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by Renata Dacinger

Helium is the gas we use to inflate balloons, making them fly. When we inhale it, it changes our voice. It’s vital for MRI machines. And helium is a gas we’re losing. Unimaginably, 175 million cubic meters of helium escape from Earth’s atmosphere each year, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. According to some estimates, we might run out of helium on Earth in about 100 years.

This is a story that captures our attention and raises new questions. What will we do if we run out? Is it truly irreplaceable? Can scientists create it? Hence, we read on with greater interest.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. Sir William Ramsay discovered it on the Sun in 1895, and it took 26 more years to isolate it on Earth. It’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Its boiling point, at -269°C, is among the lowest of all elements. Helium is the second lightest element after hydrogen. We lose it precisely because it’s so light; Earth’s gravity can’t hold onto it. Even when we use it to inflate a balloon, helium slowly escapes through its polymer walls due to its tiny size.

We humans enjoy data and comparisons. The fact that helium boils at -269°C is intriguing. We all know water boils at 100°C, making this sub-zero boiling point quite surprising! Facts about helium’s sources are fascinating too: Most of the world’s helium comes from natural gas fields in the United States, trapped beneath impermeable rock. Helium exists in the atmosphere at a concentration of around five parts per million. Due to this low concentration, commercially extracting it from the air is impractical.

But how much helium do we actually need? Research institutions are among the major consumers of helium. They use it in physics experiments to cool substances and achieve extremely low temperatures that alter their properties. CERN also uses helium; the discovery of the Higgs boson was aided by its use. The Large Hadron Collider holds around 170 tons of helium.

Why Discuss Science?

When we talk about reporting on science, one of the initial questions is why report on science at all. From a journalistic perspective, science is an endless source of great stories with all the necessary elements: problems, solutions being sought, challenges along the way, disappointments, discoveries, resolutions. And just when it seems everything has been exhausted, new problems arise, leading to new searches and revelations.

We must also engage in reporting on science, as the public’s demand for information about science matters remain imperative. Science is integral part of our daily lives. Individuals are faced with choices such as to receive vaccination, whether they should be worried about a planned wind farm near their home, or deciding between purchasing an electric car or a conventional one powered by a gasoline or diesel. Gaining reliable and important information is crucial for making informed choices. Additionally, it’s important to note that scientific institutions depend on public funding. Therefore, it’s appropriate to make sure that the public is informed about their activities and findings. This involves recognizing the significance of research progress for the wider community and understanding how it benefits everyone.

Science can be complex. Scientific articles are often hard to grasp, usually written in English, and not really meant for everyone to understand. This is where the media play a role. Conventional media, like newspapers, radio, and TV, are important sources of scientific information in a language people are comfortable with. But it doesn’t stop there. More outlets are emerging to share scientific knowledge.

Science Reporting on on Television

I’ve been working as a journalist covering science on Slovenian Television for over 20 years. So, for 20 years, I’ve been thinking about how to do it in the best possible way. Often, I feel caught in between two sides, two perspectives, each wanting something different. What do viewers want? Interesting stories they can understand. Engaging science that relates to them and holds practical value. They’re intrigued by things from everyday life and surprising facts connected to that. But what do scientists want? To share as many details about their work as possible, without oversimplification or basic comparisons. However, they don’t want to venture into areas where they aren’t completely confident.

What do I, and probably every journalist reporting on science, wish for? To find a middle ground where science is presented credibly and as accurately as possible, yet without delving into every single detail that scientists need to know and consider. I want to discover stories that captivate viewers, even if they might be less significant to researchers. Simultaneously, I want to offer viewers the opportunity to learn. I aim to convey new, sometimes complex information, but only up to a point where they can still absorb it. It shouldn’t discourage them from watching by making science seem too complex for ordinary people.

How do we achieve this? How do we report on science? Where’s the middle path? Since science covers a vast range of topics, each subject requires its approach, contemplation, and emphasis. Therefore, before communicating anything, it’s crucial to thoroughly think it through.

Today, there’s almost no newspaper, radio, or television station that doesn’t regularly or at least occasionally cover science. Which research, story, scientist, or researcher a particular media outlet presents and in what manner is decided by editors and journalists. Achieving a positive outcome relies on scientists also understanding journalists and viewers.

Scientists researching car batteries have, of course, often highlighted that the latest batteries aren’t environmentally friendly because they consume the world’s reserves of lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel. That’s why they’re developing new batteries using alternative elements and compounds that are abundant and easily recyclable. It’s better for people to grasp the problem and the importance of research rather than the minutiae of the study. Reiterating the same story ensures real comprehension and allows for adding new information. Viewers are undoubtedly also interested in battery charging speed, the range of electric cars, and various other everyday questions.

Balancing Control and Access in Science Communication

At times, scientists may be hesitant to engage with the media because they feel they lack control over the final content or they dislike the context in which the topic will be discussed. Of course, they have the right to this sentiment, but by doing so, they risk having someone else speak about their work or the broader field. Journalists will likely find another interviewee, perhaps even an incorrect one, leading to the dissemination of inaccurate information.

In today’s world, institutions can communicate with the public directly as social media offers them immediate access. Moreover, scientists and researchers themselves can report on their research and work. They can narrow their focus to their own work or discuss the broader scope of their research. They can share their new accomplishments, offer simplified explanations of recent scientific publications, present their equipment, or simply highlight intriguing facts. This positions them as science communicators, who will soon be recognized as experts in their fields, eventually being invited to collaborate even by traditional media.

The story I’ve described initially is intriguing from various angles, and thus, researchers from different fields could report on it. A physicist involved in research at CERN, where helium is utilized, could elucidate why this specific gas is needed. They could describe the device in which helium is used and its functioning. They might record a video showing how helium is transported to their laboratory or how it is introduced into the device. They could discuss the storage challenges. The historical narrative could also be captivating, such as the fact that the United States restricted helium export before World War II, leading the Germans to use hydrogen instead of helium in their Hindenburg zeppelin. This choice resulted in a disaster during the flight from Frankfurt to New Jersey. Even a tiny molecule can offer a plethora of stories.

Hence, each science story can be told in numerous ways. And several of these ways can be effective, achieving their purpose of being read, heard, or seen. Therefore, prior to any communication, there is a need for contemplation about why, for whom, and how to report on a particular topic. My answer to the “why” is that I find it interesting and believe it will captivate others too. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Renata Dacinger is a science journalist and the editor of the show “Let’s Bite the Science” (Ugriznimo znanost) on TV Slovenia. For her work, she received the award from the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) as the European Science Journalist of the Year in 2019 and the award from the Engineering Academy of Slovenia (IAS) for high-quality journalism promotion of engineering and science.

Renata is curious and interested in almost everything: how things work, why they are made this way and not differently, who made them, what their advantages are, what their disadvantages are. Science has fascinated her since forever. Perhaps, if she had another chance to choose her profession, she would be a scientist. In that case, she would certainly talk or write a lot about her work.