E.T. life? The truth will be out there

Henry Bortman

Astrobiology researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon works with samples at California’s Mono Lake.

Wouldn’t you know it? As soon as this item was published, Science lifted its embargo on the research. For posterity’s sake, here’s what I wrote. The NASA news conference is still on for 2 p.m. ET:

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After days of speculation about an as-yet-unspecified development in the “search for evidence of extraterrestrial life,” NASA does the big reveal at 2 p.m. ET today — and you can watch it unfold in real time via streaming video and Twitter.

Depending on which story you read, the announcement is being advanced as big news “that changes everything,” or a scientific report that’s “probably not too interesting to most laypeople.” I have to be careful here because I’m among the hundreds of journalists who know what it’s all about but have been sworn to secrecy for a couple of hours more.

I’ll just note that one of the people in charge of keeping the secret, Ginger Pinholster of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has observed that some of the reports out there are “comically erroneous.” It’s a safe bet that the research being published in the journal Science is not about the discovery of extraterrestrial life itself. Not even Pinholster could keep that secret under wraps.

It’s also a safe bet that the research has to do with biochemistry that involves arsenic, which is toxic to life as we know it. That’s because one of the featured speakers at the NASA news conference is Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a research at the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent years studying organisms in California’s arsenic-rich Mono Lake. Numerous reports have said her research relates to “life as we don’t know it.” The big question is just how far down that road Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues have gone.

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After the 2 p.m. announcement, there will surely be a debate over how the announcement and the pre-announcement were handled. There might even be a wider-angle debate over how the scientific process handles cosmic questions, such as “Is there life beyond Earth?” Heck, the debate has already begun: Check out Curtis Brainard’s excellent roundup for The Observatory at Columbia Journalism Review.

Brainard, by the way, says that the revelation is “an interesting piece of research, but certainly not one that is bound to make the front page, or perhaps any page.” I’m not quite that jaded about the Science study, but we’ll see how it plays in the next few hours. In the meantime, here’s a background reading list:

* Six mind-blowing ideas, starting with ‘weird life’ * Search for ‘alien life’ could start on Earth * Strange find on Titan sparks chatter about life * What to do if we find alien life

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URL: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/12/02/5567143-et-life-the-truth-will-be-out-there

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