‘Verdict out on relativity questioning experiment’

What does the headline above mean? I’m not sure, but it is the title of an article in today’s Irish Times, written by your humble correspondent. (I had suggested ‘Faster than light?’ or ‘Was Einstein wrong?‘, but the above is what appeared).

It’s always nice to have a science article published in a national broadsheet, and I thought it was worth revisiting the OPERA experiment before the end of 2011. I enjoyed writing the article and colleagues tell me the question and answer format worked well.

But what about that title? And the opening line? (see print edition). Both were super-imposed by the sub-editor and I find them quite poor. This keeps happening; I take time and effort to write science pieces for the public as clearly as I can, and a professional writer comes along and superimposes something quite sloppy. It’s a pity because nine out of ten cats will read no further than the title and opening sentence.

If the article and headline were submitted as student work, this would be my verdict:


The headline used for this article breaks almost every rule of science writing

1. The English is poor  – it is not clear what a ‘relativity questioning experiment’ is

2. ‘Verdict out’ is also not clear – ‘jury out’ would be better, but is still clumsy

3. The title is also intimidating – never use a word like relativity in a headline if you can avoid it.

As a result of points 1-3, the title does not clearly describe the content of the article – hence few readers will read further.

The writer should consider alternate titles such as ‘Faster than light?’ or  ‘Was Einstein wrong?’

These titles are both clear and succinct. Most importantly, they draw in the reader in, rather than drive her away



There is also a major problem with the opening sentence; luckily, it is only in the print edition


Filed under Science and society

5 responses to “‘Verdict out on relativity questioning experiment’

  1. John

    Dr. O’Raifeartaigh,
    I think your article is pretty reasonable, i don’t see a problem with the article, or the title.

    As usual Dr. O’Raifeartaigh, this is the bit i don’t understand;

    Why do you bear the weight of the world of physics on your own personal shoulders? More specifically, and you always do the very same thing when people confront you, you defend special and general relativity. Why Dr. O’Raifeartaigh do you continue to defend SR and GR? And you take personal offence when people turn up on your blog and, God forbid, they suggest there might be flaws in SR and GR.

    Cormac lets say SR and GR are 100% correct, then nobody should be able to find flaws in them. Nobody should be able to criticise them in any way. But that not the case!! Thousands of people suspect there are flaws in SR and GR, and in the opinion of this scientist, you should be actively encouraging people to go out and investigate the flaws. Don’t defend SR and GR. Instead encourage people to go find the flaws if they exist. Thats your job Cormac. To teach people about science, and how to change science when its wrong.

    Ultimately Cormac, if SR and GR survive, then they really are rock solid theories. But in my personal opinion, SR and GR won’t last. The days of SR and GR are almost over my friend, and they will fall.

    I told you before, the answer lies in the Old Irish Sod.


  2. cormac

    No professional physicist would claim Sr, GR, or any other scientific theory is 100% correct. We work on the basis that they are incomplete – indeed, we know the relativity theories are incomplete (SR because it takes no account of gravity and GR because it takes no account of quantum physics).
    However, a great many skeptics reject these theories in regimes where they clearly do work, simply because they do not fully understand the theories, or the supporting evidence. Many amateur skeptics never consider that they may not have fully understood the details, and instead accuse professional scientists of arrogance. This is why you never hear an amateur say ‘Well, it’s not my area of expertise…’.
    A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing, John – I suggest you aim your contributions at other blogs

  3. John O'D

    John, your comment has both bothered and intrigued me. A couple of things I’m curious about:
    1. the reference to the old irish sod having the answer – can you explain further? Seems like a random statement to me, but you’ve piqued my curiosity!
    2. your belief that SR and GR are on the wane. I don’t understand this and was going to research some figures regarding the astounding accuracy they give with regards to GPS positioning. I decided however to quote from the afterword to Lawrence Krauss’ latest book. “We may not understand quantum theory, but a theory that predicts the real world to ten decimal places cannot in any straightforward sense be wrong”. My point is that should either SR or GR prove to be incomplete, I believe the same statement will apply to these theories.

    Finally, Dr. O’Raifeartaigh, I just discovered your blog after reading your irish times article yesterday. Let me just say, I appear to have lots of interesting material to read through over the coming days!

  4. John

    John O’D,
    Hello, nice to meet you John.

    1. I’m glad i eventually snagged someone to ask that question John. Its like a cryptic crossword John. It means that there is an answer to something lying in the statement. But you can only decode the answer if your clever, and if you understand physics. But the clue is cryptic, so i have made it difficult to solve the problem.

    Here is the statement;
    “The answer lies in the Old Irish Sod”

    Now John that exact statement is going to become very famous in the world of science in the next few years, particularly in the world of physics. It means that if you can decode that statement, you will then have the answer to all the current unsolved problems that exist today in physics. Now that’s quit a prize, don’t you think?

    More specifically John, the part that says “Lies in the Old Irish Sod” means that the solution to some of the greatest problems in science today is in Ireland. John you might not believe me now, but something very big is about to happen in the world of science. Currently people don’t see it, they don’t see it coming. But i see it coming. John i have the solution to some of the greatest problems in science today. And if you remember one thing, remember my cryptic clue – – The answer to the greatest problems in science today “Lies in the Old Irish Sod”. I have it, i have the solution!

    2. John if Lawrence Krauss is your best source of information on solving problems in physics and astronomy, then your living in the dark ages! Why do you think the GPS system depends in SR and GR, because it doesn’t. John if you really understood nuclear physics, then you would know why the GPS system does not depend on SR and GR. You need to stop reading astronomy books and start learning nuclear physics. Just because Lawrence Krauss does not understand quantum physics, does not mean all scientists don’t understand it. Quantum physics is easy, its just a matter of who teaches it to you. Some people explain it very badly, and other people explain it very well.

    If you want to know how quantum mechanics works, go and find out what branch of science actually uses it in their equasions. There are area’s of science that use quantum mechanics in all their every day equasions. These people will explain quantum mechanics to you properly. The astronomers will just confuse you! The best tip i can give you is to start here; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_chemistry

    John H.

  5. Yoon Lai Yee

    Yoon Lai Yee

    Agree with your opinions or what you said!