The Dark Knight Rises

David Marshall talks about the experience of his paper, 'Trajectory of a falling batman', becoming a media sensation.

david-marshall-200x150.jpgMy experience with the press coverage of my paper on Batman’s ability to glide was very exciting - and really quite insightful.

The attention was a shock, in particular the vast array of coverage which the paper received. To date the paper has been reported on in over 150 internet articles, which is still quite overwhelming.

The coverage began after we had worked with the press office at Leicester to write up a press release. We chose to wait until soon before the new Batman film’s premier to send out this out - and it turns out this was a good move! The press office sent the release to a central mailing list which goes to several thousand journalists globally. The first coverage by a major newspaper was an article by The Telegraph, which seemed to kick other reporters into action. A number of web articles appeared, particularly one by Routers which seemed to spread the paper worldwide.

I have given radio interviews over the phone to BBC Leicester, two Australian breakfast shows, a Canadian station, and a German magazine, as well as a video interview for CNN international. The paper has also been discussed on a US cable TV show by the author of the book “The Physics of Batman”.

Giving the interviews was a mixed experience; being woken up at 7am by a Journalist who got their time zones wrong was not particularly pleasant! I found the key to talking about the paper was that journalists actually want to know about the scientific process that leads to your result: why you did the research; how you did the research; what did you find? Of course this can be expressed very simply: we did it for a university module and we like Batman, we modelled Batman’s cape like a wing using the forces from lift, drag and gravity, and we found that Batman would hit the ground too fast and likely die. I found it to be a great education in talking concisely about my work.

What surprised me most was the reaction, particularly on social networks such as Twitter. A large number of people assumed we were full academic researchers, funded by the University, and criticised the use of research time for this purpose. In fact a large number of poorly researched articles also gave that impression. The process gave me a great deal of insight into the reporting of science. Reporters want a story, and the accuracy of the source is of secondary importance. Few reporters picked up on the fact the Journal of Special Topics is a training exercise, and is peer reviewed only by students.

My advice to future students would be that if you write a paper which is relevant to current events, and go on to work with the press office on it, it could well be picked up by the press. If it is, have fun with it while it lasts! If you can use it to improve your career prospects then do it! I didn’t have much luck with the last part, but at the very least it was a good learning experience.

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