Welcome to the science roller coaster. More loops and inversions than any other philosophical theme-park attraction and guaranteed to make you dizzy.
I won’t review the hype. If you’ve been living on Earth for the past week, you’ll already know how the world’s date with NASA started in a low-cut dress and mini skirt, but ended with a stoic hand shake and a pained smile. Speculation of life on Titan shifted to misrepresentations of evidence supporting a shadow biosphere on Earth, to be quickly replaced by a challenge to the defining elements of biochemistry, only to end with a shrug as the previously exciting results sustain cracks under closer scrutiny.
There’s no shortage of discussion on the topic on various science blogs, bulletin boards and the Twitter stream, with emotions running wild as lovers of science are left with the academic equivalent of blue balls.
What happened? Nothing, really. Or a lot. Depending on your angle.
On one front, it is science as usual. NASA funded the study of a species of an extremophile bacteria which might reveal something about how life can be sustained in environment we would normally consider hostile, thereby possibly broadening the range of extraterrestrial habitats worth investigating. The research came back promising, although the method was found to be too messy for such a revolutionary conclusion to be taken for granted. In time somebody will try again, modifying the method to close the gaps, and either give the thumbs up or will admit they failed to replicate the previous results.
This sort of thing happens every single day in science. It just doesn’t make ripples outside of select tribes of researchers.
NASA’s media division would have to have been pretty daft to have not predicted the impact an embargoed whisper featuring astrobiology would have had on the the public. Of course, this is how people imagine science works – a punctuated equilibrium of discovery, where an odd electromagnetic signal or a peculiar chemical reaction constitutes a revolutionary ‘Eureka!’ moment. On the back of this fantastic view of science, all it takes is a subtle suggestion for the excitement to spread.
Will the community have learned a valuable lesson here on how science really works? I doubt it. Rather, I foresee cynicism and decreased confidence in scientists. It’s hard enough explaining to people that science is a plodding process where ‘wow!’ moments are best appreciated with years of hindsight, and not in the first five minutes of a curious anomaly.
People like the thrill of scientific discovery and innovation. They have done ever since the industrial revolution gave them cheaper socks and fatter pigs. And in a competition for attention, there’s no use in sitting back and asking for the patience it deserves.