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July 26, 2006
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The Edge of Ignorance

K.C. Cole, one of the best, most provocative science writers around, has an essay in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review titled "Why Editors Must Dare to be Dumb." One reason there's not more good science writing in newspapers and major periodicals, she suggests, is that editors are afraid to look stupid: they assume that if they can't understand a science story, either it's badly reported or the science can't be right.  

Cole is writing for journalistic insiders but her message is for all of us who constitute the "science-interested public": one of the great joys of reading about science lies in finding out what we don't know — and what nobody else knows either, especially scientists themselves.

She quotes an unnamed cosmologist who says, "By its very nature, the edge of knowledge is the edge of ignorance." Aptly spoken, seeing as how within the last 10 years humankind has made the greatest leap forward in ignorance since Copernicus surmised that the earth is not, after all, the center of the universe.

Case in point: Berkeley Lab astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter pioneered methods of using distant Type Ia supernovae to measure changes in the rate of the expansion of the universe, thus stumbling upon the discovery that expansion is accelerating. The cause has been given a name, dark energy, but nobody knows anything about it, not even whether it's really dark or really energy.

Whatever it is, it apparently accounts for three-quarters of the density of the universe; most of the rest is dark matter, which we also don't understand. Perlmutter has just been awarded two major prizes for revealing this colossal gap in our knowledge, Hong Kong's Shaw Prize in Astronomy, which he shares with Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt, and the Feltrinelli International Prize in Physical and Mathematical Sciences, awarded by the Lincei Academy in Rome, one of whose earliest members was Galileo Galilei.

Another field abounding in ignorance is neutrino physics, of which Nobelist Leon Lederman famously said, when it emerged that neutrinos have mass, "We don't know nothin'." What we don't know about neutrinos, correlated electrons, and human gene expression are some of the mystifying topics in this issue of Science@Berkeley Lab. Seasoning questions with progress, we also report on a new way to make carbon nanotubes safe for cells and a nifty game chip that does really cool science.    

K.C. Cole lists a lot of good reasons why "good science journalists know that if they're not dealing with subject matter that makes them dizzy, they're probably not doing their jobs." Luckily there's no problem finding dizzying science in a national laboratory that researches everything from duct tape to global warming to cancer to the accelerating universe. If you have questions and comments about any of the stories in this issue of Science@Berkeley Lab, let us know by dropping us an email.

Paul Preuss, Editor, Science@Berkeley Lab