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December 3, 2010

The alien embargo and other follies

Filed under: Arsenic,Embargoes,science — Razib Khan @ 1:10 am

segA few people have asked me my opinion about the new paper in Science, A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. I wasn’t going to say anything without having read the paper. Now I have. Here’s the final paragraph:

We report the discovery of an unusual microbe, strain GFAJ-1, that exceptionally can vary the elemental composition of its basic biomolecules by substituting As for P. How arsenic insinuates itself into the structure of biomolecules is unclear, and the mechanisms by which such molecules operate are unknown.

Mr. Ed Yong and Mr. Carl Zimmer have reviewed all the salient points, so I have nothing to add there. I have to say that I agree with those who are skeptical of claims that this is an ‘arsenic-based life form’. My skepticism has been increasing all day, thanks to social networks which I’m a member of. Scientists on twitter are moderately critical, but there’s only so much you can say in 140 characters, even if you send several messages. People on Facebook are more elaborate and vociferous. In part because there’s no constraint, and in part because of the semi-private nature of Facebook.

The issue here isn’t with the paper so much, though there’s some of that. As there should be. Most science is arguably wrong. Rather, it’s the press response. You are likely aware of the Kottke triggered hysteria about alien life forms. Then it was taken down a notch, just a possible alien life form on earth. Perhaps the outcome of a different abiogenesis event, or an alien biochemistry. A “shadow biosphere.” It turns out it isn’t anything like that all. Rather, an extremophile which has very strange capabilities. There are some cosmic implications, but it’s pushing on the margins, not a game-changer. But many of the newspapers are trying to make lemonade out of the lemon, and pushing the envelope on grand implications in the headlines.

I was extremely excited when I saw Jason Kottke’s post, but checking in on twitter it was immediately evident that it wasn’t going to pan out. The way some people didn’t say anything, or the way they said certain things, made it pretty clear that it wasn’t going to be all that. You know who has embargo access, and you can do a little Kremlinology. It isn’t astrobiology.

To me the bizarre swell of hyperbole reminded me of the fanfare over the Segway in early 2001:

The invention, development, and financing of the Segway was the subject of a narrative nonfiction book, Code Name Ginger (in paperback as Reinventing the Wheel), by journalist Steve Kemper. The leak of information from that book led to rampant and hyperbolic speculation about the “IT” device prior to release. The speculation created an unexpected advance buzz about the then-unknown product that was, at times, hyperbolic. John Doerr speculated that it would be more important than the Internet…Bezos was quoted that “…Cities will be built around this device.” Articles were written in major publications speculating on it being a Stirling engine…South Park devoted an episode to making fun of the hype before the product was released.

I highly recommend Ivan Oransky’s take in terms of how the media distortions are exacerbated by the artificiality of embargoes. I ran into the weirdness of embargoes last spring. I knew the paper on the Neandertal admixture was set to come out weeks in advance. People had been whispering about the possibility, but the chatter got louder at conferences in the month before. And to give myself credit Svante Paabo had said some things in the fall which I found highly suspicious. So I simply set up a temporary Google Alert for the appropriate queries, under the assumption that a tabloid in an English-speaking country which was not the USA would break embargo. On the morning that the paper came out in Science a newspaper in Australia had already published their story. I linked to it, and then was accused of breaking embargo, because I had linked to a newspaper which had broken embargo. The whole process just seemed farcical to me in hindsight. But the system has been around for a while, and people are invested in it, so I guess it’s going to take its time expiring.

Image Credit: richardmasoner

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