Is this interesting and significant news? Absolutely, but the way it has been reported devalues the actual science done and misrepresents the science (and science as a whole) to the wider public.
Science is rarely about big bang eureka moments, it is long hard years in a lab building on someone else's work with a team of brilliant coworkers.
I agree. One very unfortunate thing is that this article probably won't reach all the people who saw the first wave of articles and are now thinking that an alternate form of arsenic based life evolved and is still alive today. These people are the ones that receive the news via some chain email, and don't bother to research the rest of the facts or any of the follow up from the rest of the scientific community.
This is the problem of treating science like a tabloid. Recently there has been a rash of speculation and downright silly articles based on misunderstood scientific discoveries. While on the one hand they often cause the public to take a greater interest in different scientific subjects, in many cases they are blown out of proportion or misrepresented.
It is like the myth that you should drink 8 glasses of water a day. In this case the advice (from the WHO I think) was people needed 2 litres of water a day, which can be sourced from your normal food and beverage intake. This was altered to drinking 8 glasses of water a day and promoted by the bottled water industry. I get into discussions with people about it over and over but because it is all pervading I rarely make headway.
Another one is wheat grass . . though I find a more receptive audience for that one usually, except from the committed hippy types.
> A dangerous myth
To wrongly suggest people need to eat animal protein for nutrients will encourage them to add foods that are known to contribute to the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and many forms of cancer, to name just a few common problems.
I'm also under the impression that the typical American's diet is out of balance--eating too much meat and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. The protein myth could encourage people to add more meat to their diet when they may need to cut back.
The paper would have been stronger with some attempt at elucidating such a mechanism, but I can understand wanting to rush something like that out (particularly when it will certainly garner interest from a big name journal) before getting scooped.
I like how the author dives deep enough to give a you a good understanding of what actually took place while not making it sound like a scientific journal.
For space stuff Bad Astronomy usually provides the lowdown on the latest space story flooding the main stream press. (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/)
Good communication is always part showmanship, the author clearly grasps using a tone while remaining clear and concise.
And while we’re at it, I don’t remember any article here that said it was arsenic-based life, just arsenic-using.
At least Wolfe-Simon accomplished something, and isn't just trying to sell a questionable diet using absurd claims and photos of dubious veracity.
I really can't blame her for the self-promotion. I think this in some ways is the academic equivalent of the acquisition: she got the scoop on a really novel idea, she's well positioned to do future work in the area and be recognized as the global expert (catch the "more to come in the next 15-30 years!" in the press conference), and she's really excited about the work. I can only assume biogeochemistry is not having loads of money thrown at it these days so she's smart to take advantage of this opportunity to really make a name for herself.
I understand that she was the leading scientist and the one who had the idea, but still, I don't think you are supposed to act like that as a scientist, it makes you look bad. Besides, she also seemed to kind of take it personal that the chemist wasn't entirely convinced yet. Oh and she also looked a bit frustrated when the journalist asked over the phone line a question that made it look as though it was discovered by chance.
Not that there haven't always been egocentric scientists, but their counterpart, the humble scientist who's almost too humble in emphasizing the role of colleagues, students, luck, collaborators, etc., is an almost extinct species.
It's interesting to compare the abstracts of a typical modern science paper versus one from 100 years ago or so. The old ones often have this almost exaggerated humility, along the lines of: Dear Sirs, I beg your time to present some results of my investigations which, though admittedly focusing on only on the special case X, will, I hope, add in some small way to the excellent recent treatment given the subject by Professor So-and-so. Today that abstract would probably be written the other way around, emphasizing the enormous importance of special case X, pointing out that while Professor So-and-so did study this broad area, his results are seriously deficient in some respect, and then closing with a sentence or two about how ground-breaking this new treatment of the problem is.
Yes, but there were a lot fewer of them. Back when you
could fit, e.g., the world physics community in a single auditorium, things were different.
And modern bio research is insane. It's insanely expensive, and it's insanely competitive. Even the most talented postdocs need luck and politics to escape permanent postdochood. So I don't blame the woman for coming out swinging. She's probably bright enough to realize that she's crazy lucky to have found something this interesting, even if the interestingness is exaggerated, and she should pitch this for all it's worth.
If I had to pick one part of it that bugged me most, it'd be the constant need to attack and dismiss other people's research. Very few scientists these days refer to something like the "excellent recent treatment of the subject by Professor So-and-so", unless it's a treatment of a subject that doesn't compete with the author's own research. Instead, usual practice is to paint competing research in the worst possible light, and only grudgingly admit any related work that was actually on-point and good.
There was PhD Comics strip somewhere that jokingly listed phrases least likely to appear in a scientific paper, one of which was, "Previous work by X et al (2009) was actually pretty good!". Of course, it's not entirely because authors have suddenly become huge jerks; the incentives on them push in that direction. With many more submissions, reviewers have gotten much harsher about demanding that authors distinguish themselves from existing work and prove that theirs is novel and superior, which supplies an incentive for authors to trash existing work.
"Next, what they did was culture the bacteria in the lab, and artificially jacked up the arsenic concentration, replacing all the phosphate (PO43-) with arsenate (AsO43-). The cells weren't happy, growing at a much slower rate on arsenate than phosphate, but they still lived and they still grew. These are tough critters."
That seems to indicate that they wouldn't be able to compete with their cousins outside of a controlled environment.
> That seems to indicate that they wouldn't be able to compete with
> their cousins outside of a controlled environment.
In fact, it says exactly the opposite. It goes into detail about why it shouldn't be the much of a surprise. (Not that I agree with him.)
Life on Earth is carbon-based. There are no phosphorous-based lifeforms that we're aware of, so replacing phosphorous with arsenic doesn't make a carbon-based bacterial species into an arsenic-based one.
Pronounce the "CH" like "SH".