Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Between Headlines and Asteroids

Asteroid mining has its detractors, and I'm sure there are some who would have preferred that the previous sentence fragment to be confined to speculative articles and science fiction stories. Such a shame, then, that Planetary Resources had to upset their applecart last week by having the temerity, the unmitigated gall, to dare to look beyond the dirt at our feet and try to reach for the future.

That's not to say that at least some detractors of asteroid mining don't have valid points. It is expensive as hell, it is at the bleeding edge of our technological capabilities - even though there were those who thought we could do it as early as the 1970s - and there's no assurance that Planetary Resources will succeed in its push. It would distress me mightily if Planetary Resources ends up going under, but it wouldn't surprise me. After all, nobody's done this sort of thing before.

Although the media was typically breathless in its coverage of a bolt-from-the-blue event such as PR's initial announcement, cooler heads have since prevailed and parts of the news cycle have begun to knock down what's been built up. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it is, after all, what the media should be doing - attacking plans like this straight on to see how well they stand up to the punishment.

I just wish that there was some requirement for the journalists who go after this stuff to have at least some basic understanding of what they're going after. Case in point: the Globe and Mail's Economy Lab recently published an article questioning the economics of asteroid mining. Its headline? "Why asteroid mining won’t spark interstellar gold rush."

Hopefully, you've already noticed what's wrong with that headline. If not, let me conduct a brief refresher on the English language. "Inter-" is a prefix derived from Latin, and in both languages means "between," generally in the context of something passing from one place to another place. To claim that anyone thinks that asteroid mining is going to start an "interstellar gold rush" is as facile as saying that a drive from Chicago to Milwaukee is an international one.

Though you could probably find people who would like to make that a reality.

I can't fathom why things such as this seem so opaque to many people. Not only is it not a complicated word, but I would expect someone who's risen to at least a moderately high station in the journalism field to be better at using words than the average folk on the street. Here, I'll break it down for you: "inter" means "between," like I talked about in the last paragraph, and "stellar" means "stars." This kind of etymology should not be a revalation for someone writing copy for Toronto's national newspaper.

Technically speaking, the article is completely correct. Asteroid mining won't spark an interstellar gold rush, any more than a walk to Kelowna would spark a need for my passport. But that wasn't the point, was it? The article goes on to cast a wan light on possible cost estimates for asteroid mining. See, the correct word here is "interplanetary" - no one is suggesting that Planetary Resources plans to send robots to Alpha Centauri to mine whatever asteroids may be chilling four light-years from here.

The fundamental issue at hand, the way I see it, is this - if this major newspaper cannot be trusted to use the appropriate word in its headline, what assurances do I have that the material inside the article is in any form trustworthy?

These days, I don't expect much from most newspapers. Using the correct word in the proper situation is the least they can do.

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