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Aliens found on Earth? Er… no.

So, 24 hours ago, NASA made The Announcement, the announcement that had been kept secret for days, ever since NASA announced it would be making an announcement. The story was hidden behind a strict embargo (which, in the end, failed miserably because all it took to figure out The Big Secret was a determined Google search of the names and research projects of the members of the panel, something journalist Paul Sutherland did on his “Skymania” site, enabling to essentially figure the whole thing out)  but in the end the story was released early, so the press conference itself wasn’t the great reveal we’d all been worked up for.

So… what had NASA found? Had any of the wide-eyed, ET-crazed, speculation-devouring, conspiracy theory-loving bloggers and net citizens got it right? Had NASA found life in the methane lakes of Titan or beneath the UV-baked rocks of Mars? Um, no. Had they found bizarre alien life on Earth? Errr… No.

What HAD they found then?!?!?!

Basically, and please be aware that this is the mega-mega-mega-simplified version, they’d found a type of bacteria that uses arsenic, instead of phosphorous, to hold itself together.

Which is potentially big, Big news because every living thing on Earth needs phosphorous to, well, exist. It’s one of the building blocks, one of the very bricks of terrestrial life. So finding a critter that has substituted arsenic for phosphorous means that our narrow definition of life has now widened, and also means that our search for life “Out there” doesn’t have to be restricted to lifeforms exactly like the ones we know about already: there could be all kinds of weirdo stuff out there!

(If you want to read the actual scientific details – which I don’t have the time or patience or, to be honest, understanding of to put in this post, then you really should go to Emily Lakdawalla’s recent post on her blog for The Planetary Society where she lists and links to, the best reports on the story)

So, rather than go through the science of the story itself, I thought I’d look back at the actual press conference itself here, which was broadcast live on NASA TV.

It was quite a night, involving a panel of four scientists…

They were, from the left: Dr. Felise Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey; Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington; Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution; and Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Also taking part in the media conference, but on the phone, was James Elser, professor, Arizona State University.

Each of those people had a specific job on the night. Mary Voytek was there to act as moderator, and her task was basically to try and juggle keeping things calm with proudly, and justifiably, flying NASA’s flag. Mr Benner was there, by his own admission, to be a “curmudgeon” and if not argue against the claims being made, then caution everyone to calm down and be aware that there was a LOT of work left to do before any champagne could be opened. ( He looked very uncomfortable at times, I thought. ) Sitting on the far end, looking a bit lost I thought, Pamale Conrad was there to throw some light on what possible repercussions the discovery might have for NASA’s missions out into the solar system, specifically how it might help NASA look for, and find, extraterrestrial life, “out there”.

And then, sitting on the left, glowing quite serenely in the media spotlight, there was Dr Felise Wolfe-Simon, the astrobiologist who had led the team which had made the discovery which had threatened to break the internet and, it seemed, would now re-write the Book of Life…

If there was a star of the show, it was Felise. I must admit that when the NASA TV camera focussed on her for the first time, “Mr Judge a book by its cover” here assumed she’d be just another quiet, softly-spoken, embarrassed-to-be-there NASA scientist, dragged kicking and screaming from her lab and pushed on stage by her bosses to talk to the press and explain what she had done, and praise NASA for being so brilliant and wonderful -

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Like the singer on the TV talent show who walks on stage looking all pale and quiet who you think will be average, or worse, and then opens their mouth and a voice that could make angels cry comes out, Felise owned that stage. She was confident, at times even cocky, and didn’t look intimidated by her peers or boss at any time.

And when she described her work, and her discovery…boy, you could have heard a pin drop. She was so fluent, so passionate, so easy to listen to, I found myself quite hypnotised by her. I’m the first to admit that I find, and have always found, molecular biology about as exciting and interesting as watching slowed down film of paint drying. I know it fascinates and excites and inspires many, and there atre countless millions of people out there who are as fascinated by bacteria and DNA as I am by the crumbling cliffs of Mars or the seething surface of the Sun. But all those “bonds”, and “chains” and “links”, “partners” and “pairs”… I switch off whenever people start talking about them because they’re cold, heartless, and I find no beauty in that science, no sense of ‘epic’.

