Snowballing speculation over a NASA press conference

By Phil Plait | November 30, 2010 10:01 am

NASA questionWell, here we go again.

I don’t generally like to talk about NASA press conferences before they happen because I don’t want to promote baseless rumor-mongering. In this case, though, I feel I have to write something to prevent speculation! Here’s the scoop: NASA released the news that a press conference will be held on Thursday at 14:00 ET, saying that the conference will "discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life."

That, of course, set everyone speculating. The very popular news site Kottke.org actually has a decent line of evidence on the topic of the conference, though a sensational headline of "Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?" Gawker has a post up about this as well, and social networks like reddit have a lot of people talking, too. Other examples abound.

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?"

That last one wouldn’t win me Randi’s million bucks, unfortunately, even though you’re reading the outcome of it.

Anyway, I’m not sure what can be done about this type of thing, though. As I laid out above, the press needs to know in advance about news items, but how do you do it in such a way that it doesn’t spark wild speculation?

Note that NASA posts these announcements on their site, as they should. Maybe just a more careful wording would help. I’m open to suggestions. Seriously: if anyone has good ideas, I’m planning on sending a note to the press division at NASA about this.

And as to this next conference on Thursday, stay tuned. I’ll be on the phone listening in, as will my colleagues at other astronomy news sites. I’m sure there will be plenty of coverage of the actual story once we get the real information.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Comments (155)

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  1. Heck, a boilerplate disclaimer based on what you’ve already written seems fine. A paragraph automatically added at the end of their press releases covering the nature of releases in general and who the target is (journalists).

    I can’t imagine that an announcement of the discovery of extraterrestrial life wouldn’t come from the president (assuming NASA finds it) — it’s that big of a deal.

  2. Guysmiley777

    Very well said, sir. Skeptical astronomer remains skeptical until evidence is provided and reviewed. If I had time today, I’d make a LOLPHIL with that caption.

  3. Well said. I do think that a more careful and measured approach to the wording in these releases would help to avoid unwarranted conclusions whizzing around the interweb.

    There has been some suggestion this morning from people who claim to have seen the material in question that we will NOT see any claim of evidence for life.

    We’ll see.

  4. Mosez

    Hi Phil – I think 14:00 EDT should be 14:00 EST. Not that it would lead to much confusion but this happens to be one of my (petty) pet peeves. Cheers!

  5. Charlie Young

    I’m sure you’re right. Who knows, they might have better evidence for life on Titan and are trying to drum up money to send a probe there.

  6. Steven Spray

    We should all learn to lower our expectations as the media can hype them up tremendously. Either way, I’m sure the conference would bring some interesting news to the science world.

  7. I’m not sure if the President would be announcing the finding of a bacteria like life form on some other planet. If on the other hand the life form is an intelligent inter-stellar traveler, then we might expect a joint press conference …

  8. PeteC

    Celsius,

    Indeed. What politician – of any stripe or flavour – could resist the certainty of being shown again and again in the media for the next few centuries walking out in front of the crowd and announcing “Ladies and Gentlement, we are not alone.”

    I’m sure whatever this is will be interesting, suspect that it will be a “Hmnn. Interesting.” and not a “WTF?!?!?!?!OMG!!!11!!1! Interesting!” Probably some simple hydrocarbon or odd chemical ratio somewhere.

    Of course, if they announce a twenty mile wide alien mothership or a five tone communication sequence I’ll happily admit I was completely wrong… but I’ll bet a dollar, pound or denominational curreency unit of anyone’s choice I’m not :)

  9. Rob Specht

    We did just recently flyby Hartley. Did Epoxi do anymore than take a few pictures? Did it have any science capability and detect some sort of organics in the plumes?

  10. Chris

    They are trying to keep one step ahead of the Wikileaks documents about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

  11. Paleonut

    They could come up with some sort of code for the actual discovery of alien life, or other huge story “Earth Shattering News Alert” or some such. Of course, such news would probably break without the use of the code, but until then, it’s absence would help tone down the speculation.

