Martian Life? Not. Learning From a False Alarm

A few ill-chosen words led to an explosion of speculation — and that matters

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(Updated, Dec. 3, 2012, 1:55 PM)

O.K. folks, let’s take a deep, cleansing breath. In aaand out. Good. Now that we’ve all calmed down, it’s time to discuss Mars — rationally. As you surely heard, NASA was planning to present new findings  at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco today about new discoveries made by the Mars Curiosity rover. And as you surely heard, there was a lot of speculation that that news could be really, really big.

“Undisclosed Finding by Mars Rover Fuels Intrigue,” reported the New York Times. “Will NASA soon announce discovery of Martian fossils by Curiosity Rover?” asked Examiner.com. “A fossil? A monolith? Jimmy Hoffa? Mars rover finds … something,” offered the Fox News website.

(MORE: Rover Photos, from the Surface of Mars)

Here’s the buzz-killing reality: forget it. There are no humanoids, bunnies or even bacteria on Mars — at least not that we know of. The big news was that the rover is working perfectly, early scoops of the soil it’s collected are representative of the soil on much of Mars — which means they serves as reliable samples — and the chemistry of the planet is certainly complex enough to have once been home to life or even still be home to it. But we knew that already. Bigger news, if it comes, will take a while. “Curiosity’s middle name is patience and we’re all going to have to have a healthy dose of that,” said project scientist John Grotzinger.

But here’s the good news: if the storm the Mars rumor has kicked up indicates anything, it’s that people care — a lot — about this stuff. You wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at the public shrug the mention of NASA could elicit in recent years, and that’s not entirely unjustified. We’re coming off three decades of repetitive, round-and-round shuttle flights and 14 years of an International Space Station that does … well, what exactly? But then marvelous things happen — Curiosity sets its wheels down on the surface of Mars, Cassini swings through the rings of Saturn, Hubble sends home an image of some violent, violet nebula bigger and more distant than anything we could fathom — and the thrill is suddenly back.

(MORE: Shiny Fleck on Martian Surface! Why It Matters)

We’ve always had a powerful taste for the paradigm-shifting, reality-bending space discovery. We’re a peculiar, questing, deeply irrational species that will devote massive amounts of sweat and treasure to grand explorations that don’t do a single thing to keep us fed or warm or alive but make us exceedingly glad to be alive in the first place. The problem is, we’re also an impatient species, and too often we leap ahead of the progress our great projects have made, wanting the payoff now, the headlines now and missing the exquisite incrementalism that makes the journey possible. That was never more evident than last week.

The problem began with a story by NPR reporter Joe Palca, who visited JPL to interview Grotzinger. In the space world, Grotzinger is a very big get, a lead scientist for the last two rovers and the man whose team in 2004 nailed down the mineralogical evidence proving that water — a great, great deal of it — once flowed on Mars. During his talk with Palca, Grotzinger described findings that would soon be announced from soil and air analyses that Curiosity had been conducting.

“The science team is busily chewing away on [the information] as it comes down,” he said. “This data is going to be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

(MORE: Cosmic Old Faithful: Are There Geysers on Mars?)

That set it off. Think Mitt Romney wishes he never said “corporations are people”? Think Bill Clinton wishes he never said “I didn’t inhale”? Grotzinger must surely feel the same way about “one for the history books.” The frenzy got so bad that late last week JPL felt obliged to issue a settle-down press release. “Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect,” it read. “The instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.”

The confusion in this case is in how you define history. When you’re deep in the weeds of any arcane field, even the smallest developments can make huge differences. Baseball nuts pump their fists over a tiny uptick in a lead-off hitter’s on-base percentage, because that means a few more runs, a few more runs means a few more wins and a few more wins might mean making the playoffs instead of sitting home like last year. Political junkies who clicked on Nate Silver’s site a dozen times a day would do the same kind of thing, lying awake at night worrying about the difference between likely and unlikely voters in the 35-to-54 mid-Atlantic demographic because they knew it was on that little fulcrum that counties, then states, then whole elections can flip.

Something similar was going on with Grotzinger. What both the people who overreacted to his words and those who urged caution speculated was that Curiosity had detected methane, a byproduct of biological processes. But it may also be produced by geological interactions, accumulating in pockets below ground and then slowly outgassing to the surface. Still, if methane turns up in a scoop of soil or sniff of air, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that microbes may be present nearby, running through their metabolic cycle and producing waste gas the same way their cousins on Earth do.

