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Monday, October 26, 2020

Discovery that indicated possibility of extra-terrestrial life attacked by group of astrobiologists

In a statement that is now being lampooned by other scientists, the astrobiology commission of IAU has expressed concern at some media outlets apparently reporting that evidence of life on Venus had been found, and has blamed the researchers for it.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune | Updated: October 8, 2020 3:37:56 pm
An international team of astronomers had announced in September about the discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus. (NASA/File Photo)

The announcement of discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus, which had generated major excitement three weeks ago because it indicated the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, seems to have annoyed a section of astrobiologists at the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the global professional body of astronomers.

In a statement that is now being lampooned by other scientists, the astrobiology commission of IAU has expressed concern at some media outlets apparently reporting that evidence of life on Venus had been found, and has blamed the researchers for it. Astrobiology is the branch of science that studies the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

“It is an ethical duty for any scientist to communicate with the media and the public with great scientific rigour and to be careful not to overstate any interpretation which will be irretrievably picked up by the press and generate great public attention in the case of life beyond Earth. The way results about phosphine were reported led some news organizations to report that evidence for life in Venus was found,” the statement, issued on October 5, said.

“The Commission understands that such a reaction by the press would reflect high interest in astrobiology research by the public. Such a report, however, misleads the public, and might be harmful to the advancement of astrobiology research,” it said.

“Finally, the Commission would like to remind the relevant researchers that we need to understand how the press and the media behave, before communicating with them. It is quite important for any researcher to keep a good relationship with the press since they have great power to disseminate our research results to the public. We, researchers, should provide the press with sufficient background information so that they can report our research outcomes as faithfully and scientifically as possible,” the statement reads.

The statement also cites one previous similar research finding, of possible indication of micro-fossils in a Martian meteorite in 1996, as another example of a discovery that had generated lots of discussion but was never proved.

Interestingly, even the IAU does not agree with the statement issued by one of its own commissions.

Express Explained: Life on Venus? The significance of the latest discovery by astronomers

“This is not a statement from the IAU but from a small group of scientists in Commission F3 (the astrobiology commission). We do not agree with its content,” said Lars Lindberg Christensen, the media contact for IAU, in an email response to The Indian Express.

Several other scientists have been ridiculing the statement. “It’s unheard of for an IAU commission to comment on a particular result like this,” wrote Chris Lintott, a professor of astrophysics at the Oxford University in a rebuttal he put out on Twitter.

He also pointed out that the statement did not provide any instance of wrong reporting in the media. “And if it’s the news organisations that are to blame, why are we issuing statements criticizing the researchers? The idea that the public need to be protected from seeing science in progress is nonsense. They are excited by the unknown, just as we are, and deserve the chance to speculate, think, and – yes – be disappointed just as the esteemed leadership of Commission F3 can be,” he wrote.

Dibyendu Nandi of IISER Kolkata, himself a member of IAU, said the commission had no business trying to police the researchers or their interaction with the media.

“This stinks of professional jealousy and quick hatchet job by some office-bearers of the Astrobiology Commission who perhaps did not even formally seek IAU’s consent before shooting off that statement. I think they would soon be made to eat their words,” Nandi told The Indian Express.

On September 14, a group of international astronomers had announced that they had discovered the presence of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus. Their results had been published in Nature Astronomy.

Phosphine, a colourless but smelly gas, is known to be produced in nature only in biological processes, by some species of bacteria that survive in the absence of oxygen. There are some other ways in which this chemical might also be produced, for example in the underbelly of some volcanoes or in meteorite activity, but that would resulted in much lower concentrations of phospine than what the researchers found in the atmosphere of Venus, approximately 20 parts per billion, which was thousands to millions of times more than what could otherwise have been expected.

That had triggered huge excitement about the possibility of biological processes happening in Venus, and by extension, the possibility of life outside Earth. The researchers themselves, however, had been cautious to repeatedly emphasise that phosphine in itself did not mean that there were life forms on Venus, and that many more investigations needed to be carried out. In fact, the discovery was made in 2017 and the announcement came only three years later, because researchers were trying to checking and rechecking their data.

At that time, Nandi had described this result as the most credible evidence, yet, for the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

“In the search of extra-terrestrial life, this is the biggest finding, no doubt. Of course, this cannot be taken to mean that there is indeed life on Venus, or anywhere else, but if you are a scientist looking for life forms on other planets, I think this is your first real breakthrough,” Nandi had said.

Don’t miss from Explained: What discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus means

Professor Sara Seager of the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was one of the researchers involved in the study, herself said no more than that the detection of phosphine had raised Venus “higher up on the ladder of interesting targets” where the possible presence of life forms can be explored.

Somak Raychaudhuri, director of Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), had said the finding had a greater significance than the discovery of water on some extra-terrestrial surface.

“I would personally not classify this discovery in the same league as the discovery of the first planet, or the recent confirmation of the gravitational waves, for example, but it also certainly not as insipid as some signal of water molecule being found on some planet. In fact, in that way, it is bigger than evidence for water. Water is only circumstantially related to life. It is not produced by life. Phosphine is produced by biological processes. So this is significant no doubt, and nothing like this has been discovered till now,” he said.

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