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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Debut of Science Nation


Science Nation is an online magazine produced by the National Science Foundation (USA). The first "issue" was published yesterday.

Before looking at it, let's see why this is happening.
In the National Science Foundation's Science Nation online magazine, we examine the breakthroughs, and the possibilities for new discoveries about our planet, our universe and ourselves: An artifical retina that can help the blind to see; new materials to build things bigger, better, lighter, and stronger; new ways to make our lives better without making the environment worse; and what we can learn from organisms that can live and thrive in frozen deserts or steaming-hot volcanic vents. Each week, Science Nation takes a dynamic, entertaining look at the research--and the researchers-- that will change our lives.
That's not very helpful. The motivation seems to be to promote NSF by reaching out directly to the general public—"The online magazine that's all about science for the people." I guess NSF wants to publicize work that it's funding. Maybe it wants to contribute to science education?

The first video is called Extremophile Hunter. It highlights the work of Richard Hoover who looks for bacteria that live in extremely cold environments. Hoover also believes that life may have originated in other planets and was brought to Earth on meteorites.
To test that theory, he cracks open so-called carbonaceous meteorites, which are the remains of cometary debris or water-bearing asteroids that have hit the Earth. Being careful to avoid contamination, he examines their insides with an electron microscope.

"They are older than the planet Earth, which is accepted at being 4.5 billion years old," said Hoover. "So I like to say these carbonaceous meteorites are actually older than dirt!"

Some of the structures he has imaged from these meteorites are intriguing, bearing striking similarities to bacteria here on Earth. Could these be the fossilized remains of extraterrestial life?

"I am convinced that what I am finding in the carbonaceous meteorites are in many cases biological in nature, and I think they are indigenous and not terrestrial contaminants," said Hoover.

It is a highly controversial interpretation.

"We have for a long time thought that all life, as we know it, originated on Earth. And there isn't any life anywhere else," he said. "That's an idea, it's a hypothesis, it's a totally unproven hypothesis."

Hoover hopes his work will help get at the truth, whatever that may be. And as interplanetary probes become more sophisticated, scientists may eventually turn up a biological sample for examination. Then we'll know if life out there looks anything like it does here.
The National Science Foundation goes on record supporting the idea that traces of extraterrestrial life have been detected in "so-called carbonaceous" meteorites that are older than the Earth. Yes, they admit that the idea is "controversial" but what message is being conveyed to the general public? Is it the message that the vast majority of scientists dismiss these "imaged structures" as artifacts?

I've been critical of science journalism for not doing a good job of reporting science. I've also been critical of scientists for not doing a good job of doing science properly—making the job of science journalists that much harder. Now we have a scientific funding agency taking on the role of science journalism. One might expect that the number one criterion of science journalism; namely, scientific accuracy, would be ensured. It's disappointing to see that scientific accuracy is the first casualty in the first episode of Science Nation. It was sacrificed on the alter of media hype.


  1. So, looking at the logo, you'd say the globe is half empty...

  2. Moran says: "Hunter also believes that life may have originated in other planets and was brought to Earth on meteorites."

    You mean "Hoover also believes..."

  3. John Hawks asks,

    So, looking at the logo, you'd say the globe is half empty...

    Yes. It could have, and should have, been full. Don't you think?