The challenge of the science journalist

The challenge of the science journalist

Bob McDonald, Host of CBC's Quirks & Quarks, was Chair of the distinguished panel of judges for the CFI's 2007 Superstars of Innovation Writer's Award
September 1, 2007

The beams from our headlamps are swallowed by blackness while sweat gathers on our brows as we trudge through the curving, descending rock tunnel more than two kilometers underground. We are heading towards SNOLAB, Canada’s newest and most exotic scientific laboratory currently taking shape deep within the Creighton Nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario. It’s the sister facility to SNO, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory that has been capturing ethereal particles from the sun for more than a decade. The new lab could put Canada on the map as the first country to identify the mysterious dark matter of the universe.

Warm dry air, heated to more than 30 C by the Earth itself carries fine dust with a slight taste of sulphur that continually clogs our nostrils. We’ve been walking for half an hour through the underground maze of tunnels, which are so new they have neither been ventilated nor illuminated, creating a true feeling of descending into the warm bowels of the Earth. Then suddenly, the claustrophobic gloom of the tunnel opens out into a grand chamber ten stories high cast in a ghostly blue light from powerful lamps that barely fill the huge space. Our exclamations of “ wow’’ reverberate off the curvaceous rock walls for many seconds, the perfect concert hall for the accomplished shower singer.

It’s not easy to create a large hole deep underground. The unimaginable pressure from many kilometres of rock overhead tries to crush the cavity closed. Long anchor bolts burrow deep into the walls to prevent the rock from explosively bursting inwards. It’s also not easy to capture invisible particles that no one has ever seen, which pass right through the Earth as easily as a sunbeam shines through a windowpane. Yet these particles and the dark energy that goes with them are what most of the universe is made of. SNOLAB is designed to track them down, hopefully solving a hugely embarrassing problem in modern cosmology… that most of the universe is missing.

Dr. Art McDonald, Director of SNO and winner of Canada’s top scientific prize, the Hertzberg Award, cheerfully describes how the new chamber will be filled with an exotic gel material that is believed to be capable of capturing the elusive dark matter particles. He should know—he oversaw the construction of a similar chamber filled with heavy water from a nuclear reactor that captured equally elusive neutrinos, another part of the invisible universe that literally blows through our heads every minute.

You have to admire a scientist like Dr. McDonald and Dr. David Sinclair, Director of SNOLAB, who can convince funding agencies to support exotic experiments that seem bizarre at the least. Imagine the early conversations:

GOV: “ So you want to build an instrument to study the universe…”

SCI: “ That’s right, the invisible universe.”

GOV: “ Invisible?”

SCI: “ Yes, the stuff you can’t see.”

GOV: “ OK, what kind of telescope are you going to use to see the stuff you can’t see?”

SCI: “ Well, it’s not exactly a telescope, it’s a large container of gel.”

GOV: “ I see. And what mountaintop are you planning to build this gel-thing on?”

SCI: “ We’re not going to a mountaintop. We want to bury it deep underground near the bottom of a mine in Sudbury.”

GOV: “ So let me get this straight, you’re going underground to study outer space.”

SCI: “ That’s right.”

GOV: “ OK, here’s $38 million.”

The conversation was probably a little more sophisticated than that, but the fact is, the scientists got the go-ahead for a project that 99 percent of Canadians don’t understand, to look for matter no one has ever seen, with results that will have no immediate economic payback. And this is the second time they’ve done it. The original neutrino observatory was an even harder sell. (“ You want to use a thousand tonnes of heavy water from a nuclear reactor to study invisible particles from the sun…”)

It takes guts to do this kind of science, the kind that won’t lead to some innovative new product that will suck big bucks out of the pockets of consumers everywhere. Sure, we will always need research into more efficient cars, cleaner energy, new products that make life more interesting—but that’s technology: turning scientific ideas into useful products. It gets a lot of attention because it has the potential to make a lot of money and provide jobs—two aspects that attract the attention of politicians. But the root of all technology is a basic understanding of how things work and even here in the 21st century, there is still a whole lot about the workings of the universe that is beyond our understanding.

Basic science tackles the simplest questions a child would ask, such as, “ What makes the sun shine?” or, “ What’s the universe made of?” These seemingly easy questions require enormous effort and hugely expensive equipment to answer. And even then, the experiments tend to generate more new questions than answers, which of course keep the scientists employed indefinitely. But that’s the kind of science that is vital to real advancements in knowledge. If Michael Faraday had not explored the fundamental relationship between a magnet and an electric current more than 150 years ago there would have been no electric motors, generators, or electronic equipment that has become so basic to our modern lives. Faraday couldn’t imagine the products and money that would be made from his simple experiments with magnets and coils of wire, but he did know that the fundamental principles were important. Basic science—it’s something Canada does very well.

The international scientific community has high regard for Canadian science, yet most Canadians are unaware of the investigations carried out across this country and around the globe by our scientists working deep underground, on mountain tops, in the Polar Regions, and on the ocean floor.

There’s just one little problem in the grand scheme of things from this reporter’s point of view. Naming these facilities is somewhat lacking imagination. Admittedly, they were very creative at the beginning when they called the original Sudbury Neutrino Observatory SNO. What could be more Canadian than that?

But somehow the creative naming seems to be falling short as the new SNOLAB takes shape. The impressive cathedral-like underground chamber has been given the unglamorous name of “ The Rectangular Hall.”

And it gets worse. The new dark matter detector will be called PICASSO. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the great cubist painter was not a Canadian.

After careful consideration over several beers with Dr. McDonald I’ve suggested a more appropriate name… SUDS: Sudbury Underground Dark Matter System. SNO and SUDS, now that’s Canadian.

So far these suggestions have been met with polite smiles.

Reporting on big science such as SNOLAB, the Synchrotron in Saskatoon, or an astronaut climbing into a space shuttle is an easy sell to magazine editors and television producers. They love the exotic locations, impressive equipment, and fascinating subject matter even if it is incomprehensible.

But stories about the less glamorous, day-to-day science, where investigators are out in the field collecting DNA from squirrels, watching the bizarre sex lives of insects, or sifting through rocks looking for clues to events of the distant past—in other words, the way most science is done—is sometimes harder to get to print or on the air. Executives want to see action and adventure, which is good for selling programs but in some cases has perhaps become a little out of hand. For example, how did a program about a dysfunctional family who build chopper motorcycles become one of the top-rated programs on a science network?

Don’t get me wrong, I love motorcycles, but putting one together isn’t science. And that’s the challenge for the science journalist—to turn those tedious science stories into interesting and engaging experiences for the public. More importantly, that science is providing a window into the complexities of the world and our impact on it. There has never been a time in human history when science and technology have been more engrained in our lives. From the satellites handling our global chatter to the food and drugs we put in our children’s mouths, science is involved somewhere along the way.

If we are going to manage this powerful tool in a healthy way and make intelligent decisions about which new ideas should proceed and which should not, we need the public to understand it. This is the role of the science writer, such as those celebrated by the CFI’s Superstars of Innovation Writer’s Award.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.