Lava on Mars: The Wrong Kind of Liquid?

28 May 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

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There's a lot riding on Mars' water. Currently, the search for extraterrestrial life rests almost entirely on the idea that liquid H2O once flowed on our now-dusty neighbour. So whenever science presents supporting evidence, we lap it up.

It's not hard to see why. Any sign of martian moisture feels like another step towards the discovery we're all waiting for. In other words: we care if it's there.

You'd think, in that case, that all (us) ardent marsophiles would be hungry for any news at all about the planet's aquatic past. But a recent example suggests that the scientific media might not share this view.

Lava, not Life

This month, a paper was published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research which drew some radical conclusions about water on Mars. In short, based on images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the author proposed that some of the planet's largest canyons - seen by most experts as evidence for flowing water - were in fact formed mostly by lava flows.

As you might expect, with its link to the life molecule, news of this study spread quickly. It made headlines. Two, to be precise. The paper was roundly ignored by science journalists; Science Daily and Phys.org ran articles, but elsewhere the silence was deafening.

There are a number of explanations for this. Most of them are mundane. But the meagre coverage this research attracted contrasts so sharply with the typical treatment of water-on-Mars studies, that I think it bears some scrutiny.

Ignored for a Reason?

So why was the lava paper overlooked? The most obvious answer - that the story wasn't interesting enough for editors - is also the least likely. Aside from the fact that giant extraterrestrial lava flows are (I mean come on!) eyeball-shatteringly cool, the research was also directly relevant to the search for life - perhaps the most eye-catching topic there is.

More plausible, perhaps, is that the story's failure to break was down to the journal which published the resarch. JVGR is highly regarded amongst the Earth Science community, but it's not widely read elsewhere. The study might not have been picked up by the media because the right people didn't know about it.

The internet, however, is not a discreet medium. Usually, if one network scoops some great new research, it's quickly scavenged by others. Science Direct and Phys.org are prominent websites, so the lava story was probably on the radar of other leading sites. That it didn't garner more attention, then, likely wasn't down to lack of exposure.

There's another possible explanation, though - one which, if true, could have worrying implications.

The Wrong Kind of Liquid?

Journalists, like most writers, love linearity. A good article, whatever its content, needs the thread of a linear theme to tie it together and keep readers hooked. And our exploration of Mars has the strongest one imaginable: there might be aliens.

Short of actually encountering something crawling, the most important step towards finding martian life, is finding water. It's the central thread of the life-on-Mars saga. And perhaps, for the biggest media outlets, it's an essential one.

The main conclusion of the JVGR paper was that there may have been less water at Mars' equator than was previously believed. Could the reason for its thin coverage be that it didn't fit the progressive narrative offered by studies which find the opposite?

That's not a rhetorical question, or in any way an accusation. I'm just wondering. My gut tells me (if that subject interests you at all) that if the study had contained just a single difference - instead presenting evidence for the existence of water on Mars - it would have stood a significantly better chance of making a front page or two.

Scratching the surface

If this research was indeed overlooked because it went against the flow of evidence from Mars (which is broadly "water-positive"), it would be a worrying reflection on how science is selected for public attention. If research is chosen based on the bottom-line conclusions the scientists make, then important findings risk slipping through the gaps.

The lava paper by no means suggested there was no water on Mars; it merely concluded that there may have been less of it in one particular place. The link to the search for life - that perhaps we should look elsewhere on the Red Planet in the future - wouldn't have required much digging. And, as a bonus, would have left the narrative nicely intact.


One Response to “Lava on Mars: The Wrong Kind of Liquid?”

  1. Paige Brown Reply | Permalink

    This is fascinating. I think you hit on a key potential news criteria in science, IE this "linearity" with previous coverage. But science journalists also traditionally like controversial or unexpected findings, so when does linearity trump these news factors? Why wouldn't science journalists see the lava flow paper as unexpected and cover it more? Perhaps because they suspect audiences wouldn't be as interested as if it were water being discovered? Or is it because like you said, the media has built up previous coverage on potential life on Mars, and this doesn't fit that narrative? I'd love to do an experiment on this.

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