Saturday, December 4, 2010

NASA, Arsenic and Cthulhu

NASA, we need to have a talk.

Listen, I know you’ve had a pretty good run so far. That whole Apollo program? That was great.  It might be the coolest thing any government has ever done, when taken in full. I mean, you combined the following elements:

  • Rockets
  • Fighter pilots
  • Space suits
  • Good old American know-how
  • Sticking it to the communists
  • Parachutes
  • Atmospheric re-entry
  • Harmless jingoism

And you put them on the moon. Even Apollo 13 rocked, and it almost blew up not even halfway there. I’m not here to question your expertise at accomplishing cool shit.

But NASA. Guys. You really have to be better about how you announce your new discoveries.

Let’s take this one, previewed last month:

“Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have found evidence of the youngest black hole known to exist in our cosmic neighborhood. The 30-year-old black hole provides a unique opportunity to watch this type of object develop from infancy.”

I’ve bolded the problem in that press release. Space is really, really big. You and I know that “cosmic neighborhood” could mean a lot of things. In this case, said black hole is 50 million light years away, which is far enough that it won’t, say, suck the Earth into its event horizon, thereby ending all life as we know it and bringing on the apocalypse. You and I know that.

Journalists don’t know that, guys! I know! I used to be one. When it comes to science, we can be selectively quite stupid. We see some loaded term like “black hole” and we have visions of screaming headlines in eighty-point font. Or … would have visions of screaming headlines in eighty-point font, if newspapers could afford to print something that big anymore. Which they can’t. A paper I worked for once had me write an “advertorial” for a used-car lot, which is several steps away from Woodward and Bernstein-type stuff. They’re hurting for money, is what I’m saying.

We can always put the headlines on the internet, though. You still have to worry about it.

So, when you put out another press release worded thusly:

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”

Well, you can just imagine what comes to mind! Aliens, guys. Everyone thought it was aliens. For my own part, I figured it was either a single-celled organism on a moon of Jupiter, microbes in the ice caps of Mars, or the dark lord Cthulhu, come out of the void-pits of an elder galaxy to claim the Earth as his billion-year feast.


The first two would have been cool, if a bit underwhelming, while Cthulhu would have been cool, if a bit of an inducement to claw out your eyes. Either way: aliens!

Instead, it turned out that the discovery was of a type of microbe that uses arsenic instead of phosphorous as one of its fundamental building blocks – which is really cool news. It rearranges our understanding of the nature of life, will provoke a number of new research angles, and will allow us to expand our search for extraterrestrial life. That’s where the astrobiology angle comes in.

A discovery like this shouldn’t be a disappointment. It should be a celebration! The story seems like it was more about what wasn’t discovered rather than what was.

Next time, guys, leave astrobiology out of it. You don’t have to cater to the stupids, but you don’t have to get their hopes up …

…or MINE. Do you REALIZE how long I’ve been praying for Cthulhu to show up? Just last week, I sacrificed five … well, it’s not important to publish WHAT I sacrificed, but the point is, they weren’t easy to acquire, and the cleanup was just beastly. I saw your press release, and I figured my prayers were answered. No longer would I have to carve Cthulhu’s holy symbol on the small of my back, or perform daily rituals in a language that most humans can’t pronounce (the surgery on my tongue was absurdly expensive). Finally, my dark lord would arrive, and I’d be able to spend eternity in the glorious, maddening embrace of his ten million stomachs.

But no. Fucking arsenic microbes. Big Cthulhu-damned deal. I’m going to go spend some time alone in my secret Cthulhu shrine. The moon’s going to be dark tomorrow, and I need to summon some eldritch horrors. Thanks a whole lot, NASA.

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