Reading beyond headlines: lightsabers have not been invented

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast week I sound this astounding headline: “Harvard, MIT Scientists Create Real Lightsaber.” My eighth-grade, Star Wars heart began pounding as my Christmas list got a new item. Said the CBS website in Boston:

That’s right, researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have built an actual lightsaber, like the ones used in the Star Wars saga.

Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuleti led the study.

The more the article said the better is sounded.

They say unlike typical lasers which pass right through each other, these bind together so you can whack them against each other.

They say it all ends up looking like the iconic Jedi weapon.

My excitement continued to build.

The article linked to an original article at Geek.com so I clicked the link. There the headline declared “New form of photon-based matter is essentially a lightsaber.” Hmm. In one click the story went from “real lightsaber” to “essentially a lightsaber.”

This was not looking as good as I had hoped. The Porsche might go back onto the Christmas list after all. Said the geeks about the new practically-ready-to-use, but not-quite-a-lightsaber:

A team of scientists from MIT and Harvard have been herding photons through a cloud of super-cold atoms in an attempt to get them to do something that was once considered impossible — bind together. According to a new paper, they may have succeeded in creating a new form of matter entirely from photons, which is basically a lightsaber.

Ok. Hang on a second.

Attempting to bind photons? Seriously? Then what, put them in a slingshot? Yeah, it does get worse.

The team used a vacuum chamber filled with rubidium atoms to facilitate the formation of photonic matter. The cloud of gas was cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero using (fittingly) lasers. Short laser pulses were then used to send individual photons into the cloud where the chilled gas sapped energy away from them, causing the photons to slow down considerably by the time they exited the cloud. If more than one photon was sent in at the same time, the researchers found the particles would lose so much energy that they emerged together as a single molecule.

So, if you happen to have some rubidium in your lunchbox, a vacuum chamber in your basement and the ability to lower the temperature to near absolute zero, you can get a couple of photons to bind. Or something.

The stupid things are probably just trying to get warm.

So, what about the lightsaber we were promised in two different headlines? The closing line of the Geek.com article finally gets around to telling the truth:

A few photons sticking together is a long way from a lightsaber, but we can still dream, can’t we?

Yes, we can dream.

We can dream of headlines that reflect the actual content of the article, rather than some deadweight editor who is less credible than Jayson Blair or Elizabeth O’Bagy.

So no, Londoners, lightsabers have not been invented.

This post is not about science; it is about how headlines deceive. I have been deceived and possibly you have, too. How many times have you read a headline on social media, shared the link it without reading the article, only to find out later nothing was as it appeared.

Headline/content disagreement happens all too frequently as media outlets strive to one-up each other. Ultimately it is the discerning reader’s responsibility to make sure what the head line trumpets is what the article actually plays.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Jason Sampler

    Best line: “The stupid things are probably just trying to get warm.”

  • Dale

    Do not attempt to get news from outlets that engage in this kind of sensationalism. At best, it is sloppy journalism.

    • martyduren

      I concur. It is problematic that all three sources are well known sites. And, this kind of thing happens at all major news sites and many minor ones.

  • Patrick

    “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”