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.