Them saying they have found something big leads to speculation, speculation that might paint the image of an discovery much bigger than what was actually discovered. Scientists are understandably enthusiastic about this, but they also have to keep in mind that when they just use words to describe the importance of the discovery without naming the discovery itself, it’s easy for them to get it very, very wrong. Something for the history books for them might well be something most people really couldn’t care less about.
I think the adult thing of saying that it is possible you discovered x but you still need confirmation may well work, if you know how to frame it correctly. But whatever you do, don’t say anything about history books, not before you are really sure.
Alternatively you shut up and say nothing to the public until you are sure.
This whole “We have discovered something huge but we can’t tell you what until we are really sure!” seems very misguided to me.
I think this is just a case of bad PR, not bad science reporting or anything like that.
In these situations it can be helpful to use some kind of scale or domain reference.
"We've got some pretty exciting news coming up, and we think it could change the world"
"We've got some pretty exciting news coming up, that should really fire up geologists"
"We've got some pretty exciting news coming up, that gets us closer to understanding the history of Mars"
Set a level of expectation.
"This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good..."
There's life everywhere... we just haven't found it yet.
What? A martian running in front of the camera would work. A rover not sent by earth. A little house on the... sand. Big ol skeleton of a unicorn... Seriously, you have no imagination.
You hurt me. Don’t be so mean.
The 'results' from missions are stories such as this one and other discoveries.
It is in NASA's interest to overplay and overvalue the importance of discoveries from each of these missions.
It is sad that NASA has to play this game, since discovering nothing with Mars Pathfinder would be just as interesting to science as discovering something, but it wouldn't make the mission easy to justify the next time they go and ask for a billion dollars.
They are NOT on a tight budget - even with the entire shuttle fleet shut down, they're spending more than they have in all but a few years since 1970.
$17 BILLION may not sound like much in the insane scale of other federal spending, but it's a vast amount by any other scale.
If the spokesman for the collaboration can't say, "Nope, we haven't seen anything interesting. It's all boring, please go home.", then the journalists know that something's up and the hoopla starts.
Scientists like to talk. It's our job. Collaborations are only partially optimized to contain leaks. I sincerely doubt that any part of the rover team would like to stir up hoopla when they aren't certain about results.
It would be exactly what you want when you know what you know is true, and might leak anyways, but you are stuck doing the work to add a sigma to the results.
Unlikely. Scientists don't normally work this way (not to say "never"). If true it would in essence grant an exclusive right to follow a non-story. But I doubt that NPR actually has any kind of exclusive. It's more likely that only NPR is willing to publish what is in essence a background on a story, not a story per se.
For comparison, consider what happened before the Higgs announcement last summer. Because the circumstances were very different and the stakes much higher, everyone was publishing speculations about what would be announced, in advance of knowing anything at all. In that case also, there was no exclusive, but the level of publishing enthusiasm was higher.
If there are signs of life on Mars it's unlikely that we'll be able to see it with any imager on the rover, but we might be able to detect its chemical signature. The sample analysis instrument is a gas chromatograph connected to a laser spectrometer and a mass spectrometer. What happens is that a sample will be vaporized and then pushed through a long column. The column is designed so that different molecules will have a different speed through the column and thus will come out at different times. Then each of those parts of the sample (which should be comprised primarily of one molecule) is passed into the spectrometers, which can identify its molecular structure. This can determine the chemical makeup of minerals, but it can also identify complex organic molecules such as the components of cells or perhaps things like cellulose or lignin and so forth.
I find this very frustrating. As someone steeped in engineering and the sciences, I am used to working with unusual, unexpected and/or exciting results and I am used to those results being confirmed, revised, denied, etc.
My frustration is not with the scientists; I'm sure I'd do the same thing given a possibly groundbreaking discovery and an inability to discuss much about it. My frustration is with us, the public, and with the fact that we can't be trusted as part of the broader team in this exploration. And I guess I'm frustrated with the media for feeding us with hyped-up-everything, since, even though we seem to demand it, it keeps us from being able to be involved in these conversations/discoveries.
edit: added tags...
As an example of early disclosure of unconfirmed results, I am fairly confident many members of the public still think we have evidence that neutrinos travel faster than light..
Historically, this is where one of 2 things would happen, either it would have some mundane explanation that the original investigator missed, or it's one of those anomalies that leads to new scientific discoveries.
So I think they handled it correctly, and got the right kind o f attention.
I also think they handled it correctly, but I believe the head of that org was relieved of command.
Not cool. He was very explicit about the how's and why's of what they were publishing, but many media outlets took it far away from context.
Even Ereditato never claimed that their work had overturned Einstein. "I would never say that," he told Science last September. "We are forced to say something. We could not sweep it under the carpet, because that would be dishonest."