  12. Pete

    Reading Death from the Skies -> NASA announcement -> Kottke article about extraterrestrial life -> Proper application of sensationalist panic = Phil Plait and NASA tell us ALIENS WILL KILL US ALLLLLLL

    Am I doing it right?

  13. Tavi Greiner

    This is one time that I think NASA actually did achieve a reasonable message. How much clearer and careful can you get than “an astrobiology finding” (as opposed to “have discovered life”) and “will impact the search for” (as opposed to “have discovered life”.)

    There will always be the over-eager misinterpretations, but those are much more the fault of willing newshounds than they are the careless communication of scientists. I think this is one of those times, in spite of NASA’s clear and concise wording.

  14. MK

    Let Steve Jobs do the announcement: “And one more thing…”

  15. RobC

    My wild guess is that they found something “weird” here on earth.

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Steven Benner are authors on a paper outlining the search for weird life and shadow biospheres-life on earth we wouldn’t easily recognize as life. Something without DNA, or ribosomes, something not sharing common ancestry with the rest of life. James Elser fits this too, as a biogeologist. Maybe desert varnish is alive!

    Davies, P. C. W. , Benner, S.A., Cleland, C.E., Lineweaver,C.H., McKay,C.P. and Wolfe-Simon, F. Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere (2009) Astrobiology. 9(2): 241-249.
    doi:10.1089/ast.2008.0251.

  16. Gareth

    My first thoughts were along similar lines to Celsius1414’s – not so much *who* would be announcing it,but *where*. You’d think that the announcement of a significant discovery such as ET life would be broadcast on national news (or by the President’s broadcast system), not just on NASA TV.

    Still, I’m sure whatever it is they have to announce will be interesting!

  17. Fischblog

    I have just read the abstract. It’s entirely terrestrial but nevertheless very exiting, at least for chemists and the like.

  18. Paul

    How long would it take from Obama announcing life on another world to the first claims he wasn’t born on earth?

  19. So far the most interesting speculation I’ve read is that this could be a discovery here on Earth: http://lanceburrowsnet.blogspot.com/2010/11/nasa-has-set-news-conference-on.html

  20. Ryan

    NASA just needs to add a bit of wording at the end of these releases to the tune of, “But don’t go over the top – we’re not saying we’ve found aliens. Wait to see what we say before you let the speculation get out of hand.”

  21. JR

    Come on, lady Klingons

    C’mooooooon lady Klingons

  22. Aerimus

    @Paul.

    Unfortunately, you’re already too late. Just do a search for “Colleen Thomas” Obama and reptilian. Some people…just…no words…wow

  23. Murff

    The word “impact” needs to go, that’s all.

  24. BA:

    But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

    And you call yourself a blogger? For shame! :-)

    Greg Laden:

    If on the other hand the life form is an intelligent inter-stellar traveler, then we might expect a joint press conference …

    According to some of the tabloids, they already have. Haven’t you seen the “photos” of the President with the little silver guys?

  25. A quick skim of those names on Google Scholar suggests that the finding is likely something about the formation or early evolution of life on Earth.

    Given that NASA will want to maximise the return on the Congressional Appropriations process, I predict a three point message:

    – New discovery about how life on Earth got started;
    – Consequent massive diversion of resources from boring places like Mars and Saturn, to looking for the site of the Garden of Eden;
    – Early indications are that the G of E is near Wasilla, AK.

  26. Mark S

    I think Dr. Plait has the right idea here about a probable let-down for the general public at the news conference. If there were some astonishing evidence of life elsewhere it would have probably been leaked by now, unless the discovery was made very, very recently.

  27. jianying

    NASA should go the andre weil way and announce the press conference is titled “on chemical and physical composition of __________” where blank is whatever the study is about. be obtuse and use lot of jargon. so only the interested parties will come and temp down on the speculation.

