Side-stepping the hype

On 23rd January 2014, I celebrated 25 years in science communication. As you might imagine, I receive a lot of unsolicited press releases in 25 years as a science journalist, from various organizations, institutions, commercial concerns, public relations agencies and others. I’ve discussed tabloid hype in press releases previously on Materials Today "Comments". Occasionally though, a materials-related press release or two reaches my inbox that is more than a little amusing. I don’t necessarily follow up such leads but I will give it more than a passing glance.

For instance, a press release promising graphene condoms just a single atom thick was always going to attract my attention. After all, as a science journalist my first paid article back in 1989 was about the world’s biggest organism having the world’s biggest orgasm (the annual spawning of the Great Barrier Reef) and my second article was about how female human physiology might have some control the "uptake" of semen, and thus select sperm, from multiple partners. You get the picture. I was young and as they say, "sex sells".

I have followed many leads in 25 years in science communication, from lithium compounds that contain water that really ought not to exist – aqueous lithium isn’t a good idea, although not quite as bad as aqueous sodium nor, indeed, potassium, to the earliest fruitful endeavors in supramolecular chemistry that would lead to caged compounds and today’s gas storing, catalytic metal-organic frameworks. I’ve covered non-linear optical materials, such as those that being instantaneously opaque when laser light is incident on them, a neat trick with optoelectronics potential as well as protective smart goggles for those who work with lasers.

I’ve also looked at the likes of metamaterials enveloped in the invisibility and cloaking hype, materials with negative refractive indices, conducting polymers, flexible glass, the so-called high temperature superconductors that remain very chilled out nevertheless and countless substances flagged as "nano" from the earliest work on buckyballs, the fullerenes, the earliest spectroscopy paper from Kroto et al. on which I played no small part in processing and editing as deputy on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Communications. We were literally "in print" just days behind the Nature paper from Wolfgang Kraetschmer who published the mass spectrometry (Harry Kroto, Roger Taylor and their colleagues reported on the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, if I remember rightly). The fullerenes, of course, gave rise to the carbon nanotubes and ultimately graphene.

Incidentally, I wonder if the irony of the recent claims for a graphene condom is apparent to anyone else. You will recall that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at Manchester scribbled on a glass microscope slide with a pencil and then used a strip of sticky tape to peel off what they demonstrated was an atom thick sheet of graphite, the infamous graphene. Sticky tape, commonly branded as Sellotape in the UK and Scotch tape in the US is better known as Durex in Australia, if I recall correctly from my trip there in the months before entered the world of science communication and during which I learned of that giant orgasm I mentioned. Of course, in the UK Durex is perhaps the most well known of the condom brands. Is all this irony, mere coincidence or simply my preoccupation with the notion that sex sells and an urge to give readers what they instinctively want? Who knows?

Anyway, I strongly suspect that despite my reaching a quarter century in this industry that very little will change; press offices will continue to churn out press releases, some of them will reveal the fascinating world of nanotechnology and molecular architecture, others will hook the journalists with marginally lewd references. You can bet your last graphene sheet that in 25 years from now there will still be hype and sex will most certainly still sell.

David Bradley blogs at http://ift.tt/1dXIL6e and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".

from Comment http://ift.tt/1bBSl1t

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