To read certain media, you would think that all outer-space exploration is exclusively a search for extraterrestrial life. In fact it's distressing to see what I think may actually be the majority of popular news articles covering advancements in astronomy and other space science, addressing it primarily in terms of what the ramifications are for the chance of life in outer space. It makes me want to say, come on! Searching for aliens is not what scientists or astronomers are doing, almost ever. It's silly and even embarrassing for the writers and scientists involved to pretend that that's the primary focus of scientific research.
I'm not entirely sure who's to blame for this habitual misrepresentation. It could be the journalists, who are either misunderstanding the scientific research, or else purposefully skewing their articles with science-fiction-esque headlines and subjects in order to catch more public interest and attention (that is, to move papers). Alternatively, it could be certain scientists, who willingly pitch their stories in a way that to artificially excite writers and editors, and thereby generate more ink for their research and funding projects. Or, of course, it could be some combination of all these motivations.
A typical example occurred in March 2002, when NASA made an announcement that its Odyssey explorer had detected hydrogen on Mars, which by all accounts stands as very good evidence that there is underground water on that planet. On March 1st, Headline News anchor Stephen Frazier reported during the evening news that "scientists say that this bolsters the theory that life once existed on that planet". Later, the BBC News also reported that "the discovery enhances the belief that Mars could have had life in the past and perhaps in the present as well" (here). However, from what I can tell, there were never any scientists involved in the actual study who could be quoted as actually saying anything about possible life on Mars. The article on CNN.com from March 1st was rather comical, in that it asserted that scientists were excited at the prospect of water suggesting life, and then backed it up with this non sequitor professor William Boynton: "It's really because we need to understand what happened to all the water that made these canyons and where that water went." (This article was removed from the CNN.com site. I have yet to completely survey the actual researchers' report in the May 30th issue of Science magazine to see if any mention of extraterrestrial life was in fact ever made.)
It's an interesting phenomenon that this research in early 2002 generated headlines like "Ice reservoirs found on Mars" (here) and "Big floods on Mars in recent past" (here). Interesting, because only two years earlier in 2000, pictures of certain degraded gully formations spawned news stories informing us that there was "Evidence of Water on Mars" (here), and that "Visual evidence suggests water springs on Mars" (here). Then again, four years before that, in 1996, an article could be written about certain crater features entitled "Water on Mars: Is water everywhere?" (here). Martian water, it seems from the headlines, is being consistently and regularly discovered anew.
Let's take another example. In August of 1996 a real sensation occurred when it was publicly announced that scientists at NASA had come to believe that they had evidence for life on Mars. This was, of course, repeated in almost every major news outlet at the time, and in fact splashy articles continued to be written as it were a new event up until at least 2000. The chain of reasoning was as follows: (a) a meteorite picked up in Antarctica in 1984 (12 years earlier) had (b) chemical configurations which seemed compatible with what Mars' geographic composition should be like, and (c) also had a series of magnetite crystals in them, which (d) looked something like the waste product of certain earthly bacteria. A fairly delicate series of connections, I would think, but the headlines produced were generally along the lines of "Compelling Evidence of Mars Life" (for example, here).
An odd coincidence is that at the same time as this discovery was made by certain scientists (in mid-1996), a special panel of the National Science Foundation just happened to be visiting and reviewing the research stations in Antarctica near where the meteorite had been discovered, and evaluating how much their funding should be continued (their report, published in early 1997, is available here). More recently, other researchers published a report which seems to give "definitive evidence" that the crystals in question had to be naturally occurring, and produced on Earth (as reported here). However, I was personally unable to find any mainstream news source which carried this announcement in the same high profile with which the original theory was publicized.
Yet more examples:
- A release in June 2001 from SETI (the Search for Intelligent Life Institute) made the following guess about Jupiter's moons: (a) there are some indications that Jupiter's moons could have subsurface oceans, and (b) if such oceans existed, it's possible that they could have stores of oxygen in them, and (c) if oxygen did exist, then hypothetically there could be microbes (or imaginably other organisms), which (d) would need to use some unknown means to extract and use the non-gaseous oxygen (since Earthly photosynthesis would definitely be impossible under the ice covers). What was the headline on CNN.com? A non-ambiguous "Report: Jupiter's moons possess food for life", with a first sentence that refers to feeding "hordes of creatures" (here).
