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Archive for January, 2009

(Hi guys, I’m back! Sorry for the long hiatus. I missed you!)

This story has been all over the news: NASA found distinct plumes of methane gas oozing out of certain areas on Mars, like swamp gas or a burp. This means one of two things: either Mars is still geologically active, and not a cold dead has-been of a rock as previously suspected; or there is (or was) something living beneath the surface, eating or producing methane.

This is especially cool because it’s the first time they’ve cited something other than long-ago water as evidence of life. In fact, regardless of whether it’s geology or biology producing the methane, this probably means there are underground aquifers. When we finally send people to Mars, they can dig wells!

A brief window into the world of science journalism…

This story went crazy in the press (the Knight Science Journalism Tracker links to 26 distinct stories and one press release, which is more ink on a single topic than I’ve ever seen on that site), which isn’t surprising–but that’s not how I found out about it. My classmate Lizzie came to class at 8 am yesterday and said, “Lisa, did you hear they found life on Mars?” She had heard about it in an article in The Sun, a British tabloid. I was flabbergasted–how could I have missed something like that!–but couldn’t find any more reliable info.

Turns out that Sun reporter broke the rules. The paper detailing the results was published in Science, which has a strict embargo system. Once a paper is accepted to Science, the researchers aren’t allowed to talk to the press, and no one is allowed to publish a story on it until the instant the paper goes out. But if someone breaks the embargo and publishes early, the story is free game.

In this case, the embargo was supposed to lift at 2 in the afternoon yesterday, January 15. The Sun story came out well before then, but Science decided it didn’t count. They sent out an email to their list of registered science writers saying:

“It has come to our attention that The Sun tabloid has published a teaser-type article that speculates about a forthcoming NASA press briefing, apparently based solely upon a NASA press invitation to that event. The writer of this article is not registered with us, and his report in fact provides little scientific information. It does not reference Science, and it appears to be a purely speculative narrative….In the interests of supporting excellence in science communications, we urge all registered journalists in good standing to adhere to the Science embargo-release time, and refrain from validating this unfortunate tabloid teaser. Thank you for communicating science.”

So there you have it: Tabloids are not news.

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