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Luigi and the dragon

In the September issue of Geoscientist, Media Monitor looks at a day in the life of the News Room at Earth System Processes...

On one side of the News Room at Edinburgh International Conference Centre, German radio journalist Dagmar Roehrlich sat before her laptop, headphones on, repeating Centro di Studio di Geologia dell’ Appennino e delle Catene Perimediterrannee . An Italian speaker, she said it eight times perfectly; then turned the mike on – and promptly fluffed it.

At the other two phone points sat writers Tom Clarke (Nature) and Nicola Jones (New Scientist). Nicola had written about all this the day before. Now she was on the phone to Vincent Courtillot at the Institut de Physique du Globe, talking about mass extinction and volcanism. Tom was working on a story about orbital anomalies in the late Cretaceous. But all around them yesterday’s print story was still happening, developing legs and running everywhere. At the eye of the storm, sitting at the main telephone, was Dr Luigi Piccardi (picture), from the Italian institute with the complicated name, speaking to the Boston Globe (picture - Ted Nield)

The tale in question was trailed on the front pages of that day’s Daily Telegraph and Times and could be read in full within. It covered page three of the Daily Mail, and had also made page two of The Guardian. Thanks to the Edinburgh News Agency Newsflash, pictures of our man had also been published nationwide. We were now gripping the sides of the rollercoaster as the story ran across the world.

MM and his GSA colleague Ann Cairns scheduled interviews and shepherded Dr Piccardi from one to another. Foreign papers were now writing about him for the first time. Then there were UK radio and TV pre-records to worry about, live radio (in a separate room), and one live TV interview from the conference foyer for SKY News, beamed from an outside broadcast van with a dish on the roof. All around us, over 600 men and women of huge intellect were pondering the Earth system and its evolution over five billion years. And what was our earth-shattering story about? The Loch Ness Monster.

When you select science papers for highlighting in news releases, you try (among other things) to get a spread of stories that will satisfy the needs of different media. Of the 14 presentations that we had selected, this one was always going to make it big (though we had no idea how big). It had all the characteristics of the "typical BA story" (see Geoscientist 10, no. 11, p8). Difficult to define precisely, such a story is a) a bit quirky b) about something everyone is familiar with, and c) based on some easily grasped scientific concepts that are not beyond readers of average education.

Piccardi specialises in finding geological (neotectonic) explanations of historical and mythical phenomena; his thesis being that from prehistory, sites where unusual phenomena occur will tend in some way to become venerated. Thus he accounts for the frequent correlation between sites of ground movement, gas emission or spontaneous combustion with mythical and sacred locations. Piccardi’s previous brush with the media had come when he suggested that the Oracle of Delphi delivered her prophetic babblings while intoxicated by fumes rising along an active fault through the site.

His current suggestion was that quakes along the Great Glen Fault might be the foundation of the Nessie myth. Many of the supposed "sightings", most of which consist of mounds, waves and strange disturbances of the water, might have been caused by seismic activity, and its immediate effects upon the bottom sediment, he suggested.

Dr Piccardi’s research was preliminary, and presented in a modest poster session. Nevertheless, once it became the subject of a joint GSL/GSA release entitled Does Nessie stir when the Earth shakes? it became – just for a moment – the focus of world media attention. (And, in the process, so did the conference, and our two societies, whose names were usually mentioned in the resulting coverage.)

Despite the fact that other, more "serious" science stories also received considerable coverage worldwide and would on their own have made the conference hugely successful in media terms, many might sigh that such a story should make more news than the rest of the conference put together. But in doing so they sigh at the real world – a permissible, but futile activity.

Of course, there were difficulties with the theory itself, and they were helpfully pointed out in a BGS statement of the 28th . MM wondered from its tone whether BGS’s sensible shoes were pinching it a little, but although perhaps a little overstated, its points were mostly germane. Most interesting was the assertion that many of the quakes historically attributed to the GGF actually occurred elsewhere.

This – and more especially the assertion that the GGF is no longer seismically active - would have been of interest to the designers of the Kessock Bridge (Inverness) which takes the A9 over the mouth of the Beauly Firth. As one delegate was heard to mutter, this structure crosses the Great Glen Fault, and is reputed to be the only earthquake-proofed bridge in the UK. But these are matters of detail, and one hopes that readers of Paranormal News on (and this site, naturally) were properly grateful for them. At any rate it served to increase the general hilarity surrounding the whole story. Spot the Great Glen Fault on this BGS seismic map!

If you now begin to sense a point coming thundering down at you from the hills, then you are right. If one confined oneself to seeking coverage only for science that was incontrovertible (assuming there is such a beast) nothing would ever get into the media at all. Novelty and controversy are what make news.

MM fears that those who sighed earlier (see above) will also sniff disdainfully at such edutainment. Alas, they fail to grasp how little most people know - and how difficult that is to address when folk are not (as far as they are aware) at all interested in having it remedied. The trick of course is to fool them into thinking they are only being entertained. For this to work, there must be fun.

If anyone has difficulty with the idea that geoscience can be fun as well as useful, then they are part of the problem, not the solution. For in the end the greater good was served. Not only did the story mention the word "geologist" many times, but it introduced several basic geological concepts that will have been news to almost everyone reading about them.

So, as the huge intellects pondered in their ponderous way, MM and his US colleague were happy to be chasing around after mythical beasts. For the speaker, however, it was very easy to forget (after spending two days telling the same story over and over) that the deed had still not been done for real. So, to get a bit of distance, MM was keen to give Dr Piccardi an hour’s breather before he actually presented his poster session.

With this in mind MM and he entered the bar of a nearby drinking den in mid afternoon. The barman stopped polishing his glass. After a quick glance to a newspaper lying nearby he said: "Hey pal - are you the feller who thinks Nessie’s all tae dae wi’ earthquakes?"

And so instead of resting, Luigi gamely explained it all again to the interested drinkers of Edinburgh, using the excellent graphics in the Daily Mail to show them how earthquakes might make monsters. Achieving that level of recognition in the space of one day was a career first for both MM and Dr Piccardi.

Soundbites occur naturally to some people, and as you listen to the same story being told time after time, you begin to hear them being cut and honed until they shine out like gems. Luigi’s best was something like "Nessie is one of the last living mythical dragons. All the others have already been slain by science".

And so Luigi the Dragonslayer turned into a slayer of audiences too.