Is Fox Mulder’s Life Work About To Get Vindicated?

Jason Kottke:

Here’s a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the “Titan Team” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they’re looking at Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that.

Vlad Savov at Engadget:

So NASA seems to have made some hot new astrobiology discovery, but just like the tech companies we’re more used to dealing with, it’s holding the saucy details under embargo until 2PM on Thursday. That’s when it’s got a press conference scheduled to discuss its findings, which we’re only told “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” It’s unlikely, therefore, that little green (or brown, or red, or blue) men have been captured somewhere on the dark side of the moon, but there’ll definitely be some impactful news coming within only a couple of days. NASA promises a live online stream of the event, which we’ll naturally be glued to come Thursday.

Alessondra Springmann at PCWorld:

What does that mean? Judging by the researchinterests of the scientistsinvolved in the upcoming announcement, our guess is that this astrobiological discovery will have something to do with water, evolutionary biology, and aquatic bacteria.

We’ll be covering the press conference and the discovery that’ll be announced on Thursday after 11AM PST (2PM EST), so keep an eye on GeekTech, or watch the press conference on NASA’s site. NASA will also show a video broadcast of the press conference to journalists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Until then, what do you think this discovery will be? Has extraterrestrial bacterial been discovered preserved in a meteorite? Have we seen evidence of life on a ocean-covered exoplanet?

Alasdair Wilkins at IO9:

Considering NASA’s claim that this will impact our search for alien life, I’d have to figure this has something to do with expanding the definition of “life as we know it”, suggesting more elements than we previously thought possible can be used as the raw materials for life. All this, of course, is just speculation – we’ll be listening in to the press conference on Thursday and have the news for you as it breaks.

Mike Wall at Space.com

Max Read at Gawker:

Of course, the announcement could be something totally different! Or, it could be that NASA has been contacted by a warlike race of space aliens and a certain-to-fail mission carried out by a ragtag bunch of scientists is our only hope of survival.

Phil Plait at Discover Magazine:

So what’s the press conference about? I don’t know, to be honest, beyond what’s in the announcement. The scientists on the panel are interesting, including noted astrobiologists and geologists who work on solar system objects like Mars and Titan. So this is most likely going to be something about conditions on another moon or planet conducive for life.

Of course, the speculation is that NASA will announce the discovery for life. Maybe. I can’t rule that out, but it seems really unlikely; I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds. But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

As for the public reaction, well, we’ve seen this type of thing before. Just last June, JPL had a press release about a surprising lack of acetylene in Titan’s atmosphere, with the title “What Is Consuming Hydrogen & Acetylene on Titan?” That sparked vast speculation, and even though the press release was clear enough it was misleadingly reported as NASA finding signs of life on Titan. It got so silly that I wound up writing a post about it, and a NASA scientist went so far as to write an article to clear up the rumors of life on Titan.

I can’t really blame NASA, the press outlets, or the public about this. When scientists have newsworthy findings that are published in a journal, there may be a press conference about them. But some journals have embargoes; they don’t want the news released until the issue is published. Fair enough. So NASA schedules a press conference for the time the issue publishes, and sends out a notice to the press about it. I got just such an email for this one, for example. They have to say something in the email so the press can decide whether to cover it or not, and NASA doesn’t want give too much away. So they give some minimal line about findings that’ll have an impact on the search for life, and those of us who’ve dealt with it before know what that means.

But the public is naturally more inclined to interpret that line as NASA having found life, or at least solid evidence of it. That’s not surprising at all. But it can lead to “news letdown”, where the reality is something less than the speculation. And that leads to news fatigue, which is worse. If people keep expecting really exciting news and don’t get it, well, there you go.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like that provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars. And that’s too bad, because the news is usually pretty interesting and scientifically exciting. As soon as I got this latest announcement, my first flood of thoughts literally were: “Sounds like cool news/I bet there will be tons of over-the-top speculation/I hope people aren’t disappointed when the real news comes out/I wonder if I’ll have to make a post a couple of days before to cool off rumors?”

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