Cosmology in the News: How to write a lede about a phenomenon most readers have never heard of, the discovery of which backs an important theory most people know nothing about

New Baby Pictures of the Universe from BICEP2

Dozens of stories ran yesterday capturing the excitement behind a discovery that promises to advance our understanding of the origin of the universe. Most stories communicated the buzz, but not all of them succeeded in explaining what the scientists found or why they were so excited by it. 

The news required readers to digest not one but several unfamiliar and difficult concepts. First was the observation – gravitational waves – which few readers will have heard of. Then there was the reason for the excitement – the fact that the gravitational waves are a prediction of a theory called inflation, which is, again, not part of the typical talk show fare.

Figuring out how to get the news across in a coherent, logical yet elegant way was like solving the Rubik’s cube. It can be done, but the answer is not obvious and may take some trial and error.  

In yesterday’s Tracker post, I noted a few ways people attempted the task. The New York Times, which ran the story on A1 above the fold, opted out of a news lede entirely.

Later in the evening, I saw this version of the story by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, and I felt like I was watching all the faces of the cube snap into place.    

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.

Let’s look at why this works. The first step in solving the puzzle is to identify the key concept – in this case the theory of inflation. Achenbach captures the essence of inflation in a sentence. Then, after he’s asked his reader to learn what inflation is, he connects the other new ideas to this key concept. The observations boost the theory of inflation. The gravitational waves were created by the theoretical inflationary expansion. And finally, he doesn’t add any information at this point that isn’t essential to understanding the main concept.

Starting with "In the beginning" gives readers a subtle hint that this area of science connects to age-old questions. It gets style points for that. But it’s not just style that makes this work. There’s a structural integrity to it.  

Other stories just said that the universe underwent “a burst of inflation” without explaining what the scientists mean by inflation. Others described inflation as a “very fast”, or “exponential” expansion of the universe.  Lots of other adjectives were used, but none could compete with the evocative action sentence that leads the Post version of the story.

Other ledes included information on the age of the universe or the notion that inflation expands things “faster than the speed of light”. Readers don’t know if these facts are necessary to the central concept (they are not), and so including them in the lede weights it down and can cause headaches. The goal is not to leave people thinking this stuff is beyond them.  

Other stories introduced inflation and then added something on gravitational waves without connecting the two concepts. It wasn’t at all clear, therefore, what these gravitational waves had to do with anything.

The coverage of this finding debunks the fallacy that there’s a necessary trade-off between accuracy and accessibility. The more difficult ledes are not more accurate and do not convey more information to lay readers.  

A couple of other stories got missed in my roundup yesterday. Here’s Ron Cowen's version of the story for Nature:

Astronomers have peered back to nearly the dawn of time and found what seems to be the long-sought ‘smoking gun’ for the theory that the Universe underwent a spurt of wrenching, exponential growth called inflation during the first tiny fraction of a second of its existence.

Using a radio telescope at the South Pole, the US-led team has detected the first evidence of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space that inflation generated 13.8 billion years ago when the Universe first started to expand. 

And a very readable story in Science News by Christopher Crockett:

Astronomers have detected the earliest echoes of the Big Bang, confirming a decades-old hypothesis that describes the universe’s ultrafast expansion during its first moments. The findings provide researchers with the first direct measurement of conditions at nearly the instant that cosmic expansion began, and may have far-reaching implications for physicists’ understanding of general relativity, quantum mechanics and the origin of the universe.

And last but definitely not least, don’t miss this the wonderful video done by minutephysics, titled A Polarizing Discovery About the Big Bang. The turnaround time is astonishing. It’s clear, it’s fun and it helps clarify what’s exciting about that mysterious image running with all the stories. The explanation goes by a little fast, but you can always watch it a couple of times.

Until the last 100 years, nobody knew there were multiple galaxies, let alone that they were part of an expanding  universe. We’ve come a long way in a short time. Some of the purpose of the research would be lost if nobody communicated the results to the wider public.  The concept of inflation may sound bizarre, but it came about in a very human quest to explore the world we live in and figure out how we got here.  

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