The science and space communities were abuzz yesterday when an essentially “non-news” item made the news — Mars Curiosity rover scientist John Grotzinger is excited about some findings that he can’t talk about, NPR reported.As the non-news made the rounds (even we couldn’t help taking part in the excitement) people started speculating — is it proof of life on Mars? That the red planet could have supported life? Or something even crazier?
Most in the know are trying not to get to hyped up, even starting a #curiositynews meme on twitter poking fun at the excited hoards. Why are they doubting the significance of this finding? NASA news has a history of getting over-hyped — we only have to go back two years to the last time they had us screaming “ALIENS!”
In 2010, NASA made a big to-do over findings to be published in the journal Science. They even sent out a press release to advertise for a press conference on what they called “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”
This finding turned out to be kind of blah — researchers found bacteria in Mono lake in California that grew in arsenic and even used it in their proteins instead of phosphorus, something most researchers thought to be impossible because the compound is poisonous to every cell we know of.This was exciting to scientists because that could mean life could evolve and grow in environments that are completely chemically different than those that fostered life here on Earth — which gave rise to us phosphorus-based lifeforms, hence the “astrobiology finding” and “evidence of extraterrestrial life.”
In the end though, many scientists had problems with the researchers’ methods and have pretty much totally debunked this super-hyped finding. Earlier this year, in July, Science published another set of articles on the “arsenic-life” bacteria.
The first found that the bacteria couldn’t actually live on arsenic alone — phosphorus was needed for the bacteria to grow. The other refuted the orginal claim that arsenic had replaced phosphorus in the cells’ biochemical processes.
Probably not aliens
We are reminded of this now, with the excessive hype surrounding a possible new finding from the Mars Curiosity rover that JPL scientist Grotzinger called “one for the history books.” Is this just an overexcited scientist, or something that us normal people would be excited for?
The first thing we know is that this excitement, which came from the NPR piece by Joe Palca, didn’t come through official NASA press channels — it came directly from the Curiosity researchers. Secondly, we need to remember that what excites scientists doesn’t necessarily spark amazement in the heart of everyone else (as you’ve probably experienced at a dinner party).
“As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” he wrote. That’s not to say he rules out the possibility of truly big news. “It won’t be earthshaking,” he said in a later phone call, “but it will be interesting.”
And as for the scoop the NPR reporter and HuffPo announced? “John was excited about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week,” Webster wrote. “He has been similarly excited by results at other points during the mission so far.”
As it stands we probably have a while to wait before we get to hear what this big news is, but we suggest letting out that breath you’ve been holding.
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