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What really happened on November 20, the day that John Grotzinger looked up from the screen on his office desk as NPR was setting up to interview him, and announced that "one for the history books" was in the offing from the results coming in from Mars Science Laboratory's investigation of soil samples from Rocknest drift formation? Why did NASA have to walk it back?

Dr. Grotzinger is the scientist leading the team of teams of American Hero Scientists operating the rover and the laboratory it carries on Mars. Dr. Grotzinger's remarks to NPR became the center of a minor media firestorm. More details clarified the story at Monday's press conference and at NASA/JPL's presentation to the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco at the organization's Fall Conference.

Some have covered the AGU Fall Conference presentation focusing, as journalists too often do, on process, by finding fault with NASA's PR apparatus, like Rod Pyle, writing at Huffington Post.

NASA's PR machine could use a good oiling. They must stop being gun-shy because of the (now ancient history) Mars meteor debacle, when in 1996 it was announced (with Bill Clinton in attendance, no less) that a fossil had been found in a Martian meteorite collected in Antarctica. The theory was rapidly assailed by other scientists, and NASA had to suffer a retraction (though it is still open to debate whether it is a fossil or not). But seventeen years later this incident is largely forgotten; it's time to move on.
I have a totally different point of view than Mr. Pyle, based upon what I, as a non-scientist, believe is the way scientists think. My beliefs in this regard are rooted in a lifetime career as a litigation attorney involved in suing, defending, employing, consulting with and personally knowing many scientists.

Follow me out into the tall grass for more discussion of the Mars results so far.  

Other press outlets did no better than HuffPo. Oddly enough, so-called science reporters seem to miss the point that it isn't about the public relations process, it's about the science.

It seems pretty clear to me from NASA's public reports that the assays at Rocknest discovered at least one., previously undiscovered, organic molecule on Mars. An unresolved question remains whether the result may have been corrupted by carbon brought from Earth as an unintentional contaminant of the instruments.

. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds -- one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM's high sensitivity design.
Dr. Grotzinger's remarks to NPR were generally treated in the press as a poorly managed gaffe, but in my book, the best gaffes happen when someone inadvertently says what they really think. That is what Dr. G did. I believe that he is convinced the carbon in these results is of Martian origin. but he is a good enough scientist to withhold his final opinion until doubts have been fully resolved about the meaning of the data.

Dr. G was reacting to this when he was reviewing real time reports while being interviewed by NPR. He is a good scientist who will respect the views of team members who raise unresolved questions about results. One of the hallmarks of this project has been the science team's willingness to withhold results until they can announce unequivocal concusionds. Reading between the lines, it looks like Dr. G expects later results from the mission to vindicate his view that the carbon Curiosity is reporting did not come from Earth.

Thousands of tests remain to be performed by the Mars Science Laboratory, most of them at locations much more promising than the sand drift that has been investigated so far. There is much more science to be done by the extraordinarily and sensitive instruments that NASA is now operating on Mars. The fun on Mars is just beginning.

Originally posted to Kossacks on Mars on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 07:44 PM PST.

Also republished by Astro Kos and SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think you are exactly right (11+ / 0-)

    He spoke off the cuff, and they ran with it.

  •  Welllllll .... (4+ / 0-)

    ... it's not one for the history books if it turns out that the trace amount of carbon came along from Earth.

    "The Obama Administration has been an unmitigated disaster" - Osama Bin Laden

    by Explorer8939 on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 07:55:00 PM PST

  •  I Spent Most Of My Adult Life As A PR Hack (4+ / 0-)

    and/or marketing guy for folks that were in fact rocket scientist. I made a ton of money cause most days I had some clue what they were talking about. But honestly what they say has to be tempered to the public as a whole.

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 08:03:22 PM PST

  •  Anybody else get the feeling... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cacamp, Larsstephens, Simplify, Babsnc

    ...that there are two many damned government press offices?

  •  great diary, you make your case and do it well (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 08:33:02 PM PST

  •  Finding an organic molecule on Mars would not... (9+ / 0-) particularly surprising.

    As I pointed out in a diary in this space some time ago, radiotelescopes routinely record the presence of huge quantities of organic species, some of which are clearly either precursors, or actual, organic molecules essential to life.   More than 100 such molecules have been unambiguously identified.

    The History of Water, and Thus Life, In the Universe.

    In that diary I also discussed the Murchinson meteorite, which seems to give clear evidence of extraterrestrial chiral amino acids.

