immortality sells and apparently so do aliens

No, we haven't found life 25,000 light years away, just one sugar molecule that could be used by living things.

alien cell

At least this seems to be the logic over the the Daily Galaxy, the blog that turns virtually anything scientists say or discover into a sensation that could revolutionize our view of the universe, make us immortal, or put to rest some complex problem in biology or cosmology. This time, the Galaxy is trumpeting that one remote corner of the universe was found to contain “the chemistry set for life” as we know it. But believe it or not, we’ve got a few snags with this story. First off, the remote corner of the universe in question is introduced thusly…

Others have been looking farther afield. Much farther afield. Twenty-five thousand light years afield, in fact, which is a bit more afield than the human brain can actually picture without popping, and in the far flung locale of HMC G31.41+0.31.

Hold on a second. Our universe is estimated to be around 156 billion light years and our remote reaches of the cosmos are a whole 25,000 light years away? Clearly, the author does not understand the definition of the word “remote” on an astronomical scale. An object located about 10 billion light years away is remote. A star forming region within your own galaxy is considered to be in your backyard. If the human brain will explode in an attempt to visualize something in our astronomical vicinity, what would happen if we try to conceive of how far away a really remote object would be? Oh and that supposed chemistry kit of life…

In this case, a European team of scientists have identified the simple sugar glycolaldehyde from its infra-red emissions. Glycolaldehyde (CH2OHCHO might not sound terribly vital to you, but it’s kind of important. Together with propenal it can make ribose, which is used to make ribonucleic acid, which is used to make deoxyribonucleic acid, which is used to make you.

Ok, good summary. The chemistry of RNA and DNA is more complicated than that but the basics seem to be right so far. But um… where’s the rest of the living chemistry kit? That’s all we have? Just the sugar molecule? Don’t get me wrong, being able to find interstellar sugar that could become part of a recipe to create genetic material on an alien planet is no small feat. However it’s a wee bit short of an alien assembly kit. Oh and did I mention that this was news in November 2008 when the actual observation was made? And should we also point out that the first observation of interstellar sugar molecules was in 2000 around the galactic center? Or that the paper accompanying the discovery made no mention of how it could be used by alien life?

Now, I know that the Galaxy gets a good deal of grief on this blog. So what if they published a year old story on a sensationalistic note that overstates the actual scientific context by a factor of a hundred? Who cares? They just want to pay their bills like everybody else, right? Sure. But at the same time they’re adding to bad science that’s so prevalent across the web and making a mockery of genuine discoveries while passing themselves off as a legitimate popular science source. One commenter for their story on alien sugar molecules says that the sensationalistic headlines are a part of why he loves the Galaxy. Well, the Weekly World News also has a few pretty sensationalistic headlines. But then again, they don’t try to be a serious source for science news.

See: Hollis, J., et al, (2000). Interstellar Glycolaldehyde: The First Sugar The Astrophysical Journal, 540 (2) DOI: 10.1086/312881

# space // daily galaxy / media / science journalism / scientific research

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