Imagine you saw this headline:
Scientists Say They’ve Found the Missing 40 Percent of the Universe’s Matter
It probably sounds like they’re talking about dark matter, right? And if scientists found dark matter, that could be a huge discovery: figuring out what dark matter is made of is one of the biggest outstanding mysteries in physics. Still, maybe that 40% number makes you a bit suspicious…
Now, read this headline instead:
Astronomers Have Finally Found Most of The Universe’s Missing Visible Matter
Visible matter! Ah, what a difference a single word makes!
These are two articles, the first from this year and the second from 2017, talking about the same thing. Leave out dark matter and dark energy, and the rest of the universe is made of ordinary protons, neutrons, and electrons. We sometimes call that “visible matter”, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spot. Much of it lingers in threads of gas and dust between galaxies, making it difficult to detect. These two articles are about astronomers who managed to detect this matter in different ways. But while the articles cover the same sort of matter, one headline is a lot more misleading.
Now, I know science writing is hard work. You can’t avoid misleading your readers, if only a little, because you can never include every detail. Introduce too many new words and you’ll use up your “vocabulary budget” and lose your audience. I also know that headlines get tweaked by editors at the last minute to maximize “clicks”, and that news that doesn’t get enough “clicks” dies out, replaced by news that does.
But that second headline? It’s shorter than the first. They were able to fit that crucial word “visible” in, without breaking the budget. And while I don’t have the data, I doubt the first headline was that much more viral. They could have afforded to get this right, if they wanted to.
Read each article further, and you see the same pattern. The 2020 article does mention visible matter in the first sentence at least, so they don’t screw that one up completely. But another important detail never gets mentioned.
See, you might be wondering, if one of these articles is from 2017 and the other is from 2020, how are they talking about the same thing? If astronomers found this matter already in 2017, how did they find it again in 2020?
There’s a key detail that the 2017 article mentions and the 2020 article leaves out. Here’s a quote from the 2017 article, emphasis mine:
We now have our first solid piece of evidence that this matter has been hiding in the delicate threads of cosmic webbing bridging neighbouring galaxies, right where the models predicted.
This “missing” matter was expected to exist, was predicted by models to exist. It just hadn’t been observed yet. In 2017, astronomers detected some of this matter indirectly, through its effect on the Cosmic Microwave Background. In 2020, they found it more directly, through X-rays shot out from the gases themselves.
Once again, the difference is just a short phrase. By saying “right where the models predicted”, the 2017 article clears up an important point, that this matter wasn’t a surprise. And all it took was five words.
These little words and phrases make a big difference. If you’re writing about science, you will always face misunderstandings. But if you’re careful and clever, you can clear up the most obvious ones. With just a few well-chosen words, you can have a much better piece.