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Heeding a Call for Follow Up

IT can pay to see yourself as critics see you. So when the distinguished physicist Clifford M. Will of Washington University in St. Louis takes a poke at science news reporting, those of us in the business should listen. After all, Professor Will is no mean science expositor himself, having won the American Institute of Physics science writing award for his lucid book ``Was Einstein Right?'' (Basic Books, 1986). Moreover, he has a point.

He complains that ``science journalists and their editors don't follow up some of the stories they report.'' Few note when a sensational ``discovery'' turns sour. Few report the later success of a project whose initial ``failure'' made headlines.

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Making his case in the biweekly professional scientists' newspaper The Scientist, Will cites the chase after the ``fifth force'' chimera. Measurements down deep holes and mines and up tall towers suggested a subtle fault in Newton's law of gravity. Some physicists speculated that an unknown force was at work. It would be a basic force to add to the four already known - electromagnetism, the strong force that holds atoms together, the weak force involved in some kinds of radioactivity, and standard gravity. The sensational speculation was widely reported. Yet, Will notes, ``when the force was pronounced all but dead ... at a December 1989 conference in Les Arcs, France, no reporter was present'' to write the follow-up story.

OK, here's a follow-up. Not only did the conference virtually kill the fifth-force speculation, but now one of its staunchest supporters - Frank Stacey of the University of Queensland, Australia - has given in. Dr. Stacey recently said that ``subtle error'' in the calculations misled him. These calculations use general gravity data for a wide area around the site of the investigator's own measurements. Stacey finds such general data are biased in ways that spoil his own and others' calculations.

Continuing in the spirit of Will's critique, here's a follow-up on another story. A year ago, an Ariane rocket launched the European Space Agency (ESA) Hipparcos astronomy satellite. It is designed to measure the position and motion of 120,000 stars to a new order of precision, producing the most accurate sky map astronomers have ever had. They looked forward to the mission and were disappointed when a booster rocket failed to fire and stranded Hipparcos. By last fall, the ESA team had found it could get some useful data from the mission. This month, the team reported that the mission has virtually been saved.

Hipparcos was to have been in geostationary orbit where its German tracking station could keep it in view. Instead, it is in an elongated orbit where the station can't see it much of the time. Other space-tracking stations are helping so that data are flowing in 70 percent of the time.

The elongated orbit brings the spacecraft down into Earth's radiation belts, where speeding particles attack its solar cells. ESA engineers had feared this would soon ruin the power supply. But although there is some damage, ESA now expects the mission can last for several years. Indeed, more than 5 million high-quality observations of the 120,000 stars have already been made.

So there you are. A sensational offbeat ``discovery'' is deflated. A dramatic ``failure'' turns into an outstanding success. This kind of follow-up news is well worth reporting. Thanks for the prod, Dr. Will.

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