  28. frankenstein monster

    Thursday at 14:00 ET, saying that the conference will “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

    something like “an asteroid on collision course with earth, that will hit at 14:01 ET” ?

  29. Fenchurch

    Oh, boy. Well, either way, I’m going to go fetch my towel and my Sub-Etha Sens-o-Matic.

    Not panicking, but just in case.

  30. Albert

    lol..Obama announces extraterrestrial life.
    Rush Limbaugh immediately denounces it as a ploy for alien votes and Sarah Palin calls Obama an atheist pandering to “intellectual liberals’

    If this were 1492 we all know what side of the political fence the round earth deniers would be.

    (apologies..couldn’t help myself)

  31. Jenn

    I think NASA feels like they haven’t been in the press enough lately and I think they want the over-speculation and the interest people are showing. They put out these vague press releases to stir interest. Nothing else they do causes that big of a stir anymore and they have to find ways of grabbing the attention of the public. It makes it look like they’re justified spending millions of dollars every year.

  32. Astrobiologist

    Not alien, but most likely different kind of chemistry on a living organism. Check Felisa’s website:
    http://www.ironlisa.com/

  33. NASA announces lots of press conferences ahead of time, but it seems whenever the words “astrobiology” or “Mars” appears in the title, people go off the deep end. And it’s the sensationalist, speculative headlines (one I saw said something about this being the announcement of the century or something completely nuts) that, unfortunately, give internet journalism a bad name.

  34. Alex DeLarger

    It should not surprise anyone that in the current U.S climate of “believe the most outlandish thing you’ve ever heard, even though there is no corroborating evidence, because your Uncle Bob forwarded it to you in an email,” any NASA announcement that mentions the words “extraterrestrial life” will cause paranoid knees to start jerking.

    That said, I hope that if there are aliens, that they are the Spock kind of aliens and not the HR Giger ‘Xenomorph’ kind of aliens.

  35. M

    They should put on an estimated rating of “interest” on their press release:

    eg:
    1: Only other scientists in the same sub-field will really care: really, we shouldn’t have even bothered with a press release, the sub-community is so small that the people who care were probably the only people qualified to be peer-reviewers for the paper.
    3: General scientific interest: interesting enough to be a news article in Nature or Science magazine. The kind of science nerds who read blogs on the subject (such as Bad Astronomy) might be interested.
    5: Broad scientific interest: the sort of result that might be mentioned in a Scientific American article on the issue.
    8: Widespread general interest: this result is important enough to be in the science section of the NY Times. Often a step towards some major result such as “found precursors to life on Mars” or “demonstrated new cancer cure in test tube”, but that final step is not yet confirmed.
    10: Groundbreaking new result of widespread interest that is front-page news either because it is just a BIG result or because it is of universal importance: We found life, we cured cancer, we developed cold fusion that’s reproducible in the lab, we found out that spinach stunts growth of babies, whatever…

    -M

  36. DuckRabbit

    My guess would be that arsenic life was found in Mona Lake.

  37. Wayne Conrad

    NASA released the news that a press conference will be held on Thursday at 14:00 ET, saying that the conference will “discuss a way to announce press conferences that will impact the search for publicity and, ultimately, funding.”

  38. Lila

    I read about the oxygen on Rhea (if that turns out to be it) before I even knew about the NASA press release, which I find kinda funny. (It always amazes me how conspiracy theorists forget how badly we suck at keeping secrets.)

    However, if it is an announcement about the discovery of alien life, how do we prepare for when citizens run screaming into the streets, which, unless Hollywood has lied to me, would be mankind’s natural instinct?

  39. Costas

    They said it will impact the search for evidence, not that it would provide evidence. I think they are using careful wording it’s just that the public isn’t paying too much attention at what’s said rather at what they’d wish to be said.

  40. One of the Mars rovers has spotted a large blue box on Mars, says “Police” on it.

  41. Ad Hominid

    Paul @#18
    “How long would it take from Obama announcing life on another world to the first claims he wasn’t born on earth?”

