“I’m sorry if they are disappointed.”
That’s how Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, actually responded to a USA Today reporter at a press conference today, in response to a question about how doggone annoyed newspaper readers and internet users were that NASA didn’t discover a giant space alien, but only a measly microbe that can live on arsenic alone, a finding that blows apart our definition of Life and could help us find aliens in the future.
She had to remind everyone, half sheepishly, half Kindergarten-teacher, near the end of an hour-long press conference, that “that there are lots of people … that see this as a huge finding.” The exchange is here, at 4.55:
Where Are Our Aliens
The announcement, and the wild speculation it generated ahead of time, underscored just how excited the public is about science – provided that science involves Eureka-type discoveries of space aliens, likely using robots or machines that could swallow the Earth in a black hole. Blame may lie with the blog editors and owners reporting on that kind of science. They may argue that they’re only following public taste, but they’re also probably not talking about science. Science would be, as an excited Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the NASA astrobiology research fellow who led the research, said meant “thinking about life… and asking questions, simple questions, with simple experimental design.”
NASA also isn’t faultless. The agency’s valiant but unsatisfying efforts at educating the public about what they do seem to have gotten lost somewhere between debates about the need for the space agency, confusion over its mission, and a public that’s more interested in new Earths and aliens than in elusive molecules or weather patterns.
It’s that audience that NASA may have had in mind when it wrote that tantalizing email on Monday. It began,
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.
See, there’s your problem right there, NASA: use the words “evidence of extraterrestrial life” in the first paragraph of your email (“you” being the world’s leading space agency, which never officially talks like Agent Mulder), and you are going to send a million thumbs a Tweeting and RTing all around the black hole of the Internet.
This problem – aiming to excite an over-stimulated public by sensationalizing science – isn’t new for NASA either. When the head of the NASA / Harvard Origins of Life project gushed about finding Earth-like planets at a TED talk in Oxford, the Web went crazy over the prospects of making contact with E.T. or simply finding a new escape pod for humanity. The first problem was that those planets haven’t been found yet. And when they are found, as they likely will be, and then verified, that won’t mean we’ve found anything like oceans or an atmosphere at all.
"We [scientists] like to err on the side of caution," John Geary, one of the Kepler co-investigators based at Harvard, told Motherboard on the phone back then. "Too often people get carried away and announce things that don't hold up in the end, and it gives everybody a black eye. Things like cold fusion had an enormous splash in all kinds of media several years ago. It's never been shown to have actually occurred."