Friday, November 17, 2006

Good(?) science, bad journalism

People reading Slashdot regularly would've no doubt seen this article, linked from this Slashdot entry, where Nature magazine talks about German scientists analyzing Wootz steel and finding carbon nanotubes. Now I'm not informed enough to talk about the idea of nanotubes in antique weapons - there are people who dispute that this finding is new. However, history-wise I found fishy stuff from the Nature article itself. For example:

The Crusaders felt the might of the tube when they fought against the Muslims and their distinctive, patterned Damascus blades.

Sabres from Damascus, now in Syria, date back as far as 900 AD. Strong and sharp, they are made from a type of steel called wootz.

Now I was surprised, since as far as I knew, the oldest known curved sword in the Islamic world is the sword of the (in)famous King Baybars, which dates from the 13th Century. So idea of "sabres" from 900 AD seems wrong. I found the original paper here, and finally figured out the truth:

The specimen used in the present investigation is a part of the genuine Damascus sabre produced by the famous blacksmith Assad Ullah in the 17th century.

Ah ha, so the Nature article was a bit muddled with their facts. Oh well at least it wasn't as bad as in this Royal Society of Chemistry article on the same paper:

To Europeans, Damascus steel blades seemed magical. Not only could they cut a piece of silk in half as it fell to the floor, they could cleave rocks and their own swords without losing sharpness.

Now seriously, I wonder about supposed scientific minds at the Royal Society who actually believe that swords can cut rock. (hint: which material is harder?) And of course, this article is titled "Carbon nanotubes: Saladin’s secret weapon." Saladin lived in the 12th Century!

What's the point of all this? Well, with journalism, even in fairly "respectable" papers, you have to take a "caveat emptor" attitude with the facts they present, and you should really dig a bit to get to the original sources.

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