Category Archives: headlines

The Science Behind the Press Release

Every morning I receive the most up-to-the-minute NASA press releases. Being an astrobiologist, I got particularly excited when the press release headline read:

NASA’s Kepler Confirms Its First Planet In Habitable Zone

I immediately posted to Facebook that we had found an earth-like planet in habitable zone and that this was the beginning of host of such discoveries.

However, by the end of the day, my mailbox was full of analyses from my research group about how this planet was a little too big to be an Earth twin and since it was also a little closer to the star, it was probably more like a Venus twin, and that we didn’t know the cloud cover or composition so making claims about habitability was really premature. And so on.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, my colleagues and I are heaving a collective heavy sigh because we are all a little tired of the press releases that promise such amazing discoveries, that, in the end, turn out to be not quite what we were looking for. While Kepler-22B is the closest thing yet, I’m thinking of the dust-up around the unconfirmed (and likely nonexistent) Gliese 581 g, but there have been others in the extrasolar planetary science community.

The funny bit? On closer reading of the press release, the researchers are very clear that they did not find an Earth-like planet, only a planet that was nearly the size of the Earth in the habitable zone.  They make no claims about habitability, only stating, as Kepler program scientist Douglas Hudgins did, that “this is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.”

But who reads the press release in detail? I certainly didn’t and I immediately told Facebook, my friends, and my doctor that Kepler had just discovered its first Earth-like planet in habitable zone. Because I am enthusiastic like that.

I am also pretty sure the general public didn’t read the press release. And, judging by a list of recent headlines…

New planet Kepler22b could already be inhabited with lifeform

US military pays SETI to check Kepler22b for aliens

Newly discovered planet ‘Kepler22b‘ is eerily similar to Earth, NASA says 

…the bloggers and the press didn’t either.

But the “press release as scientific dissemination tool” is a growing phenomenon, especially when communicating science to the general public. NASA, to its credit,  has very solid press releases that are based on scientific evidence, recent images, or published papers or proceedings. But often, there is also a layer of enthusiasm that cynics would call “hype”. Why? Because the scientists are very excited about what they find, especially if it is new or controversial.

A nearly ancient example, from my students’ perspective, is the findings by David McKay and his team of evidence for ancient life in the martian meteorite ALH84001. To be sure, this was a published and solid peer-reviewed piece of scientific work by McKay and his co-authors. They had discovered three pieces of evidence indicated the possibility that microbial life had inhabited the rock. They outlined their methods and findings in a peer-reviewed journal, and invited the scientific community to weigh in on the issue.

The real problem? The press conference was announced by The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and his address was so full of hyperbole they used some of it for the announcement that SETI had found evidence for an intelligent signal from space in the movie Contact.

The NASA press conference announcing arsenic loving bacteria is a more recent example. NASA followed the same pattern of presenting scientific results from peer-reviewed work, even going so far as to dedicate nearly half of the press conference to a scientist who didn’t believe the conclusions of the authors. But, again, the hyperbole of the press release caused a backlash from scientists condemning the work, and the authors, for shoddy science.

Not that such condemnation shouldn’t take place. I have received some bitter rebuttals to some of my published work, but those have come in the form of referees’ comments or, more commonly, new papers that dispassionately refute my findings. Such is the way of science.

But the press release deluge piped directly into an eager blogosphere is creating a climate where even scientists forget that peer review for publication is but the first thin veneer of scientific review. Papers, even bad ones, even ones that contain shoddy lab work or crummy models, get published. They should get published. How else is the scientific community going to get a crack at tearing them apart or building up supporting evidence?

This idea that publication is the first and last line of scientific review even leads people I respect, like Joel Salatin, to condemn scientific studies as containing the biases of the researchers and, thus, should not be trusted.  Of course scientific studies are biased by the ideas of the researchers. Of course they should not be trusted. That is why they invented journal clubs for grad students, where we learn to tear apart peer-reviewed and published scientific papers for the utter dreck that most of them are. I only need to go back and read a small collection of my own work to find cringe-worthy errors that have later been pointed out to me after publication in a peer reviewed journal. To my credit, we’ve published a fair number of our our such rebuttals. What goes around comes around.

But I know why my fellow scientists get so outraged when a press release results in news stories that mislead the public. We have one of the least scientifically literate populations on the planet and the really funny part is this: most of them read a lot of science news! My students eat up space related stories on the web. My dentist, after recounting an accurate analysis of special relativity he’d read about online, went on to tell me how Einstein’s ideas proved that you could invent the universe just by thinking about it.

What should we do about this? We have a primed engine, in the form of public relations officers, who routinely write accurate press releases for NASA and other university research groups. We have a skilled scientific community who are not interested in misleading anyone, let alone the public. And, I believe, we have a talented press corp and nascent group of science bloggers who are intelligent, thorough, and interested in communicating the wonders of science to the world.

And yet half of my students think the space shuttle (still) routinely visits the Moon and the other half believe we never put men on the Moon in the first place.

But at least they are pretty sure there is an Earth-like twin orbiting a sun-like star in the galaxy. And someday we might actually find it.

Two Utah Astronomers tangentially acquainted to Physics Nobel laureate

(Note: This is in honor of – and with all due respect to – the winners of this year’s 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.  This really was a special time to watch the supernovae data come down as researchers diligently pushed observations to larger and larger red-shifts.  Still, I just couldn’t resist given the current WriteScience prompt of “headlines”!)

OGDEN, UT – In a surprise outpouring of residual honor, two Utah astronomers received recognition last week for being co-located at the same university as Dr. Adam Riess while he conducted his award-winning research that lead to his sharing of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Weber State University Associate Professor John Armstrong, a classically trained astronomer, graduated from the University of Washington and worked closely with team members there whose offices were next to where Dr. Riess and colleagues performed some of the research that led to the award.

