KSJ Tracker January 23, 2013

(Amended*) Old scotch, flaming goat cheese, life on Mars .. A few questions that these 'science' stories did not answer ....

  Yesterday morning, before discovering that our MIT website was downed by a hacker attack to honor some other now dead-by-suicide hacker I could not recall hearing of, an AP story caught my eye. It sent me on a wander through my vast trove of rss feeds that supposedly carry science, enviro, energy, and medical stories to find others that don't seem to have given the science its due. With the site back in halting action, cautiously we venture forward....

(*AMENDMENT (Jan 24): See comments below for clear evidence I should have learned a little more about internet and rss history, and about the tragedy and issues behind the attack on MIT, before so casually referring to that cyber-incident./ CP )

    The first story is a terrific yarn in itself:

   McGuirk, whose byline one notices on many of the wire's stories from Australia and its environs, apparently got himself to Scottbase, Antarctica - the historic site, mostly a shrine to Brits and Kiwis, is but a short stroll in warm boots from the US's McMurdo Station. Anything regarding Antarctica tends to go in the science bin. That's perhaps a tribute, if inadvertent, to the decades-long parade of mainly American science writers to McMurdo and Pole Station and other cool places on the ethically dodgy dime of the National Science Foundation that tends to pick up most if not all the cost of a reporter's visit to US bases including room, board, and seats on airplanes that can land on skis and on ships that roll like barrels through the roaring forties.

   Read it McGuirk's piece for its many charming details. In brief it relates discovery not long ago a treasure frozen into the icy turn beneath the floorboards of Shackleton's and Robert Falconer Scott's (among others) cabin. It is two wooden crates of scotch whisky procured by Ernest Shackleton (that's right, not whiskey, which is what bourbon and rye are) and that has been put back in its resting place. But a bottle or so went to Christchurch, NZ. There through the cork a syringe has taken from a tiny nip. The company that now runs the distillery analyzed it so as to recreate the recipe. Very cool. Very nice. But.... HOW DID THEY DO THAT?

   Mass spectrometry? Regular spectrometry? The story says nobody tasted it, so a whisky distiller's talented tongue is not involved. Just a sugar and alcohol assay? DNA analysis for traces of the grain's lineage? How? Is there Any way to be sure this is not just a publicity gimmick? I looked in Brit press, briefly, but found not info there, either. There must be a few professors of the distillation sciences - like perhaps in Edinburgh or Kentucky - who could speculate on what a few cc's of hootch have to say about the batch. (What ho! on Goggle - instant clue: try the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. And check the list of services at a US site called Distilling.com). If this is a science story somebody ought to have pursued the science part. The answers are out there. One can't blame McGuirk, his being in Antarctica and far from the chemists in Glasgow or wherever the work was done. But a phone call by somebody at AP might have turned up something.

   I thought perhaps the UK press has more detail. Perhaps it does, but the only piece I could find is in the Daily Mail by that paragon of journalistic robotry, the Daily Mail Reporter. It looks to be a rewrite of AP's account. But it has terrific pictures, including the one with this post. By the way, the news of the whisky's disover is more than two years old. It's the analysis that's new. Here an earlier story, from BBC.

Grist for the Mill: Antarctic Heritage Trust Press Release ;

  Here are two other pieces that I found on feeds at BBC set aside for science stories, and which lack at least one vital-to-me detail or similar key hole:

  • BBC - Norway goat cheese fire closes tunnel ; So, it says here, this truck (er, lorry) driver whilst traversing thelong Brattli Tunnel in northern Norway noticed his rig was on fire. There it was, 27 tons of Brunost in flames. The driver stopped and ran out. The story is short. It does explain that this sort of cheese is by nature highly flammable. The tunnel, one reads, is a smoldering mess that won't be easily fixed. Here's the question. It's not about science, it's about cheese supply. Twenty seven tons is a lot of goats' worth. How much Brunost cheese is now left for Norwegians to enjoy any time soon?
  • BBC - Mars: 'Strongest evidence' planet may have supported life, scientists say ; This is not a joke, it's a rather serious bit of bad terminology. One would think hard evidence for life would be something like worm casings, or at least a peculiar oxygen isotope ratio in something that looks sort of like once-living organic scruff. But what we get is the surmise by some geologists, and a good speculation it may be, that large meteors may on Mars have left pieces of deep rock scattered around, and that if analyzed they may carry sure signatures that aeons ago, miles down, life had evolved (may still be there). That's not evidence. It is a hypothesis that now needs some evidence so it might grow into observation, even a whole theory.  The problem, one must say, lies mainly in the headline. At Fox is a clip of a story under the same hed, featuring an interview by a Fox anchor woman with physicis Michio Kaku. It does not move the ball forward, does not it reveal any actual new evidence - merely a good place to go look for it amid the exposed strata in large craters.

I'd planned an even longer and more boring wander through recent science writings in the daily press, but gotta go fetch two grandsons from school....  Maybe take up the cudgels tomorrow and finish.





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