On dense matter and dense language

The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has this week published a press release about some fascinating new research into the physics of condensed matter. By looking at the scattering of X-ray laser light from a compressed sample of lithium metal, STFC and Oxford University scientists have found that ultra-dense matter exists in a state intermediate between solid and gas over lengths greater than a third of a nanometre. Condensed matter is often described as a charged liquid, but over sub-nanometre distances it behaves more like a gas.

As for the practical significance of the work, the very first paragraph of the press release refers to “cleaner energy”, which turns out to be nuclear fusion. I can fully understand why the STFC chose to present the work in this way, given the political pressure on research institutes to promote the commercial or planet-saving implications of their work. But pure science of this quality could do without such spin.

How do the STFC’s scientists describe their efforts? According to Gianluca Gregori:

“[The study] shows practical applications for controlled thermonuclear fusion, and it also represents significant understanding relating to astrophysical environments found in the core of planets and the crusts of old stars. This research therefore makes it not only possible to formulate more accurate models of planetary dynamics, but also to extend our comprehension of controlled thermonuclear fusion where such states of matter, that is liquid and gas, must be crossed to initiate fusion reactions. This work expands our knowledge of complex systems of particles where the laws that regulate their motion are both classical and quantum mechanical.”

These are accurate and carefully-chosen words, but even with serious sub-editing their impact is minimal, lost as the meaning is in a nest of sub-clauses. This story is a very nice illustration of the challenges involved in preparing science news for public consumption, and the two cultures that exist within the science and technology community. On the one hand we have communications specialists with an eye to linguistic style and impact, and, on the other, researchers constrained by a rigid linguistic mindset. The struggle is to find a synthesis in this dielectic.