Faulty comparisons

Dramatic contrasts can be just nonsense

Is anyone else disturbed by the following description? Scientists are reporting development of a new form of buckypaper, which eliminates a major drawback of these sheets of carbon nanotubes — 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, 10 times lighter than steel, but up to 250 times stronger . . .

Nothing can be multiple times thinner or lighter or shorter or cheaper. Yet we hear such bogus comparisons regularly, as in the sentence above, which appeared in a Feb. 8 news package to reporters. These contrasts are meant to sound impressive. But what truly makes them so is their ridiculousness.

The first “time” in any such contrast zeroes you out: You literally, at this point, have nothing left. Anything putatively smaller is a physical — and philosophical — impossibility.

I’m assuming the American Chemical Society news office had meant to say that these nanotube sheets were one-fifty-thousandth the thickness of a human hair and a tenth as massive. But that’s not what it said. And worst of all, this science society is encouraging notoriously math-challenged reporters to parrot the nonsense.

The irony, of course, is that the ACS does a great job of alerting me and other reporters each week to cool science within the pages of its peer-reviewed journals. Sometimes we might have run across a paper earlier but neglected to understand its significance — until the news office digested the report’s jargony descriptions into plain and pithy English. More often, we just missed the paper as it got lost in the deluge emerging daily from this publishing powerhouse.

Once we get beyond the unfortunate comparisons employed in its opening sentence, today’s news release actually becomes quite helpful, converting a jargon- and math-ravaged paper from ACS Nano into something intelligible to the rest of us.

For instance, the news release explains that: “To control pore size, the team grew single crystals of polymers around the nanotubes. The group describes it as a ‘shish kebab’ structure, where the nanotubes are the skewers and the flat crystals serve as kebabs.” I read the paper and that’s not what the authors wrote. There was some serious interpreting of the text (and probably more than one interview with the authors) before this concise and useful imagery emerged.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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