Thursday, 9 December 2010

NASA – Intentional Disappointment?

Unusual Microbes
On December 2nd, 2010, NASA was due to make an announcement 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.”

Some of you may have read my previous article 'NASA - Announcement - Possible Proof of Life Out There?', which I wrote shortly prior to the news conference.

Of course, there was a great deal of speculation going on. It seemed that NASA finally had something potentially incredible to tell us. I, like no-doubt many others around the globe, tuned in on-line to their announcement as it came through. Part of me was sceptical of how major the discovery would be, since we've heard so many things in the past that turned out to be nothing. However, part of me was also fascinated and hopeful that it could be something momentous.

It turned out that the magnificent discovery was a form of microbial life found here on earth, that uses a different element (arsenic) for one part of its basic structure, where up till now it was thought only phosphorous was used, as it is with other life on Earth.

Not only was this their big announcement, but already many experts are questioning that NASA's results are accurate, and dubious about their methods of testing.

Oddly enough, it fits in with one of the possibilities I suggested “The recently discovered Mexican 'Cueva de los Cristales' (Cave of Crystals).” and, “...there is speculation that it could result in the finding of independently evolved forms of life in its isolated unique environment. This could impact studies of astrobiology...” I got the location wrong, but in general, my least optimistic theory turned out to be correct.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, part of the NASA presentation team
It all begs a few questions, though... Undoubtedly NASA knew what speculation the wording of their news conference would spark. I'm sure you would agree, they're not stupid. So they worded something that would clearly give out the wrong signals, then made an announcement that, while I'm sure it is fascinating to the world of microbiologists, is hardly the kind of revelation to the rest of us that the news conference announcement implied. A simple quantifier would have sufficed, without giving anything away, surely? The mention of it being something microbial on earth, perhaps?

One of the original co-authors of the paper on the discovery, stated this in reply to the sceptical scientists: "Science works in a certain way. It's resistant to change," he said. "But if you look qualitatively at our data, it's compelling. They may prove us wrong, or they may reproduce the results and find new stuff... It's the way the process works." A fair statement, but with a viewpoint like that, implying that they're not even 100% sure they're correct and that their data is replicable themselves, why was such an event set up to reveal the findings? Why would they announce it this way? It makes you wonder... Perhaps they are fanning the flames for more funding? Obama has made plenty of absurd cuts to NASA's budget recently, but surely they would realise that the disappointing scale of their final announcement would in turn undermine that effort.

When all is said and done, we can speculate endlessly and get nowhere. The only real thing we know, is that any genuine search for extraterrestrial life will continue pretty much as it did before, without missing a beat...

(To read a different and extremely good discussion on the subject, try giving this blog a go: “Dear NASA... We like the Super-Tough Microbes, Yes, But...” )

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