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 “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