    Chloromethane or even chloroform or another halomethane would be especially unsurprising, since methane is a very common molecule in the extraterrestrial environment and because because chlorine is a very common atom, and finally because Mars has no appreciable UV filter, lacking as it does oxygen.    This creates free radical conditions.

    Also monochloromethane is a relatively heavy molecule, having a molecular weight (depending on the isotopic ratios of Cl-35 to Cl-37 on Mars) of approximately 50.    This means that it is heavier than CO2, a well known constituent of the Martian atmosphere, which is thus easily retained by the Martian atmosphere.

    I forget whether Martian carbon has an appreciably different isotopic ratio than terrestrial carbon, the latter containing about 1.1% C-13.  (I suspect it doesn't)   I don't know the mass resolution of the mass spec on Curiosity, but if it is sufficient, this should give a clear indication of the source of any carbon.

    (I discussed universal differences in carbon isotope fractions in another diary here:  Stellar Evolution Measured on Earth: Clues from Ti-44 "Nuclear Fossils"

    It is possible that Mars, because of the evolution of its atmosphere is different from Earth's might have a different isotopic signature:  This would be possible if there were a flux of carbon out of the Martian atmosphere into space (via ionization or other mechanisms such as volatilization) that would tend to enrich C-13.   But I'm merely speculating.   I could, I suppose, look it up, but I haven't done so.

    It is widely understood however that carbon ratios vary on an interstellar scale, but I'm not sure whether they do in this solar system:   Hydrogen does, but only because of profound isotopic effects that exist between deuterium and protium.

    However, we should note that methane itself is very light, lighter than nitrogen, which has not been retained in the martian atmosphere.   Methane is clearly a precursor of chloromethane.   It is difficult to imagine that methane remained on Mars for more than a few hundreds of millions of years, if even that long.

    •  "Species!" NNadir said that scientists discovered (0+ / 0-)

      many new species in space!!

      Didn't that Darwin guy discover new species on those islands somewhere?

      There IS life in outer space!!!


      Have you noticed?
      Politicians who promise LESS government
      only deliver BAD government.

      by jjohnjj on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 03:24:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I managed to piss everyone off by criticizing NASA (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, Delta Overdue, gof

    in your last diary...and I'll probably do it a little bit again this time.

    I accept your point that good scientists should be careful in announcing their results. But, I've worked for government labs and know that while the scientists often believe the whole enterprise exists solely for them and their work, there is another side to how the organization communicates about data to the public and how it provides value. Raw science, by itself, is not quite enough.

    My main concern is that NASA hurt itself with sloppy communication on this. The problem here was that if Grotzinger was going to be the careful scientist, ideally, he should have contained his enthusiam. Now, I know things happen, people get excited, and etc. But, then, after this happened, I think they over-corrected and walked this claim back to the point where it sounded like there was nothing at all to report. Now, when it turns out there actually are some pretty interesting results, I feel like NASA is giving the public whiplash: Getting super excited, super unexcited, and then super meh. I would have felt better if Grotzinger had blurted out an excited statement for him to just stick with it and say the results still needed to be confirmed. Instead, I think they managed to overdo the reactions to this in just about every case they could. So, that leads me to the central point I made last time: Whenever possible, let the PR people speak to the press rather than having scientist do impromptu interviews.

    But, despite all of this, I'm still very excited about the possibilities of what I think NASA may find on this mission.

    Just doing my part to piss off right wing nuts, one smart ass comment at a time.

    by tekno2600 on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 10:30:30 PM PST

  •  I heard the initial announcement, but missed the (0+ / 0-)

    walk-back.  I hope your analysis proves correct!

    "Slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property. Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person." David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World

    by Delta Overdue on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 11:38:07 PM PST

  •  Bad journalism. Sigh. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the bigger the outlet the less informative the discussion.

    And, on an unrelated note, if I ever meet the NPR producer who decided their news department should beat the meaningless cliche " fiscal cliff " into the ground, I will personally strangle him. Or her.

    Thump! Bang. Whack-boing. It's dub!

    by dadadata on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 03:10:51 AM PST

  •  If NASA announces that life has been discovered (0+ / 0-)

    on Mars, they can count on vandalism and attacks from religious zealots who will claim they are "spitting in Gods face" or some such nonsense. Westboro Church, anyone?

    Send conservatives to for re-education.

    by filthyLiberalDOTcom on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 06:38:12 AM PST

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