Another Utah astrophysicist, Dr. Stacy Palen, also an Associate Professor at Weber State University, frequently attended lunch meetings with Dr. Riess’s colleague Professor Chris Stubbs, now at Harvard.

The two Weber State University professors learned of their honor after being contacted over FM frequencies by the National Public Radio station KUER, broadcasting from Salt Lake City, Utah last Tuesday.

“It is a real honor to be recognized as someone who worked with someone who worked closely with a Nobel laureate,” said Dr. Armstrong.  “At 39 years of age, I am not the youngest person to have worked near Dr. Riess, but it is an honor to achieve this much before I am 40.”

“The work that went into watching researchers observe that our universe is not only expanding but accelerating was immense,” said Dr. Palen, “I truly feel part of the scientific process.”

The significance of those accomplishments are not lost on Dr. Armstrong.  “We’ve known the Universe is expanding since Hubble’s earliest observations,” he said, referring to Edwin Hubble’s pioneering work measuring the recession rates of galaxies, “but to learn that the recession rate is accelerating is truly unexpected.  It is one of the most surprising observations of the last few decades.”

“Such accomplishments literally force us to re-write the astronomy textbooks,” said Dr. Palen, “And I do mean literally.  I just finished re-writing mine.”

Both Drs. Palen and Armstrong recall several seminars on the topic of cosmology, many attended by Dr. Riess and his colleagues.  “Little did I know, at the time, of our contribution to this important effort,” reflected Dr. Armstrong.

Dr. Riess was part of the High-z Supernova team, created in 1994 by Brian P. Schmidt, then a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, and Nicholas B. Suntzeff of Cerro Tololo Inter-American University in Chile.  Dr. Riess and colleagues went on to form the Higher-z Supernova Team, eventually securing the observations that led to the award.

Dr. Riess, now a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, shares the award with Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University.  Dr. Palen and Dr. Armstrong share no affiliation with the co-awardees, according to sources.

Horatio Allen Tibbets of the Cloudy Mountain National Observatory in Utah could not be reached for comment.

Faster than Light Neutrinos: Star Trek or Phantom of the OPERA?

by Shane L. Larson, reporting for WSNN (Write Science News Network)

If media reports are to be believed, scientific circles were turned on their heads last week when a team of scientists involved with the European Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced they had possibly detected neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light.  If the result is true, it would challenge one of the fundamental tenets of modern physics first set down by Albert Einstein in 1905: the speed of light is the ultimate speed in the Universe.

The scientific experiment, known as OPERA, is located in the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in central Italy.  A beam of sub-atomic particles, known as neutrinos, are generated at the LHC in Geneva, and directed toward Gran Sasso, 455 miles away. “Neutrinos are one of the sixteen different particles that make up all of matter and describe all the forces of nature,” explained physicist Horatio Allen Tibbets of the Cloudy Mountain National Observatory in Utah.  “There are three different kinds of neutrinos, and they spontaneously change from one kind into another when they travel over long distances.  That’s what the team was trying to measure.”

But during routine analysis of the experimental output, the team of scientists made an unexpected discovery.  “Their data suggests that the neutrinos are arriving about 50 nanoseconds — that’s 50 billionths of a second — too soon.  If they were racing a laser beam, they’d beat the laser to Gran Sasso by about 50 feet,” said Tibbets.  “If it’s true, it will be an extraordinary result.”  No experiment in the past 106 years has ever detected a signal travelling faster than light.  “The OPERA team did exactly what they should have done,” said Tibbets. “They alerted the scientific community to their result, and now we are all digging into it.”

When asked whether or not the scientific community believes the result, Tibbets replied, “We don’t know what to believe at the moment, because there is a lot of double checking that now has to be done.  The most worrisome possibility is what scientists call ‘systematic errors.’ ”  When an experiment gives an anomalous result, often the cause is due to flaws or imperfections in the experiment that shift the answer away from the true result.  “For example, maybe the clocks they are using to time the neutrino flight aren’t quite ticking at the same rate,” said Tibbets, “or maybe the ruler used to measure the distance to Gran Sasso was a little bit longer than we thought it was, so when it was laid end to end the distance was larger than the true distance. These are the kinds of imperfections in our technique that have to be understood before we can confidently say the neutrinos are flying faster than light.”

“Teams all over the world are trying to verify the result using their own equipment, and mathematical and computational physicists are doing calculations and simulations to try and explain what is going on,” said Tibbets.

“This is how science works, this is how science moves forward and discovers new things.  We look at the world, and when faced with a conundrum or mystery, there are three possibilities: we’ve done something wrong, our previous understanding of Nature is incomplete or flawed in some way, or we’ve discovered something new.”  Any of these possibilities thrills Tibbets and his colleagues.  “Right now we don’t know which possibility we are facing, but one thing is true: we’re going to learn something we didn’t know before!  Either about the experiment, or about Nature.  We win in both cases.”

NOTE: This was, of course, the obvious thing to write about this week.  I was going to write about graphene or cuperate superconductors, but I keep getting asked about this.  I also must confess that I stole the “Phantom of the OPERA” bit of the title from a seminar title I saw about this topic.  🙂

September’s prompt: “headlines”

This is it!  A new academic year, and a new series of prompts.  Let’s begin this month with “headlines.”  This is derived out of Shane’s demonstration of writing an efficient piece that would work as a newspaper article.  So, while there are no rules, I think we should score extra points for general readability and low word count, say 500-750 words.  Pick a headline or topic and see how to really make it meaningful.  Double extra bonus points for those who can make it especially engaging, although I think this is a given goal for this group.