    There is a claim that he is an ET, though born on Earth.. (Note the names of the Attendant and the Special Registrar on this Nevada birth certificate)

  42. Alex

    Science writers already know, what Nasa is going to show on Thursday, because they are getting the embargoed “Science” press package with advance information. So it would be enough for Nasa to say: We are doing a press conference to discuss recent findings from “Science”.
    But Nasa wants to spur interest beyond the media, that’s why they publish this cryptic press release and hope, it will fuel rumors and frenzy. So Nasa is to blame.

  43. Ed

    NASA couldn’t find life on earth. Their idea of what constitutes life is to narrow. If the microbe ate them they would still think it was just chemical reaction as is all life.

  44. Dave

    Last time they did this, it was to announce a fund-raising drive.

    NASA is, sadly, no longer trustworthy.

  45. Whatever is announced, I for one, will welcome our Europan Overlords.

  46. Richard Wolford

    Ed, life is a complex chemical reaction, sorry to inform you. Life is chemistry made possible by way of physics. And how do you figure NASA can’t find life on earth? Bold assertions like that, which are demonstrably false anyway, would typically require some evidence and not just your uninformed opinion.

  47. Darren Garrison

    The fact that NASA launched a cookie-based astrobiology satellite less than two weeks ago makes me think that this is somehow related to that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O/OREOS

  48. Aleksandar

    Wording of the announcement pretty much guarantees that it wont be about any actual detection.

    Tbh, its NASA’s fault. They keep announcing press conferences in advance, with great vigor and bombastic terms; and they know how “accurately” modern medial will report that.

    Much ado about nothing.

  49. After seeing something about the press conference yesterday, I saw the article about oxygen and CO2 in Rhea’s atmosphere (http://goo.gl/0zxN7) this morning, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re connected. Maybe the findings on Rhea have changed how they will think about xenobiology.

  50. andy

    But Nasa wants to spur interest beyond the media, that’s why they publish this cryptic press release and hope, it will fuel rumors and frenzy. So Nasa is to blame.

    Wait a minute, if they didn’t announce press conferences in advance then no-one would show up. That would be a bit of a pointless press conference really. It is fairly unclear why the news media should consider an announcement of an upcoming press conference to be itself newsworthy.

    But hey, don’t let that stop the NASA bashing.

  51. Matt B.

    NASA will announce that, henceforth, it will attempt no landing on Europa, but that the other moons of Jupiter are, quote, ours. Then long-distance phone charges will be eliminated.

    Frankly, as a cynic and skeptic, all articles are expected to be let-downs compared to the headlines.

  52. LB

    You don’t want people to speculate but meanwhile you are speculating yourself, Phil.

    “(…) 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.”

    So what. Speculation and discussion about some mysterious NASA announcement can be great fun. Having fun is not exclusive to scientists or journalists. NASA this, Randi that. Yadda yadda yadda. The point is you don’t know what this is all about, just like the rest of us.

  53. Steve Jobs

    Oh, and one more thing…

    Extraterrestrial life.

    Boom. Microbes.
    Boom. Some… space shrimp.

    Magical.

  54. And for god sake don’t forget to buy Plait’s book- right Phil?

  55. RyShe

    I saw this on Kotaku and came straight here for clarification, thanks.

  56. Tribeca Mike

    Being inspired by the lady in Spain who claims ownership of the sun, I have just patented snowballs, metaphorical or otherwise. Just thought you (and your lawyers) should know.

  57. Joseph G

    As long as we’re taking bets, I’ll wager it has something to do with exo-planets. Research on them has exploded recently, and all kinds of clever advancements are being made in that field. Maybe they found free oxygen in the atmosphere of an exoplanet in its star’s habitable zone – that’d be a strong indicator for life.
    Obviously I’m just pulling possibilities out of my butt, but that would be VERY cool :)

  58. Joseph G

    I kinda doubt it’s the Rhea discovery of oxygen. That was extremely tiny amounts of O2 formed when water molecules in Rhea’s ice are hit by charged particles. Nothing about Rhea is conducive to life, as far as I know, water notwithstanding.

