WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"Hague defies Emu revolt by Heseltine," announced the Telegraph on Friday. "Great divide tests Tories to the limit," said the Guardian of the same story. "Hague warns Heseltine to keep clear" was the way the Times saw it, while The Independent's view was "Tories' civil war puts Hague on the rack". The Telegraph thought the Tories were "split down the middle", but the Guardian thought "Hague likely to defeat Europhile rump". In other words, it was partisan politics as usual in the press, and one man's middle is another man's rump.

In view of that, I thought we should adopt a higher moral position this week, and look at how the papers have covered some of the main science stories of the week. There was a steady stream of stories coming out of the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans, and the choice of which ones to cover tells a great deal about a newspaper.

Monday's Telegraph set the tone with a report that included the sentence: "However, it is doubtful that the dinosaurs had dreams" - which must rank as one of the most outstanding scientific discoveries of the year. Apparently researchers at UCLA have discovered that the platypus shares with humans the type of "Rapid Eye Movement" sleep that occurs when we dream. This shows that REM sleep occurred at an earlier stage of evolution than had previous been thought, so dinosaurs might have done it too.

The Guardian, on the same day, preferred the practicality of modern robotics to dreams of dinosaurs. It reported the disastrous attempt of Rogerr (Reading's Only Genuine Endurance Running Robot) to run a half-marathon. Off bounded Prof Kevin Warwick, its programmer, across the car park, "but, instead of following, Rogerr careered off in another direction, crunched into a kerb and buckled an axle." He had been confused by the sun, which he thought was another runner and tried to follow it. It was the Sun wot lost it for him. A pity really, because the Sun had the best headline for the story of another road casualty - the new Mercedes Benz that overturned when performing a test of its ability to swerve to avoid moose. (There were 620 serious moose-related accidents in Sweden last year.) "Moose- edes Benz shock" the Sun called it.

Back on pure science, on Tuesday, in the Telegraph, the news was "Brain transplant makes chicken think it's a quail", though when you read the story beneath the headline, you learnt that it wasn't a whole brain transplant, just a piece of quail's brain inserted into a chicken embryo. And all it does is make the chick prefer a mummy quail to a mummy hen. On Wednesday, the Guardian struck back with: "Music is the food of love for sparrows with sex on the brain". This reported an experiment at the University of Washington showing that: "Cock sparrows paired with females in the mood for breeding have bigger brains than those isolated from the fair sex."

Thursday produced the story that captured every editor's imagination: "Enterprising inventor patents real phaser gun" as the Times put it rather cumbersomely. The Sun, more economically, said: "Trekkie gun stuns world" (why not "Cor, What a Stunner"?), while The Independent introduced the new weapon with the words: "It's a phaser Jim, but rather bigger than we know it." The Telegraph went into the greatest details, explaining that "it uses an intense laser beam of ultraviolet light to create a plasma channel ... along which it discharges a precise electrical current to immobilise the victim." Although describing it as "a hand-held laser gun" the report also mentioned that the smallest lasers needed to power it are "the size of a kitchen table". The Mail also used that same curious unit of measurement, but the Times quoted a British scientist as saying: "When people talk of table-top lasers they actually mean a few table-tops, but they will get smaller." But how big is a table anyway? Is there, somewhere in a National Physics Laboratory, a standard kitchen table kept at constant temperature and pressure by which all other tables are measured?

The Express, shunning this ultra-violent use of ultra-violet light, illuminated its readers with two more positive science stories on Thursday, the first, a curiously pointless piece of research from Lausanne claiming that a queen ant lives up to a hundred times as long as an ordinary ant because it is so indolent. Apparently the result is unlikely to be of use to humans, unlike that of the second breakthrough: "Chocolate helps you pass exams". Actually, as the report shows, it's anaemia that makes you fail exams - a lack of iron leads to a slump in intelligence, they claim.

Back with the neuroscientists in New Orleans, The Independent was worried about worrying. According to Dr Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, who may have discovered the precise bit of the brain that does our worrying for us, "Worrying occurs when no easy solution is available and the solution is derived emotionally rather than rationally."

That particular portion of the brain must have been in overdrive while our attention was focussed on the Louise Woodward trial. When the defendant chose the "Noose or loose" option, every paper seemed impressed with her confidence and courage. It was, after all, the prosecution that tried to object to the option being offered to her. None of the papers mentioned the absurdity of this double-or-quits piece of legal game-showmanship. We were all caught up in the emotions of it and cheering on the player who seemed to be winning at the time. Did the jury find that no easy solution was available, so derived their solution emotionally rather than rationally?

Finally, we must give our awards for the Headline of the Week, which is undoubtedly the one seen in Monday's Express: "Who do you think will be bidding Mister Hitler?" reporting on the sale of a painting by the late Fuhrer; and the Excuse of the Week, which was spotted in Piers Merchant's confessions in the Mail: "If there hadn't been so much media interest, Anna wouldn't have been staying the night. If there wasn't any interest, she and Helen would never have gone outside that day to tell everyone there wasn't any statement to make." Or to put it equally plainly, if nobody had asked, we wouldn't have told them that we weren't going to tell them anything. There's no arguing with that.

Comments