On science blogs this week: Backpedal

LIFE ON MARS? CURIOSITY DATA FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS? DO I DETECT ARSENIC? This is looking more and more like another NASA PR fiasco. Remember the arsenic bacteria from two years ago?

This new brouhaha began last week with a Joe Palca piece on NPR that was mostly about how scientists have to check and double-check their work before releasing findings. But the piece also reported a NASA scientist talking about new findings from the Curiosity rover that is analyzing soil samples on Mars. He declined to share specifics with Joe, but said, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Well. Gotta be evidence of Life on Mars, right? Or at least evidence of Past Life on Mars.

Or maybe Daleks on Mars?

Credit: io9

Credit: io9

It appears not. NASA is now saying that we are misconstruing the meaning of the scientist's comment. He was not talking about a specific finding, he was really saying that Curiosity's whole mission is a very big deal. Organics have not, repeat not been discovered on Mars.

Charlie Petit describes the Palca piece and its aftermath at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. Robert Gonzalez describes the backpedaling at io9, but also offers a defense of sorts for scientists who get so excited about their work that they want passionately to share it with others, plus a mea culpa for a previous intemperate post. At NASA Watch, Keith Cowling has a good laugh, although he's also disgusted that NASA let the circus go on for so long.

They could have put this all to bed last week and avoided all of the needless arm waving, speculation, and stories on the evening news.

It seems we'll have to wait until a press conference at the American Geophysical Union meeting, scheduled for Monday at 9 a.m. Pacific time, to find out whether there really is hot news about Mars, organic or otherwise, or whether the week-long flap is yet another case of NASA public communications gone awry.

In the arsenic case, you'll recall, NASA PR generated the flap on its own by issuing a press release heavy with hints about possible alien life implied by the new findings. (Which new findings, you'll also recall, turned out to be erroneous.) This time, it seems that the PR sin was not moving fast enough to quash unwarranted rumors.

At MainlyMartian, Oliver Morton says he's surprised that lots of organics haven't already been found on Mars, considering that thousands of tons of organics rain down on the planet from outside sources every year. Finding organics

would be a signal accomplishment. But in the absence of organic molecules that look suspiciously lifelike it would say nothing in itself about the likelihood of life. We don't assume that organics on meteorites mean that the asteroid belt is teeming with life.

At In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe guesses that if Curiosity has found organics, they will be polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or some other complex abiotic organics. Like Morton, he's doubtful that organics found on the Martian surface will signal life. If there was — or is — life on Mars, the evidence is likely deep down. Lowe also points out that we have the chauvinistic idea that materials for life are rare, precious, and found only here on Earth. Not true. Organic chemistry is going on all over the solar system.

Oh, and there is, apparently, water ice on Mercury. A bit unlikely for a place with a surface temp of 800 degrees F. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who recently moved his blog from Discover to Slate, explains all.

Winter dunes on Mars. Bright spots are frost. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Winter dunes on Mars. Bright spots are frost. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

HOW TO SEND MILLIONS OF PEOPLE TO MARS. Curiosity and other rovers better get busy, because Mars won't be pristine and uncontaminated for long. If Elon Musk has his way, soon we'll be shipping 80,000 people per year to a Martian colony — along with their associated microbes (trillions per person), and no doubt their dogs and cats and all pet-resident fauna as well. How can this massive colonization of Mars be accomplished? According to PopSci, reusable rockets.

Meanwhile, paleoanthropologist John Hawks is glad that talk of Martian colonies is in the air because he's writing a piece about constraints on human colonization of space. I'm eager to see it, but I can't help thinking that such a piece will also put constraints on writers of science fiction — or at least constraints on the so-called "hard" SF that focuses on real science

THE GENE THAT MAKES US HUMAN. OR NOT. I haven't checked on how the MSM handled the recent open access paper from Nature Communications. That's the one about the evolution of an epigenetic process that so far has been found only in the human line — and in, among other body parts, the human brain. But a a few bloggers did a really terrible job, and it's my duty to help others hang them up by their thumbs.

John Timmer, of course, did not do a terrible job because he never does. See his Ars Technica take, where he explains clearly what the gene is and where it came from. The study set out to identify microRNAs unique to humans, microRNAs being short sequences that either destroy messenger RNA or otherwise keep it from being translated into a protein. Thus miRNAs control the making of gene products, and individual miRNAs can regulate several genes. This particular miRNA, miR-941, appears to have come into existence after the human line split off from the ape line that led to chimpanzees. That would be sometime between 6 million and 1 million years ago.

I guess the writer at Geekosystem thought it would be funny to describe the finding thus, "Although we’re still waiting for researchers to find the gene that would allow apes to become super-intelligent and overthrow mankind, this is probably a good start." The writer's name is said to be Glen Tickle, and given the embarrassing job he did even though he was only rewriting a press release, I'm inclined to believe this risible name is actually a pseudonym. Tickle's take may not be entirely his fault, though. The handout from the University of Edinburgh — and the lead researcher quoted therein — overstated the findings too.

Another post about miR-941 triggered fulmination from Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True. This post apparently ran in Medical Daily, but I have to take Coyne's word for it, because I can't get the page to load. I hope that means the Medical Daily folks are so ashamed that they're not taking calls. Coyne quotes the piece as saying the researchers

attribute the split of humanity from apes to the gene miR-941. They say that the gene played an integral role in human development and contributed to humans’ ability to use tools and learn languages...

Which, of course, they didn't. Coyne says he is willing to bet thousands of dollars that miR-941 will turn out not to be a crucial contributor to the differences between humans and chimps.

The researchers did speculate that the gene might be involved in lifespan. But, like Coyne, John Hawks is skeptical that miR-941 has a big impact on the human phenotype. The fact that it influences many genes, he says, makes it unlikely that miR-941 produces a single major effect.