  59. andy

    The SpaceRef website seems to have an inside scoop on this one.

  60. Joseph G

    Perhaps they’ve actually found intelligent life on Sol III? That would be momentous news indeed :D

  61. Monolith

    ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS
    EXCEPT EUROPA
    ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE
    NOW OVER TO TOM FOR THE LATEST SPORTS.

  62. andy

    Actually I think the announcement might be something like the discovery of lifeforms using arsenic-based biochemistry in Mono Lake. We shall see.

  63. If there was intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, they’d be on Facebook by now.

  64. Nick

    “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

    There’s a fire, sir.

    Seriously though.

    RobC Said: “My wild guess is that they found something “weird” here on earth.”

    Probably with my hope being that they found an organism that utilizes A/Z-DNA.

  65. Robert

    @51 “Whatever is announced, I for one, will welcome our Europan Overlords.”

    Read ‘European’ there for a sec, sounds like a pretty good idea!

  66. Jason

    Seeing Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s name on there makes me highly suspect it’s related to the Mono Lake findings. She even has a note on her web page about this conference, so it probably won’t be TOO boring…

  67. drow

    perhaps they’ve found life on earth.

  68. Chris

    A few of my classmates were discussing this today before one of our classes, and we rapidly reached the agreed guess that if life were discussed, it would be in the news long before the official press conference. Perhaps only the tabloids, if the more mainstream news outlets agreed to self censor until more conclusive data was obtained/analyzed, but certainly at least one person associated with the discovery or analysis would find the allure of a quick payday to much to resist.

    Anyone think this is an unrealistic expectation?

  69. Raven Amos

    It can only be one of two things: 1) Earthly extremeophile organisms, or something about their mechanisms, where conditions exist for such on either Titan or Enceladus, or 2) Space whales. I’m going with #2.

  70. gerald

    Water on mars? Life on Titan? Please do not say such things without proof. I am 60 years
    old and getting older as we speak. Maybe all you want is a story but you, or they, come up
    with such ideas every so often.
    When you are sure then that is good but don’t take us for another ride. Please stop this
    insane speculation. You are supposed to know for sure before you put such things out to the
    public. I will be glad when you know something for sure.

    G.

  71. Leftcoast Nightsleeper

    As a long time fan of your blog, I’m only keen on reading your commentary about the announcement as soon as possible, including a layman’s description if what they say is hard to understand. My stopwatch will be running from 2pm EST on.

    I have my personal speculations, but I’m really hoping for something that makes the public appreciate the space telescopes discoveries besides Hubble’s. Just because visible light is what most everyone can see doesn’t mean it’s the only significant spectrum in electromagnetic radiation.

  72. AJ

    Perhaps it is all just about finding some yellow snow or ice out there . . .

    In all seriousness I do think it is worth following for the scientific information that will come out of it. That is why I think people should be aware of it but as Phil points out, with a cavet that this may be nothing more than just a publication on how life can exit in other mediums, say methane. It will be interesting to see what it is.

  73. DS

    Monolith… +1 for you.

  74. Nick M

    Another vote for Space Whales.

    That’s how this science thing works, right? We vote?

  75. noen

    The good news, they found Lenie Clarke. The bad news, she brought a friend. Behemoth.

  76. Yeebok Shu'in

    I believe it will relate to Cassini’s ‘tasting’ oxygen recently.
    @69, I think intelligent life, by definition would not use facebook :)

  77. Daniel

    Its about intelligent bacteria…yea, thats it…

  78. There are so many ways this could run – exotic life on Earth, fossils on Mars, life signature gases on Titan… It is great that astrobiology is attracting attention and covers so many areas of science.

    It will be 6am in Sydney when NASA TV coverage starts – I will be awake for it.
    Phil – thanks for the reality check.

