Scientists in the Media

Tara’s post about science journalism has sparked a lively discussion, with John Wilkins, Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer joining Jennifer Ouellette in defending science journalists. Interestingly, this all sprang up yesterday, on a day when I wound up appearing on tv.

Yesterday morning, while I was running around dealing with my summer research students, one of my colleagues came into the lab, and asked me if I wanted to be on tv. There had been a call from one of the local tv stations, looking for someone to talk about the expansion of gases, and the request had been passed down the power structure (from the chair to the secretary to my colleague to me).

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I said, and at 1:30, a reporter and a camera crew turned up in my lab. It turns out, they were doing a story on how gasoline takes up more volume in the summer than in the winter, and thus costs infinitesimally more money. I waved my hands, talked about the kinetic theory of gases (not in those terms), and busted out some liquid nitrogen demos. The relevant bits of the resulting news piece are in this 4.2 MB video clip taped off the news last night. (The full video is 29 MB, but my lab is only visible in small parts of it.)

The most interesting thing about this, to me, was how many people seemed to find the whole business radioactive. Three people turned it down outright, and the fourth was willing to do it, but very happy to hand it off to me. And the faculty from other departments who I ate lunch with also regarded it as completely ridiculous. (They suggested that I turn the questions around– “Why do you hate oil companies? Why do you hate America?”)

Now, to be sure, the whole question under consideration is sort of daft. Yes, gasoline takes up more volume at higher temperatures, but it’s a trivial effect– a change of 20 degrees Fahrenheit might get you a 1% increase in the volume (which is the origin of the 1.01 figure I give in the video). I doubt the swing in temperature is anywhere near that big– as my lunch companions noted, gas-station storage tanks are underground and thus ought to be insulated from dramatic temperature changes), and even if it was, you’d have a corresponding decrease in the price in the winter, that would probably cancel the whole thing out over the course of a year. Any change in the effective price due to thermodynamics is absolutely dwarfed by the price changes caused by pointless wars in the Middle East and sleazy corporate games involving taking refineries off-line to jack prices up.

Still, what does it hurt to answer their questions? The whole thing knocked maybe an hour out of my day, and it was kind of fun to do the “Mr. Wizard” act with liquid nitrogen. It got my name and the college’s into the local evening news, and they spelled both names correctly, so that’s all to the good. And if some story comes along with more real science content, there’s at least one reporter out there who will hopefully remember me as a nice and helpful guy, and come back for something more substantive.

And, really, I’m just vain enough to get a kick out of appearing on tv (this is the fourth time I’ve gotten on the local news, which covers all the networks except Fox).

I suppose it’s possible that they might’ve edited the footage in a way that would make me look stupid, but really, that’s not too hard to avoid. And it’s not like this is a hugely politically charged story– if Fox called me up and said they wanted somebody to talk about the thermodynamics of global warming, I’d be a little leery of that, but it’s hard to say anything career-destroying about the thermal expnasion coefficient of gasoline.

The whole episode is really a nice illustration of my reaction to the whole interview request discussion. On those occasions when I get requests for comment from the media, I’m happy to oblige– I spent half an hour talking on the phone with a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor last year on my way to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, and I’ve emailed written responses to a couple of other writers. It’s not actually all that big an imposition, and I figure it can’t really hurt to have a couple of people in the media who remember me as a nice guy.

So, science writer types, next time you need a comment from a physicist, my email is in the contact information for this blog.


  1. #1 John Novak
    June 20, 2007

    Still, what does it hurt to answer their questions?

    I guess it depends on how well or badly they used or abused your answers. There are lots of reasons gasoline is expensive right now (Iraq; Chinese and Indian consumption added to our own; strategic reserve buying; terror premiums in the futures markets; Russian-whackjob premiums in the futures markets; refinery capacity; lingering Katrina damage, etc.)

    There are more reasons that gasoline prices spike in the summer (switchover from heating fuel at the refineries happens in spring, which takes a while and is often when refinery maintenance happens; more driving for summer implies higher demand; patchwork regulations on “summer blend” gasoline degrades the economy of scale for the industry, etc.)

    The expansion of the gasoline isn’t any of those reasons, unless there’s some non-intuitive safety/regulatory practice adding three cents a gallon that goes on in the summer. It’s not politically charged as such, but I’d be leery, too, as I’d say flat out, “Of course, this has nothing to do with your gasoline prices whatsoever,” and then be disappointed when they put their own spin on it anyway.

    Or, alternately, I’d be pleasantly surprised.

    But that’s why I’d be leery.

  2. #2 Larry Moran
    June 20, 2007

    In Canada the pumps have built in sensors that correct for temperature. Gas is sold per liter at 15°C. If it’s warmer than that then more than one liter is pumped for the standard price and if it’s colder you get less than one liter for the price advertised on the sign.

    Of course, once the gas gets to your engine it doesn’t matter what the temperature was like when you filled the tank. This system seems fair to me.

  3. #3 Perry
    June 20, 2007

    If you do end up on Fox, I may have to boycott your blog……Although it might be fun to watch you and O’Reilly…

    Gas goes up in the summer cause we told Grandma thats when we’d come visit, or told the kids we were going to Wallyworld, and when it goes up we still do!

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