Interestingly, the blowback from early disclosure of unconfirmed [and bad] results can overwhelm subsequent disclosure of confirmed results. See: cold fusion. Cold fusion exists in a variety of forms, but, even in the face of continuing positive results, most in the public think that cold fusion is busted.
Note: I'm not claiming that cold fusion is a viable energy production technology, just that it certainly exists and that interesting results have been published about it over the last 20 years.
From the Discover article: "A growing cadre of scientists now suspect that Pons and Fleischmann’s  observations were the result not of fusion but of more plausible physical processes." "Fusion requires enormous temperatures and pressures, which is why it occurs only in stars and bombs." The first section is even titled, "Cold, Yes, But Not Fusion."
What I get from reading those articles, is that scientists think there might have been something to the 1989 experiments, but that it's not fusion. Instead, they believe it's a clean, low-energy form of fission. While interesting, this does not confirm the existence of cold fusion.
From the Forbes article, it appears that scientists are now referring to it as "low-energy nuclear reactions" (LENR). Consistent with the Discover article, this is described as a clean form a fission that scientists are currently researching. That's a far cry from saying that LENR exists in the wild, let alone cold fusion.
Thank you for providing the links. I was actually unaware of the research in LENR before, and I'm happy to have learned about it.
The difference is important, because our current understanding of fusion is that it can only occur at extremely high temperature and pressure (because that's what it takes to fuse two atoms into a larger atom). Fission (the splitting of atoms), on the other hand, happens to atoms without added energy or pressure.
If cold fusion were real, it would overturn our understanding of fusion. Cold fission does not, as far as I know, contradict our understanding of fission. That's why it's not surprising that scientists are taking cold fission seriously. But they are not taking cold fusion seriously.
One of the reasons for this is trustworthiness, as you say, but there is much more to it. Trustworthiness isn't the main parameter at all. A larger part of it is how much you trust the results. At each level of disclosure, by social convention there is a rough level of implied confidence that can also be spelled out more carefully. It is embarrassing to be wrong, and the higher your implied confidence was the more embarrassing it is! The rationale behind this social convention might once have been trust, but it is now free-standing.
Some incentives for layered disclosure are obvious; for example, for PR it might be useful to build a buzz within your research community. Other incentives are less obvious. For example, you might disclose early results to a colleague to hopefully get them interested and involved in the research. But if you disclose the results too broadly, too soon, then they will probably be less enthusiastic. They want the inside track on a cool problem, so that there is some time and freedom to explore it, and it isn't a race. (Races for results are stressful and also unfulfilling and wasteful; there's usually no point having multiple teams competing to do the same stuff, just trying to beat the others out for priority.)
Pretty exciting language from a lead investigator at NASA. Cross all those fingers..
I suspect it's some sort of sign of complex organics, which would be a strong sign of past life.
Big news for scientists may end up being unnoticeable small developments to the general public. Earthshaking may be key here, like an organic compound unexpected there.
While finding complex materials would be earth shattering, the threshold of accepting a martian source for a reading like is much higher than it would be for accepting the same for organic findings.
Or could be a scientific whiff. Looks like they're keeping their mouths shut until they can scientifically confirm the data.
Could be that it wasn't much of a calculated PR stunt by either side, but rather just human nature at work. If you're the NASA people, and you're getting exciting data, you're going to be excited about it. If you're a reporter, and everyone's excited, you're going to write about it even if you have no good details.
My best guess: Curiosity's SAM module has discovered significant levels of small organic molecules in the Martian soil. Not just any organic molecules, but either byproducts of life - or more exciting, the actual building blocks of life.
This would be strong evidence for present or past life, but would be far from an observation of life itself.
Some commenters have made the point that 'something for the history books' (the quote from the missions's PI) means different things for scientists and the public.
I'm pretty sure the discovery falls into the category of exciting for scientists, not exciting for the general public.
The data in question are coming from SAM, Curiosity's sample analysis tool. It's equipped with six gas chromatography (GC) columns. The output of these columns can be fed into either a mass detector (QMS) or spectrometer (TLS). IMO, none of these tools can detect life itself:
SAM's purpose is specifically to find evidence for organic molecules - molecules based on carbon. The announcement will have something to do with discovery of organic molecules of some kind:
So direct observation of microbes or any other life form will not be the announcement. I'm pretty sure that's the only discovery that would be 'earthshaking' for the public.
What would be earthshaking for me as an organic chemist?
One possibility would be that SAM has discovered known byproducts of life, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as was found in the Martian Meteorite studied by the Zare group:
PAHs can be made through a variety of inanimate processes, so I'd view this discovery as more ho-hum.