  79. Hevach

    I think the best thing that could happen is it turns out to be one of the most boringly mundane astrobiology discoveries ever.

    “We detected traces of alanine in a nebula seven thousand light years away.”
    “Uh… didn’t you find amino acids in nebulas about fifteen years ago?”
    “Yes but not alanine!”

    I’m not sure which I’d find funnier: If the build up was just an elaborate troll on the dozens of blogs posting wild speculation or if they were genuinely excited about it.

  80. Tim

    At least half the responsibility should go to journo’s sensationalising a press event to sell papers. So NASA sex up the announcement a bit but then the press goes mental – taking the original exaggeration to new levels of bonkers!

  81. Hevach

    Too late to edit my last post, so making a second: It just occurred to me, and I’m trying to look up the original articles to find it, but earlier this year a research expedition at Lake Vostok had their equipment within 100 meters of the lake and gave a late 2010/early 2011 range for actually reaching it, which we’re right in the middle of now. Lake Vostok has been one of NASA’s points of interest, too. Findings there will likely, “impact the search for extra terrestrial life,” since it’s been suggested for years as a testing ground for Europa missions.

    I saw it posted on another site that the people NASA has present at the press conference suggests it’s a terrestrial finding and not an extraterrestrial one. Plenty of terrestrial findings have extraterrestrial implications.

  82. Brianimator

    I think those of you who are guessing this is related to Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s work on arsenic based life at Mono Lake are on the right track. If arsenic can substitute for phosphorus in DNA it opens the door to all kinds of evolutionary paths we haven’t been looking down. It’s kinda big. Might even mean that such life preceded our phosphorus-based ancestors at one time and then died out.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/eureka/article7040864.ece

  83. Raskolnikov

    I think it’s bad science policy to convene a press conference for a new discovery. Shouldn’t this first be submitted to peer review? Or am I missing something here. For sure, in any other field (say fusion), when somebody calls for a press conference to communicate results, the first thing that crosses my mind is : ‘overenthusiastic’ or even ‘crackpot’.

  84. VJBinCT

    I remember, sometime in the late 60’s at NASA’s GISS in NYC, there was a guy who pestered Bob Jastrow to the point of allowing him to give a special talk there. On molecular astronomy, with emphasis on complex molecules. I was a grad student there at the time, and so with all the other students who couldn’t hide fast enough, was dragooned into being an audience. I was in molecular astronomy (optical absorption spectra of diatomic species for measurement of CBR) then, so I was curious, even though the guy was considered a crackpot.

    It was a good-enough talk at first, but when he got up to detecting chlorophyll and hemoglobin, he kinda lost me.

    My boss, Pat Thaddeus, went on to microwave molecular astronomy and made quite a distinguished career of it, mapping molecules of increasing complexity throughout the galaxy, but never reached biological heights.

  85. Yup, Space Whales. Pretty obvious, really.

  86. News about finding extraterrestrial life would leak well before any press conference.

  87. Matthew von der Ahe

    Entwives. They discovered a grove of Entwives on Enceladus. You heard it here first.

  88. blah

    :-) I love HARRY POTTER

  89. CNN calls Phil a wet blanket when talking about this story:
    http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2010/12/01/did-e-t-finally-phone-home/
    hehehehe..

  90. Mr Anonymous

    News that there is oxygen on a moon orbiting Saturn.

  91. Eric

    Phil said, “I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. ”

    Let me get this straight. Phil Plait, the guy who consistently says that there are no government ‘conspiracies’ to keep alien life secret, is telling us that IF this were the announcement of alien life, we wouldn’t hear about it because NASA would keep it under “tighter wraps”? Please explain, Phil. Your contradicting logic is fascinating.

  92. Eric

    By the way Phil, I agree with this statement: “It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds”.

  93. Dave Brown

    We already know there is extraterrestrial life. Who do you think was piloting the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell? Duh!

  94. B

    I spoke to panelist Dr. Steven Benner.

