War and peace

I asked a friend earlier today if he would be interested in explaining the observation of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to an audience of high-schoolers.But will high-schoolers ever be able to understand what Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen are? In other words, when will 17-year-olds ever be expected to know this?

They won’t. Not knowing what Lyman-alpha lines are or what anti-hydrogen is isn’t going to cost them anything, and knowing it is not going to be decidedly useful.

The education system is already mindful of this. This is why calculus is not taught to 10-year-olds and irrational numbers to two-year-olds.

However, what could set high-schoolers apart from two- or 10-year-olds is that, by the time they are 17, they usually know all of the first principles necessary for the study of most of science by then.

Nonetheless, why should we make an effort to communicate Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to high-schoolers? What could the fundamental rationale be?

Assume here that “because it is possible” is not a valid reason because the reason must encapsulate need, not possibility.

One I can think of is that we could use the example of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to illustrate more elementary concepts, their connection with real applications and the critical thinking necessary to elucidate such relationships.

Simultaneously, we could also elucidate how these concepts can be understood with the same things that the students are learning in school, in effect exposing the richness of what they are learning.

Why would we pick Lyman-alpha lines for this? Because it is in the news.

But excluding the third reason, the first two are compatible with an insightful distinction Raghavendra Gadagkar provided at the recent #SciMedia workshop at Matscience.

When news breaks of a discovery, for example, it is wartime science journalism.

When science journalists write about a scientific idea or object that is not in the news such that it leads to a more informed viewership, it is peacetime journalism.

Wartime journalism often has little time for anything other than, as Nithyanand Rao put it at the same workshop, event-based stories.

Peacetime journalism, by virtue of not being in a rush, can afford process-based stories more.

The curious thing about CERN’s announcement here – of the study of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen – is that it is not war; it is at best a skirmish.

At the same time, it has a lot of underlying processes that can be discussed in greater detail because, as a subject, it has a lot of room for deductive reasoning as well as a rich history.

In a sense, this is the kind of journalism I most like undertaking. (On this occasion, I was pressed for time and had to pass the task on to a friend.)

I could describe it as a synthesis of historical survey, some historiography and mostly pedagogy.

My most-read such article, and most exemplary as a result, is ‘The Graceful, and Graceless, Pursuits of Peace in the Quantum World’, written for The Wire in July this year.