When research hits the headlines*

Research Fellow Dr Seshadri Nadathur, from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Research Fellow Dr Seshadri Nadathur, from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Publicising astrophysics research work in the media can be simultaneously both easy and hard.

The grand scale of astrophysics research – ranging from alien worlds to the history and future of the universe itself – is an enormous help in writing attention grabbing headlines, and it’s easy to find beautiful astronomical images to illustrate any article. But with topics so far removed from daily life, it can also be hard to judge which results will actually be of interest to the wider public. Successful publicity requires constructing a careful narrative that places the research in context, conveys some of the excitement we felt while doing it, and clearly explains the mathematical and physical concepts involved without descending into equations and jargon.

My recent paper, written with Professor Rob Crittenden and published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, was on a rather subtle measurement of the effect of gravity and dark energy on light travelling through the universe. The effect itself and the statistical methods we used to measure it were tricky to explain, but the newsworthiness of the result derived from the use of the largest existing map of cosmic superstructures in the measurement (superlatives are generally more interesting), and a story of scientific controversy: our paper helps to resolve previous puzzling results that appeared to contradict current theories. The fact that we could reference a test of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity also helped.

With this in mind, I approached Sophie Hall, Media Relations Officer, to discuss the possibility of publicity for the paper. I wrote a brief paragraph setting out the context of the research and why I thought it would be of interest, and Sophie helped to turn this into text for a media release. On the day the journal published the paper, the story was pitched to the press and it was picked up by several science websites across the world, as well as by the Daily Mail.

Sophie then suggested I write a longer article about our paper for The Conversation. She put me in touch with the science editor Miriam Frankel, who was also enthusiastic and asked for 800–1000 words. Writing this piece was a very different challenge to drafting the press release. The extra length allowed me a chance to explain better the key physical ideas using a simple analogy (likening the gravitational effect on light to a runner changing speed in going up a hill and down the other side). But a longer article on a topic so far removed from ordinary life also requires tighter prose and a little sense of drama in order to keep the reader’s attention. And finally, in using imprecise analogies I had to be careful I didn’t accidentally convey the wrong meaning altogether – this was particularly important when Miriam and I made simultaneous changes during rounds of editing!

Overall I felt it was a very positive experience. In physics we like to say we haven’t truly understood something unless we can explain it clearly to a non-expert, so writing this article helped me sharpen my own understanding. I’ve received a lot of excellent feedback, and some very perceptive questions through the comments on The Conversation website. And best of all has been the publicity generated for our paper – the stats say my article has been read more than 200,000 times! I think this wide reach is evidence that astrophysics research satisfies a great public curiosity and demand for knowledge, and that in doing so we are able to provide a social benefit that goes beyond simple arguments of economic value. This is an important part of our job as scientists.

About The Conversation

The Conversation is an independent website providing news analysis, comment and opinion on current affairs and subjects of interest, written entirely by academics.

Academics and researchers are being encouraged to sign up as contributors to the site, to help promote the University, their discipline and their own expertise. If you are interested in becoming an academic expert and potential author, please contact the Press and Public Relations team and they will be able to help with the registration process.

Contacting the University’s press office

The University’s Press and Public Relations team is always looking for academic studies, innovative research and staff and student success that can be promoted to external media. If you have a story to tell and would like to discuss any potential publicity opportunities, please email pressoffice@port.ac.uk.

*Article taken from the March issue of Research and Innovation News

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