

For as good as that site is (and how many dedicated media sites publish the stories they do?), I just wish they had an overarching mission to aspire to the National Geographic dedication to scale.

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