    There will be no announcement of life on other planets.

    http://bariumtitanate.blogspot.com/2010/12/nasa-press-conference-bubble-burst-no.html

  95. Robert

    Given all the cometary reconnaissance of late, might it not be a fair bet that NASA might have found evidence of protein building blocks or something similar on or perhaps around comets?

    NASA does have an extraordinary skill for pumping up the public for ET and then letting them down with a discovery that to anyone with less than a passing interest in science would be a big ‘ho-hum’.

    This said I will be watching the wires tomorrow!

  96. NoiseLTD

    Mosez Says: Hi Phil – I think 14:00 EDT should be 14:00 EST. Not that it would lead to much confusion but this happens to be one of my (petty) pet peeves. Cheers!

    Noise say: cool your jets. Phil said 14:00 ET. ET replaces EST and EDT and refers to whatever timescale is used for civil time on the date in question. It might be ambiguous for one hour a year, during the first Sunday in November, but in those rare cases, specify EST or EDT.

  97. Siddhartha

    Shadow biosphere of arsenic (not phosphorus) consuming lifeforms here on earth. Biochemistry is more diverse than just us, implications for search for extra terrestrial life. Yadda yadda yadda.

  98. Blah blah..

    There seems to be a lot of wild speculation in every blog/web article that I have come across while reading about this press conference. Most of the speculation relates to having found “ET,” and someone usually suggests that the Moon landings were faked. If you look at the professors who are on the panel, who are the authors of the article that will be released this Friday, it seems obvious that this will be research involving shadow biospheres. Probably arsenic based (not just ‘…consuming…’ as Siddhartha suggested) life; i.e. some organism that uses arsenic as the basis for its genetic material and its version of ATP. The wording in the NASA press release about the conference is consistent with this. Note that they didn’t state that they had found life, or evidence of life anywhere else, they just stated that they had a discovery that would impact how we SEARCH for extraterrestrial life.

    This would be the discovery of the century. It could possibly suggest that life evolved more than once on Earth. We would have to add an additional tree of life to our current description of terrestrial biology.

    Also, the embargo and secrecy is nothing new and isn’t due to wikileaks or any other crazy-ass notions. Science Magazine (which, unfortunately, is becoming somewhat of a tabloid journal in the sense that much of the material it publishes is poorly reviewed) will occasionally embargo publications until the day before the new issue of the magazine is released — Friday. Conspiracy theorists, you can take off your tinfoil hats and go back to your mothers’ basements.

  99. andy

    I think it’s bad science policy to convene a press conference for a new discovery. Shouldn’t this first be submitted to peer review? Or am I missing something here.

    As I understand it, the embargo is due to the journal Science and their publication schedule: the paper has already passed peer review and the conference will happen post-publication.

  100. andy

    Trust the UK tabloids, The Sun has broken the embargo. This is about organisms using arsenic biochemistry in Mono Lake.

  101. Keith Bowden

    If it were about finding extraterrestrial life they’d have scheduled the news conference for 3:47 EST…

  102. réalta fuar

    It appears that RobC @15 came closest to getting the topic of the press conference correct while B @109 actually did some real reporting on the subject.
    Now, if you want to see how science journalism is done RIGHT here across the pond, you should try and find Brian Cox giving the Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture that was just broadcast here on BBC 2. As others have said, he’s truly a worthy successor to the great Carl Sagan.

  103. that was a good thing ko.reddit.com

  104. gss_000

    I’m somewhat disappointed by this post. In the past, you have been so quick to criticize the old media when it hypes announcements in its titles or coverage. This here is new media at its worse, with blogs and websites causing misinformation on a large scale and you don’t mention them at all. NASA’s press release is pretty tame, so your criticism seems overly picky.

    Mistakes happen, but when you criticize what you see as other bad science reporting and then fail to do so in your own medium, I lose some respect for the blogosphere in general. If you can’t even try to regulate yourself your just replacing one problematic model with a worse one.