- In September 2001, a group of Hungarian scientists claimed to see evidence for life on Mars in the cycles of dark spots on the surface, precisely in the same places where a dry ice cover is known to freeze and evaporate throughout the year (here). They also managed to claim that "this could be the first evidence on life on Mars," even though it seems like evidence pops up on at least a seasonal basis, according to mainstream news sources. Not surprisingly, a later report which got much less attention noted that "the Hungarian report is riddled with glaring scientific errors" (here).
- In February 2002, technical news site Slashdot.org pointed out a related hydrogen-on-Mars (and hence, likely water) research story under the headline "Clues to Life?" (here). However, one of the linked news stories quote the geologists in question mentioning "life" in passing only one single time, in regards to possible future research (here), and in another referenced news article that's not part of the story at all (here).
- In another example of Slashdot.org hype, a July 2002 header on the European Overwhelmingly Large Telescope asserts that it would be used "to determine the atmospheric composition and any signatures for life, like oxygen" (here). In truth, none of four externally linked informational sites on the project mentioned extraterrestrial life at any time -- particularly not the extensive concept study and use-proposal for the project (here).
- Another article at CNN.com on August 27, 2002 (the day I happened to finish writing this essay!), had the headline "Air test suggests life possible on Mars" (here), which might make one think the test was done on Martian air. But actually, the test was just a simulation at the University of Arkansas of the materials believed to be in Martian air and soil, finding that methanogens (organisms not appearing on Earth's surface) did not die off when released in those conditions.
There are all kinds of interesting things to learn about in outer space, but so far, extraterrestrial life is definitely not one of them. The next time you see a mainstream news story about any aspect of space science, watch closely and see if they don't spin it as if it was advancing the search for alien life forms. And if you happen to work in a news department anywhere, please, I implore you, help put an end to this foolishness the next time it tries to cross your desk!
Additional references added as they occur:
- CNN.com, September 18, 2002 (here): A research team in Rome used a 32-meter radio telescope to detect water maser emissions from planets orbiting distant stars. The first paragraph of the article, of course, reminds us that water is "a necessary ingredient for life". In a nod to conservatism, it notes that "Having water does not mean other planets will be teeming with life but if the discovery is confirmed it will fuel speculation that it could be possible... Hugh Jones, of Liverpool John Moores University, said it could be an exciting first step in the search for signs of life on other planets." A first step which, perhaps, would need to get in line behind the preceding host of first steps.
- BBC News, October 1, 2002 (here): New mathematical calculations at NASA are required to support the possibility that some of the farthest, ice-covered moons in the solar system might possibly contain liquid water inside. Several such moons are cited (of course, which of the outermost moons aren't covered in ice?) So, of course, this leads to the internal headline of "Life everywhere?".
- The Scotsman (news from Scotland), October 11, 2002 (here): 25 light-years away, the star Fomalhaut wobbles slightly due to gravitational forces. This could possibly be the pull of a planet like the gas-giant Saturn orbiting the star (not that we can see it). If so, then maybe there are smaller rocky planets like Earth or Mars in the same system (not that we have any evidence of those at all). If that were the case, then maybe it's conceivable that there is life on one of those unseen, hypothetical planets (albeit there's zero evidence of that). Resulting headline? "New planet's trail could signal life in space."
- Houston Chronicle, October 14, 2002 (here): Venus is "a barren inferno where surface temperatures approach 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmosphere is composed of metal-eating acids", but if researchers find dark patches in photos of the planet, and evidence of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide, what's the conclusion? You guessed it -- "Life on Venus may be microbe clouds".
- New York Times, February 20, 2003 (p. A25): Yet another analysis of gullies on Mars theorizes again that they might possibly have been produced by water at some previous time. A single quote from one biologist considers, "If life ever existed on Mars, I can think of no places where it would be more interesting to look". But the headline trumpets, "Photos Bolster Idea of Water, and Possibly Life, on Mars".