Thursday, December 2, 2010

How I told everyone that science isn't interesting. And it's all NASA's fault.

"NASA will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. PST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," NASA said in a Wednesday statement. "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe."

In hindsight, we should have foreseen the use of these words would cause problems.

But I had no idea it would end with me telling people that an exciting new finding in Biology was, in effect, NOT "monumentally exciting".

How on earth did it come to this?!?

I mean, we'd just been through this a month before when NASA made a similarly intriguing pre-statement statement. That one was along the lines of (and I’m pretty clearly paraphrasing):

"NASA will hold a VERY IMPORTANT news conference in a week regarding an OBJECT IN SPACE which is NEAR THE EARTH.   Dot.   Dot.   Dot."

It is certainly understandable how the NASA community may have been surprised at how many people just assumed this announcement was going to be about an asteroid headed for Earth in the near future. I mean, they didn’t SAY that anywhere, did they? Why would anyone come to such a conclusion?

Then followed days of buzzing and breathless speculation which invariably involved talk of large astral bodies, 2012, both the year and the shite movie, and that really well-done clip from that show where you see the surface of the Earth dramatically vaporized after a ginormous moon-sized rock hits the planet.

Moments before the announcement, Facebook and Twitter had become Apocalypse Central, at least if you were to judge by the endless questions about who might survive if an asteroid were THIS big as opposed to THAT big.

Then the announcement came: For the first time, astronomers have identified a very new black hole in our galaxy, one only 30 years old and about 50 million light years away, which clearly has enormous potential for the study of the universe.

And once everyone learned that this black hole - which was, firstly and disappointingly, not an Earth-killing asteroid – hadn’t at least appeared between the Earth and the Moon, and thus would not lead to a different but also acceptable imminent and cinematic death, most people slumped away, apparently dejected that their doom had not yet come.

Some even shook their fists at those damn scientists, lying again!
Boo! No cataclysmic death! Refund!

So, not too surprisingly, this more recent press release – which really does have “alien life” or at least “alien microbes” written all over it – had a similar buzz around it.

Well, come today, a new crescendo of Alien Invasion starts bubbling through the net.  This time it's more of a joke (which I actually participated in, I'm not ashamed to say: I said NASA had sighted an alien invasion fleet).  Regardless of the play, I was curious in exactly what way the actual report would not be quite what it seemed.

This time, though, the story leaked hours before the press conference... or at least a partial and, somewhat garbled story as it appeared in Gizmodo - long before the actual announcement. (The original pre-announcement piece has been replaced)

It turned out that NASA had not found anything alien at all.  BUT... scientists had found a strange bacterium in a particular California lake, which I would never dip in because it contains a lot of arsenic.

This hardy bugger was apparently made - if you read the original rough cut article a bit too quickly - entirely of arsenic!   OK,ok, if not entirely made of the deadly element - also apparently the immediate cue for everyone to chime in with "old lace" - then at least it's made up of a whole lot of it.

Now, I'll tell you off the bat that the above paragraph is basically wrong.  But that's what got out there...

In fact - again if you had read this article, this time even not too quickly - it seemed the DNA, the instructions of life, of this microbe was completely different than anything ever seen before.  

This preceding paragraph is also wrong.

At the moment, I didn't know that for sure. However, this is where I (and many others) started to wonder if something was odd about this description of the findings.

I'm thinking it must have first annoyed the newsy people that there would be no "Aliens" even of the microbial type. But they were all hyped up for a jazzy article so...

Sigh...  Gizmodo, I really do like you, but...

Thing is, suddenly every other news source was, apparently, cribbing off of Gizmodo's not-quite-the-news article.

More bizarrely, the Guardian in the UK was somewhat confused, as they'd heard about the arsenic thing, but hadn't heard that it wasn't alien yet, so this is the picture they put up referring to the microbe "dripping with arsenic":

From our failed media experiment

Well, by the time this reached my Facebook page and even some emails to me (which, due to my not knowing anyone meant this had been around the block quite a few times), the following was apparently true:  
A new branch of life has been found.   Different building blocks of life.  Completely different DNA.  Must be a different origin of life.

Except... it isn't.  It was pretty clear that a particular detail was needed to establish if this was something just really interesting, or freaking huge.

I tweeted for anyone who might know about this new finding to give me a particular clue - since the NASA conference had still not happened.  And I got the clue: same genetic code and close relative of another known bacteria.

So not a new "branch" of life at all, but a particularly amazingly resourceful bacteria that is using arsenic in really creative ways to survive.   

Meanwhile the Facebook updates linking the Gizmodo article continued to pile on:



"Holy crap!"

"Dear NASA, I haven't been this let down since I served Milli Vanilli at a McDonald's Drive-thru [CUE FAMILY GUY FLASHBACK]"
(ok, he really wanted the alien invasion)

And I found... well, in retrospect, I'm ashamed.  But I couldn't help myself... I wanted to set the record straight.  I wanted to stop the roller coaster of misunderstanding as fast as I could.  I hit the Facebook update gun:
PEOPLE!!! This "new life" is neither Alien nor a new branch of life. It's a close relative to other known bacteria. Just works really AMAZINGLY hard to use arsenic
I even pulled an off-the-cuff analogy or two:
...same code, same spelling of many genes. The difference [in the DNA] is like we find a book written in English but using pages of plastic instead of paper. In this analogy, [DNA from a totally separate origin-of-life] would have used a different language altogether.
But then I finally said, a few different times in a few different ways, this:
This is a big deal, trust me.  But if it was new branch of life, it would be monumentally exciting.

This isn't that!
And then I stopped.  Stopped cold.

Here I am, someone who keeps trying to convince himself that one day he will be able to communicate science to people.  To get people interested, excited, not scared of science, or at least get people to understand a little.

And here were a bunch of different folks I knew who were showing amazement at something in science - and yes, the real jazzy part of why they were amazed was incorrect.

But here they were going "wow!" and here I was saying repeatedly, in essence:
"this is nothing interesting!"
Yeah.  There must have been a good way to have dealt with this, but I certainly didn't do it.


How did a bunch of shitely written not-really-news reports cause me to want everyone I know to un-excite themselves about something in science.  I mean it had to be done, but...

How on earth, as I asked in the beginning, did this come to pass?

[Now if you want to see good initial coverage of this whole thing, here's three that went up really quickly: Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait.]

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