Sun Aug 31 17:26:09 PDT 2008

Strange News About Molecules

For the last few days I have been posting links to news articles which mention the term molecule. If you take a look at the articles which make this list (I only keep the latest 100 on the page), you will invariably see some interesting stories. (See Molecules in the News).

Why are the stories interesting? Well, partly because molecules are interesting. Molecules are tiny. In general their existence needs to be inferred rather that directly appreciated. Molecules are hard to make, chemists need to carry out complex syntheses to put the atoms of a molecule into a specific configuration. Yet, despite these caveats, molecules are often in the news and molecular images are included in adverts for the latest pharmaceuticals.

The stories are also interesting because they present so many different points of view. There are stories about the cancer causing effects of moisturizing creams and suntan lotions, among other items. Stories like these are invariably alarmist and convolute the original scientific research from which they are based to achieve a degree of sensationalism. Why is that? Sensationalism makes for more interesting stories and more interesting stories make for more readers and more readers make for more advertising revenue.

Then there are the stories which contain interesting inaccuracies. Some of these are trivial, like calling 'radiation' 'irradiation' (see this article on irradiating food) and this article which says 'A molecule you can barely see...' (when, in reality, you cannot see a molecule because they are far too small).

So, there is some good news. Molecules are generally understood by the news article writers and the readers that they write for. There is some bad news too. Often the information is a little misleading and this spreads and perpetuates various falsehoods. Additionally, the news sound bite leaves little scope for an explanation of cause and effect, and statistical analysis, which would help reduce the more alarmist articles to an informational level.

However, all in and all, I have been very pleasantly surprised by how frequently articles mentioning molecules are published these days. Hopefully the trend will continue and, if so, there is a likelihood that the inaccuracies and missed opportunities for detailed explanations will decline with time. To examine the current state of molecules in the news, here is the appropriate link: (See Molecules in the News).

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