  105. Brian137

    Thanks for the heads-up and the discussion.

  106. Hainish

    But…. I thought we had already found life on Mars. I saw it in a teaser for a show called “Bad Universe”, and the guy who said it was some quite respectable science dude!

  107. Skeptic Mike

    Phil thanks again for an objective approach to real science journalism.

  108. Messier Tidy Upper

    @78. AJ :

    Perhaps it is all just about finding some yellow snow or ice out there . . .

    If the snow is yellow – don’t eat it! ;-)

    @108. Dave Brown Says:

    We already know there is extraterrestrial life. Who do you think was piloting the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell? Duh!

    Elvis Presley as everybody knows! ;-)

    @41. DuckRabbit Says:

    My guess would be that arsenic life was found in Mona Lake.

    Mona Lake – who’s she and how can she survive eating arsenic? ;-)

    Joking aside, a bit of speculation and build-up to a mystery announcement can be fun, the let-down often not so-much. I don’t mind NASA working the media although it does get rather predictable.

  109. Naomi

    Heh, I’m reminded of the fuss over Phoenix having found something with implications for life on Mars. Cue everyone going MAD that Phoenix found Martians – nope, perchlorates. Well, that has implications for life!

    I’m curious about this one, certainly, and quite interested, but I’m not going OMG ALIENS.

  110. Dr. Zoidberg

    Is the buffet free?

  111. Missy

    NASA has some Daleks who’d like to make us some tea

  112. Gaston

    I agree with some of these posts: my speculation is that the conference is more related with the discovery of certain forms of life under non-expected conditions (or what we always considered as the necessary conditions for life) here on Earth. Someone could say “just for this?” but means a total change of certain paradigms.

  113. Mike G

    Gizmodo is reporting that the news conference is about the discovery of a new bacterium in California’s Mono Lake that uses arsenic rather than phosphorus as the backbone in its DNA.

  114. JSug

    The reports seem a little mixed. Some are reporting that the bacteria only uses arsenic. The more complete reports seem to be reporting that it *can* use arsenic when phosphorous is not available. So not necessarily a separate origin, so much as a really bizarre adaptation.

  115. Sorry, Phil, but you did push the hype button. Frankly, I wonder if NASA ginned up at least some of this PR for budget/fiscal reasons, for exactly the “planetary research” reasons you noted. This could be a way to push for more Mars exploration money.

    Beyond that, arsenic substitution in other organic compounds, such as arsenic “sugars,” is already documented.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/12/bad-or-at-least-breathless-science-by.html

  116. Altadena

    NASA on the budgetary chopping block, launches a Madison Avenue restyled campaign for US tax dollars. Will US zombies awaken to this media propaganda? Now there is the headline and the Trillion dollar deficit question.

  117. dadsgal

    I love reading all these blogs, but it seems to me most of you think you know everything about E.T. You just keep your heads in the sand because the real truth is being hidden from you, your just a bunch of blind sheep.

  118. Very pc, you are golden. Not so pc, nasa has been working publicity stunts since its inception in ’58. It was an easy way to sell projects to tax payers during the cold war space race. Maybe they are seeking funds or maybe they are worried about getting scooped, the press method is a short cut to being the first. At least this approach is novel, discover alien life by creating it, a lot cheaper than going to mars.

  119. UPDATE : Yeah, it’s the Mono Lake arsenic microbes story.

    One that, in hindsight turned out to be even less impressive than it sounded with some fairly dodgy stuff involved if memory serves.

    The BA’s first post on the anouncement is linked to my name if anyone comes here and wants to check it out – or find :

    NASA’s real news: bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic! posted by the BA December 2nd, 2010 11:12 AM.

    with the follow up story of biologists criticising that hyped discovery’s research being :

    Arsenic and old Universe posted December 7th, 2010 1:58 PM.

    Just on the off-chance that someone stumbles on this thread again and is sorta curious to see how it concluded. :-)

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