(PHOTOS: Martian Vistas: A Look at the Curiosity Rover’s New Home)

It pays, however, for scientists to stay tight-lipped until they’ve nailed down their findings. As TIME reported when the chatter began, the first run of the rover’s chemical sensors turned up what seemed to be definitive evidence of methane, but that was before the engineers had run a complete purge cycle, expelling any trace of atmospheric gasses carried up from Earth. When a full cleansing was done, the methane evidence disappeared.

Whatever Grotzinger knew or suspected about his data at the time, he and NASA were surely not playing cute — using a term like history books to hype a small discovery just to build up public interest. That, after all, only led to public disappointment. Instead, he was probably indulging in a little verbal high-fiving, a mini celebration that might have been better shared with other scientists who understand the limitations of the finding.

“John was excited about the quality and range of information coming in from [Mars] during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office,” said JPL spokesman Guy Webster in an e-mail to TIME shortly after the comment was made. “As for ‘history books,’ the whole mission is for the history books.”

The lesson for JPL and NASA is straightforward: scientists should be circumspect when outsiders are present, and spokespeople should be ready to put out p.r. blazes the second they occur. The lesson for the rest of us is a bit harder: we need to grow up. It’s not just achieving a great scientific goal like finding extraterrestrial life that counts; it’s the extraordinary fact that we’re able to go looking for it at all. A 1 ton SUV-size car, stuffed with a fantastic suite of scientific instruments, is at this moment sitting on Mars. It drives where we tell it to drive, it runs the experiments we tell it to run.

There’s deep genius in building such an improbable machine and sending it across 154 million miles of void to the precise spot we wanted it to go. And there’s a different, subtler kind of genius to be found in anyone who chooses to follow the bit-at-a-time work the rover will do over the next two-plus years. The men and women of NASA aren’t the only ones allowed down in the weeds. We can all spend a little time there — and we’ll be better, smarter and scientifically wiser if we do.

PHOTOS: Window on Infinity: Pictures from Space

MORE: Live from Mars: The Curiosity Rover Lands

16 comments
Shipoopi
Shipoopi

More and more people connected to the space industry and military have been publicly stating there are exciting discoveries about Mars that have not yet been officially disclosed to the public. One theory as to why is that it protects jobs and ensures continued exploration by dragging things out as long as possible. But it's really disappointing. Most people know that there is life elsewhere in the universe, and most people would be THRILLED to know that there may have been life on Mars at one point. But politics and money always seems to control what happens here on earth. What a shame.

GabrielleRab
GabrielleRab

I disagree with the author that "The lesson for JPL and NASA is straightforward: scientists should be circumspect when outsiders are present". Rather, I think the lesson is that we need a more open and direct discourse between scientists and the public. Enthusiasm is not the problem, it's the media hype machine. Check out my recent post on sensationalist science reporting for more: http://incubator.rockefeller.edu/?p=559

CharlesBoyer
CharlesBoyer

As far as I am concerned, this is a stellar example of the media creating a story instead of waiting to find out what the facts were.

No one from NASA ever said that life had been discovered on Mars.  And to top that off, had the journalists who sensationalized rather than reported done any homework at all, they would have found that the Curiosity rover's instruments are not capable of identifying life anyway.

But by all means, blame NASA.  It only continues the folly of the media's error.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName 1 Like

A reporter is sitting in a project manager's office and a researcher comes in speaking as if the project manager is not alone.  By the lights of the project and science, what they are learning is certainly, "earthshaking" and "historic".

By the yardstick of the media, perhaps not so much.  But the media is who invented this "false alarm" in the first place.  Those who say it was a NASA ploy or publicity stunt are both ignorant of the facts surrounding the original story about the soon-to-be-released analysis of the data as well as ignoring the unprecedented science that Curiosity is, was and will be doing.  When listening to the scientific equivalent of "shop talk", reporters often get mistaken impressions of what more nuanced spokespeople can better translate for the non-technical public.

This is what happened in this case: A reporter overheard shop talk and ran with it, believing it to be something more than it was.

Given how the media circus went into full swing over shop-talk, and the walking back the spokespeople tried to do, I'm thinking that when they do find evidence of life on Mars, it will be announced in a small blurb at the end of a long, boring, technical dissertation that will put all but the most avid enthusiast asleep consisting of the words, "This confirms life on Mars."