Still, it should be remembered that Viking failed to detect the presence of any organic molecules at all. Finding any organic molecules would be a big change in how we view Mars - but not in my view 'one for the history books'.
However, if familiar building blocks of life such as amino acids or carbohydrates were detected, that would indeed fall into the earthshaking category.
Life on Earth uses a selection of about 20 different amino acids. I would consider observation of a similar assortment of amino acids as strong evidence pointing to past or present life on Mars.
Observation of five- and six-carbon carbohydrates, which are generally much more difficult to synthesize than amino acids, would be even stronger evidence for life. It's hard to overestimate how important that discovery would be.
Observation of peptides - amino acids strung together as is done by all known life would probably be the most mind-blowing thing I could imagine SAM discovering. Depending on what specifically was found, it could remove any doubt - Mars has or had life. Very long peptide chains can be synthesized without life, but it's not easy. The exact composition of amino acids in the peptide chain would be critical for the interpretation and would be more time consuming than just, for example, observing a PAH.
The fact that amino acids, peptides, or carbohydrates themselves were detectable today, given that they do degrade over time, could point in the direction of life having been present recently.
I'm guessing it will discover a biproduct of biological processes, e.g. high levels of methane.
So in the event Martian life is discovered, there's still some work to be done; is it "just" Earth life that got there, albeit presumably heavily-adapted, or can it be established that it is not from the same line as Earth? The second one is the real jackpot question that has profound implications for our place in the universe. The first one, less so. Not zero, but definitely less so. And if it is the first one, it's going to be a real bear trying to explain that it isn't the second one to a press that is mostly incapable of understanding the difference, let alone explaining it to the public....
Certain "features" just make sense for life on Earth, and have evolved numerous times independently. Flight is a classic example, having evolved four completely separate times (bugs, (extinct) pterosaurs, birds, and bats). Complex eyes also seem to have independently developed many times.
Similarly, it seems fairly reasonable that certain "life chemistries" "make more sense" than others. The extent to which that may be the case could also be up in the air I think. Maybe 'carbon with a water solvent' is particularly common, but amino acid based is less so. Or maybe amino acid based life tends to naturally follow from an also likely carbon based chemistry.
It will be exciting to see what we uncover in the future. I think either two cases of abiogenesis or a solid case of panspermia would be pretty wild, for their own reasons.
It seems that it is related to the question of is/was there life on Mars. It can detect organic products that are most likely produced by life, and if it has, it means we will be able to follow these products to something more conclusive.
Ever since Viking, there have been no biological experiments sent to Mars. The issue has been tabled for 30 years.
I'm hoping Dr. Levin finally gets his confirmation. If that's the case, it would explain why they're double and triple checking things.
- Evidence of Oceans on Mars
- Nitrogen in the soil, needed for plants to grow on mars
- Amino Acids
I also wonder if they are finding rare minerals or metals.
It could also have to do with Isotope ratios, as much of our history currently depends on Carbon Dating and other Radioactive Isotope decay rates. Different Atmospheric conditions could have different isotope ratios, this would be a pretty big shake up and it does not necessarily require the rover to find a specific chemical or a complex thing like DNA or organism remnants.
My mind would be blown, if NASA found one of the following.
- living plants
- living microbes
- manufactured materials not of human/ earth origin.
- tons of precious metals.
Curiosity has 8 core objectives, it's probably related to one or two of theses:
(1) Determine the nature and inventory of organic
(2) Investigate the chemical building blocks of life
(carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen,
phosphorus, and sulfur)
(3) Identify features that may represent the effects
of biological processes (biosignatures)
Geological and geochemical
(4) Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and
mineralogical composition of the Martian surface
and near-surface geological materials
(5) Interpret the processes that have formed and
modified rocks and soils
(6) Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year)
Martian atmospheric evolution processes
(7) Determine present state, distribution, and
cycling of water and carbon dioxide
(8) Characterize the broad spectrum of surface
radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic
radiation, solar proton events and
I'll wait for an actual announcement before getting excited...
NPR is one of the least sensationalist news outlets out there. It's not like they're in a mad dash for ratings during sweeps week or something.
That said, I have no opinion on whether they're sensationalizing this story or not.
Humorous Example of the non-sensational image NPR has managed to cultivate: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/01/162075221/jack-white-disappoin...
A geological proof that earth and Mars was the same body x million years ago.
High concentration of oxygen or water in the soil.
I guess anything that would make human's visit to Mars less hostile would be a big story.
Seriously, though, I hope the results of whatever are confirmed. Not just for science but for justification for more funding to flow into space exploration.
On a side note, what are y'all's thoughts on the finding that radiation levels are livable? I'd love to live on Mars.
And you could do it with a smaller system on a Mars buggy.
EDIT: too much internet for the day, I've now started responding to myself.