Monday, May 02, 2005

Editing science

The copy desk is the line of last defense, and it's no truer than when dealing with science stories. If you do nothing else as a copy editor, stay abreast of the science stories out there. The embarrassment you save will never be repaid in full, but it will be worth it.

From a story today about recycling fluorsecent light bulbs:

The goal is to keep the bulbs, which contain the toxic chemical mercury, from ending up in county landfills.
Well, sort of. Mercury is on "the periodic table of chemical elements" (No. 80), but it is better referred to as an element. Basically, if it's on the periodic table, refer to it as an element. A chemcial is better left for compounds made of those elements. You'll find the periodic table in the back of your Webster's, too.

From a story about using plants to clean up toxics:
Imagine an industrial site sitting contaminated by tri chloroal ethylene, a widely used industrial solvent now known to be toxic to the liver and kidneys and cause nerve damage.
This one was in our own Carolina Reporter (my fault; I didn't get to grade the stories before they went to press, as I was at a copy editors convention. Definition of irony?). The correct name is trichloroethylene (it's in Webester's). But, you say, who but the chemistry profs will know that? Well, just about any dry cleaner or auto mechanic in town. TCE, as it's known, is one of the most common solvents around. (Thanks to the beauty of the Web, we at least were able to correct this one online.)

These sorts of things make us look silly with key parts of our readership.

This next one's a little more subtle.
TCE, which has been used over the past 150 years as various cleaning solvents, breaks down rapidly once it is taken up into the plant tissue. Some of it is released out of the tree’s trunk, and the rest is broken down into carbon dioxide.

Did you find the error? Here it is: and the rest is broken down into carbon dioxide.
You don't need a chemical degree for this, just common sense. Breaking something down implies at least two byproducts. So it's carbon dioxide and something else -- and that something else has to contain the chlorine present in the original. We should have explained, too, how releasing TCE out of tree trunks doesn't pose any danger.

Just a couple of examples, but the kind that slowly eat away at our credibility and that a vigilant copy desk can spot and fix.

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