Monday, April 28, 2014

Cover of Science, and a cover-up?

The 18 April issue of Science has a nice artist's rendering of the planet Kepler-186f, about which we recently blogged.  We pointed out how every time a new 'habitable'  planet is found by NASA, its PR machine makes sure the eager news media trumpet its dramatic news.  What could be better than a fake image (that is, an artist's rendering, totally imaginary) on the cover, a realistic not impressionistic painting.  Could one suggest that that is misleading?

April 18 cover of Science

On page 229, the blurb about the Cover, which repeats the painting, says that the discovery of Kepler-186f 'confirms' that Earth-sized planets exist around other stars.  Of course, we recently had some similar claims or 'confirmations' of something like 750 specifically-identified 'habitable' planets.  So what this actually confirms, a skeptic might allege, is that Science needs cover material.

To milk this even further, there is a Commentary about this major discovery.  So what does it say?  In a very nice figure, it lists three basic attributes that would be needed for this planet to be (as their heading says) a "Place Like Home".  Oh wait!  We left out a word!  The heading actually says "No" place like home!  This planet is of the right size, for those of us dreaming of going to a planet on which the various resort locations are within a Boeing 747's range for holiday package trips.  And it is in the temperature-defined 'habitable' zone, which means there could be water and hence beach resorts to go to.  But, sad to say, it is not orbiting a proper sun-like star!  No tans!

And, sad to say, even the authors of the Commentary raise several scenarios by which even this juicy find might be so spookily misbehaved in various ways as not to allow life as we know it (or, perhaps, even as Bella Lugosi knew it).  So, when you get right down to it....forget it!  But these caveats, well, they're rather buried under the covers of the evocative imagery.

Even the Commentary itself also says rather passively "Unfortunately, the planet is too far away from Earth for follow-up studies.  However, researchers hope it heralds many similar worlds soon to come."  Well, if NASA gets continued funds for this Hollywood-like exercise.  And is the very phrasing designed to lure gullible readers of Science (or of NASA releases) to think that next time--soon!, we'll find one we can visit?

In our recent post we guesstimated that if they're as common and easy to find as recent reports out of NASA suggest, then there must be billions of such planets in our galaxy alone, and many trillions of them out there in the universe.  A year or so ago we mused about what travel to r even communication with a closer (22 LtYr) planet would actually imply.

Worthy science doesn't need to be blared to the public in misleading ways. Because then it's not science, it's advertising or entertainment.


Manoj Samanta said...

"Because then it's not science, it's advertising or entertainment."

Funny you said that. I worked for NASA for several years and always heard the words - 'do something related to NASA mission'. However, everything was always quite volatile.

It took me some time to figure out what the real NASA mission was - entertainment. While there, our group published at least 15-20 papers in high-profile journals, but we never got any attention. Then one year after I left, they published that famous Arsenic-life study in Science. If they were so desperate for Science papers, they could easily publicize any of our papers. They did not, because ours were not as news-worthy (i.e. entertaining).

Ken Weiss said...

....and the Arsenic paper was immediately debunked!