KSJ Tracker November 9, 2012

A new super-Earth that could be habitable? Or not.

Artist's conception of HD 40307g

"By taking a fresh look at old data, an international team of astronomers has discovered a possible new super-Earth planet relatively nearby that could potentially hold liquid water, scientists said Wednesday."

So writes Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times. But she quickly suggests we shouldn't get too excited about this discovery. In the second graf, she writes that the finding "drew some praise even as other experts in the field eyed the results with caution." Two-thirds of the way through the piece, she writes, "The finding has yet to be confirmed by other analysis or observations. Not everyone is convinced this particular planet exists."

The "finding," if indeed anything was found, is interesting not only because it's a potentially interesting planet, but because researchers used a new technique on old data to find it--and it's always a good story in science when somebody finds hidden value in dusty old data. Khan gives the researchers their due, but then talks to several others who express considerable skepticism. That's the way the story should be told.

She also reports that some of the researchers reporting this discovery of the new planet, called HD 40307g, were involved in "a flurry of quarreling papers in the astronomical community" in 2009, concerning controversial reports of other new planets. 

Other reporters, however, seemed to forget that it's customary to run these sorts of things past outside researchers, to get other views on the validity and significance of the new findings. Many of those stories did not include comments from other researchers--and thus missed the substantial controversy over the findings and the history of quarreling among some of the researchers.

Tanya Lewis at Science News wrote a short story talking to one of the authors of the new paper without any hint that the finding is controversial or that some think HD 40307g might not exist. Mike Wall of Space.com did the same thing. So did Adam Mann at Wired. And so did the BBC, in an unbylined story.

The study has been accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and the stories apparently originated from press releases issued by the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Hertfordshire, and possibly others. 

Dan Vergano of USA Today was one of the few who made the extra calls. He talked to two researchers who were reasonably bullish about the discovery. Consequently, his story is more optimistic than Khan's piece at the Los Angeles Times, but that's fine. Both of them did what reporters are supposed to do without exception: Check out what you've been told.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy wrote a commentary on the finding; he's an astronomer, and that's what he does. He read the paper and concluded that the data looked pretty good. Even so, he was careful to note that this is an unconfirmed planet candidate. You'll get more detail from Plait than from any of the other stories.

I was disappointed he didn't enlighten us on the history of quarrelling among some of these scientists. That kind of thing adds a human element to science. An enterprising science writer might want to look into this and pitch a story on it; I suspect there is a good piece waiting to be written here.

-Paul Raeburn


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