That means only those who stay awake, pay attention and wait for the results will actually get a real story worth reporting.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

false alarm? No... more like bogus, PR gimmick alarm.

Ajee1111
Ajee1111 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@hmcse  Trillions?  Not even.  When you add all of NASA's total budgets throughout history from 1958-2012, it amounts to half of a trillion dollars total.  The 2013 US military budget alone equals half of a trillion dollars.  65 years of NASA budgets equals 1 year's worth of US military spending.  Not sure where NASA contributes to the destruction of human life.  The military does however; are you making a stand against that institution?

hmcse
hmcse like.author.displayName 1 Like

There's something strange about the trillions spent on the rather useless search for alien life in outer space when you consider the casual destruction of human life in clinics every few minutes all around this planet.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@hmcse 

Spaceflight is the future of your miserable species.... If humanity fails to leave Earth the species becomes a first order failure of waste.

Second you know jack diddly about what they are spending.... It is NOT Trillions but merely a couple billion and against the US budget it takes like .0007% of it.

So keep that poorly informed mouth closed next time because humanity leaves earth or dies a pathetic death.

Lefutur
Lefutur

@Hadrewsky @hmcse  I think both of you are off base. hmcse is wrong about NASA's budget and Hadrewsky's rationale for space exploration is misguided. Trillions of dollars SHOULD be used on cleaning up the one planet we actually have and making sure that it remains habitable.

EricssonAlan
EricssonAlan like.author.displayName 1 Like

The curiosity project is a high-budget and desperate experiment from Nasa - with one goal that has been neglected by the public - which is to get funds from the government. Over the years Nasa has been faced with deep government cuts in its budget, that's why they were so keen in dropping their international space station project, as it was highly expensive and very uninteresting in the public eyes. Now they have indulged us in another pointless guest in solving the greatest puzzle of all. Was Mars ever able to support life?  But that question has been answered quite often over the years. Mars is just to small to hold a thick atmosphere like on Earth; moreover it was completely stripped off its magnetic field at an early stage, which means whatever chance it may have had of supporting the tiniest bit of life was gone in its "infant" development. There was never bugs, or any organic life crawling on Mars. Even if you acknowledge Martian life to have existed at some point - the evidence for it cannot be simply found by a robot, it would take a bunch of geologists and people from different areas of expertise to figure out what was going on there in a distant past. The problem is that there's a lot of romance around space exploration while pragmatism is often pushed aside.

tholzel
tholzel

@EricssonAlan Intense solar radiation not shielded by a van Allan belt coupled with a 7mb atmospheric pressure (i.e., almost a vacuum), all topped off with a perchlorate surface, i.e., highly oxidizing.  And they're still looking for bugs?

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

That the news media can turn an off handed pretty much meaningless remark into a enormous boondoggle isn't a surprise, it's what they do.

The media these days is all about over hyping, innuendo and interpretation.

That, however, is on them, not John Grotzinger the Scientist.

And this article and it's essential triviality is a clear indication of how deep this problem actually runs.

NathanielBeversluis
NathanielBeversluis

Jeffery, most of us were calm all along out here. Take your deep breath if you need to but we're all learning to manage the media's histrionic disorders. These articles would be best addressed to your colleagues, not your readers.

BabuG.Ranganathan
BabuG.Ranganathan

ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH: Google this title to access article showinghow millions of tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars, and how debris we callasteroids and meteors could have originated from Earth. According to a Newsweekarticle of  September 21, 1998, p. 12 that quotes a NASA scientist, SEVENMILLION tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars! How could this be possible? Readand find out

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@BabuG.Ranganathan 

Your speculation while not impossible comes from a poorly made and inadequatly informed source that was written by a half-loony.

Panspermia is un undeniable theory to the propogation of life on earth.... however extraordinary proof requires extraordinary evidence and THAT simply has not been show to exist yet.

Sharpen thy mind to the driven of the world while remaining open to ideas... to suggest for certain an orgin whatever it may be should be done with reservation and doubt.... your excitement and ability to say "AHA THIS IS THE ONLY ANSWER!" is what defines you as semi-literate in regards to science with a cery long way to go.

saintseminole
saintseminole

Just a two cents' worth: It seemed to me that most of the "speculation" was in the media; not among average people. The people (non-media, non-NASA) who I talked to were very likely to say: "It's probably nothing." I didn't run into anyone who said: "Ooh! I bet they found life!"