Pod people: To the end of the secular universe and beyond!

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Imagine that you are caught in the middle of the following puzzle.

You are a journalist who works for a mainstream newspaper, broadcast network or wire service. According to decades of tradition about your craft, you are supposed to write news copy that ordinary Americans — some say middle-school level readers — can read and understand.

So you are sent to cover a story that is linked to a very complicated scientific event that, in order to understand it, would require people to grasp bites of scientific data as well as a complex concept or two. Now, the problem is that very, very few of the experts involved in explaining this scientific breakthrough speak ordinary English (or whatever language is spoken in the land in which this event is taking place).

Instead, they keep using terms that are very hard for journalists to quote, without bulking up their stories with lengthy explanations of what those terms mean. This assumes, of course, that the journalists can find qualified scientists who can provide said explanations without blurring the specifics to the point that the core scientists will consider the news report shallow or, even worse, inaccurate.

So the goal, here, is to produce news copy that is accurate enough to be granted a passing grade by elite scientists at Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet also can be understood by ordinary Americans reading a newspaper or, Lord help us, glancing at some version of the story on their smartphones.

Good luck with that.

Now, let’s raise the bar on that journalistic challenge — way high. We will get to the second part of this puzzle in a moment. It involves theology.

This is precisely the double-edged scenario that host Todd Wilken and I contemplated in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen), which focused — among other things — on the Washington Post daily story about that massive breakthrough, maybe, in Big Bang theory. It’s the story that started like this:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

The universe created “transformed itself”?

As I wrote in the GetReligion post that launched the podcast:

What is the best verb here, science writers? …

To it’s credit, the Post team did not settle for one verb in its coverage of this amazing development. That same passage the opens the story also uses, well, the C-word. The gravitational waves were “created” in an event at the “dawn of time.” Yes, the word “created” certainly raises an obvious question or two. Later, the linguistic plot thickens:

“Cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales, has already been roiled by the 1998 discovery that the cosmos is not merely expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate, because of what has been called ‘dark energy.’ Just as that discovery has implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, this new one provides a stunning look back at the moment the universe was born.”

And what existed before the universe “was born” and who, or what, gave birth?

Questions, questions, questions. At some point, the professionals behind this story needed to admit that this development raises questions that transcend science.

Yes, the Post team briefly — to its credit — went there, inserting this tidbit later in the body of the story:

This is obviously difficult terrain for theorists, and the question of why there is something rather than nothing creeps into realms traditionally governed by theologians.

In my original post, I praised the Post team for at least mentioning the gigantic ghost in this laboratory. I did not find fault with the fact that they didn’t have more to say about the theological issues looming in the background. How in the world was someone supposed to have pulled that journalistic rabbit out of a hat on deadline? Instead, I expressed hope for a follow-up feature on that angle.

This brings us back to that scary journalism scene I described at the beginning of this here post.

Imagine that you are at that ultra-complex science event, charged with the task of writing a short, clear report on this news.

Now, imagine that this same event has obvious theological implications. Imagine that you have to talk to theologians — another elite soundbite-challenged tribe with a language all its own — as well as all of those scientists.

Right! Now you have to translate, into ordinary English, the thoughts of theologians as well as scientists. You are contemplating news that will be of great interest to everyone from evangelistic atheists to New Age prophets, from true fundamentalists talking about Premillennial Dispensationalism to progressives who are fluent in the Omega Point language of Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

While that is going on (in cyberspace, most likely) all those scientists are still talking about competing Big Bang theories, cosmic inflation and dreams of the multiverse.

How’s that for a challenge? You have 600 words or so to do the job or maybe 1,000 if you are writing for old people with long attention spans. You have 140 characters if the goal is to catch the attention of a few Millennials.

Good luck with that — again.

Any journalist tasked with writing that story deserves a hug.

Enjoy the podcast.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    Interesting podcast. The remarks about physicists being more comfortable with ultimate questions reminded me that I have two physicist cousins – one Jesuit priest and the other a Sister of St Joseph who got her PhD at Rolla MO – School of Mines (part of the U of MO system). And I have a friend with a PhD in engineering who was charged with keeping one of the huge telescopes out in the Arizona desert in good running order – he became very good friends with the Jesuit who ran the Vatican astronomical program out in the desert. Lots of great talks, my friend said – his later work at Los Alamos wasn’t nearly as much fun.


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