But Felise brought her subject, and her research, vividly to life in a way that only a very few people can. Carl Sagan could. Brian Cox can. Patrick Moore can. And while I’m not suggesting for a moment that she’s “the next Brian Cox”, or “the female Carl Sagan”, listening to her I did think that NASA has found itself a new ‘star’, and I found myself wishing she had a book out already, so I could read her beautiful language.

But was I the only one who got the impression that Felise might just possibly be seen by some of her older peers as a bit of a wild card? I don’t know. Some of the exchanges between her and Steven Benner were strained at best and tetchy at worst. Very interesting, that. ( But Benner, frankly, lost me when he started making those party decoration chains out steel and tin foil. Not his fault, mine entirely, but he’s never going to be a magician with tricks like that…)

The tone of the conference swung to and fro  between “Woo hoo!! Look what we found!! We’re BRILLIANT!!!! The world as we knew it has GONE! Tear up ALL the books! They’re all wrong!!!” and “Now hang on, hang on… this is interesting, but let’s not get carried away here, ok?” Which made for good, if confusing, TV.

At the end of the hour, what did we know, for sure? Well, we knew – if we didn’t know it already – that the whole “embargo thing” just doesn’t work now, especially in this Google Age when it’s easy for anyone with a basic understanding of science, and bit of patience and determination, to join-the-dots of a story and come up with the truth, or something pretty close to it. We also knew that NASA had Done It Again – put out a semi-cryptic press release that got everyone all fired up and aflame with fevered speculation and then the actual story turned out to be not so Earth-shattering after all. But to be fair, I guess they can’t win with that one; if they don’t let people know these things in advance they get accused of hiding or covering things up, so they’re on a hiding to nothing there, I don’t envy them. But I do think they could word these press releases a bit better, and make it clear through them what the announcement ISN’T going to be about, just so the waters aren’t too muddied by all the ill-informed or just plain bloody silly speculation.

And so, forgetting all the hype, all the chest-beating, banner-waving and over-optimism, the very bottom line, the absolute ground truth is that a team of very clever scientists, led by a very driven, very confident and very engaging scientist, has found something New, something Different. And any time something new and different is found, in any science, it opens all kinds of doors and leads to even more amazing discoveries further down the line, so this HAS to be a good thing. 

So, no, NASA hasn’t found life Out There. NASA hasn’t re-written all the text books. It’s a potentially very big breakthrough in biology, and astrobiology, but I got the impression last night that, well, not everyone is on Felise’s side, and I bet that even as I type these words there are other scientists or teams of scientists excitedly gearing up to criticise or attack this new discovery.

Interesting times… interesting times… :-)

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5 Responses

  1. “I bet that even as I type these words there are other scientists or teams of scientists excitedly gearing up to criticise or attack this new discovery.” Like a German microbiologist who thinks the paper is hugely flawed and the data presented so far utterly unconvincing. But then again Wolfe-Simon had already announced the next paper for coming February. Will this be a drawn-out (and ultimately inconclusive) affair like with ALH 84001? Here at least everyone can go to Mono Lake, catch some of these bacteria and feed them whatever one wants … :-)

  2. Nice analysis, Stu!

  3. Oh dear, here is an even more devastating critique of the paper by a Canadian microbiologist – I’d say: We space people should let this whole issue rest until the biochemists have fought it out among themselves whether anything was discovered at all …

  4. I had read an article or two about the discovery, but haven’t seen the news conference, so your summing up has been very interesting and enlightening, and has made me want to see it! I will have to see if there’s a copy of it on the Internet (maybe YouTube)

    Thanks!

  5. why do you kill instead of learning from them?

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