how to sell the same aliens twice

Alien hunting is a long, complicated, and arduous process. Pop sci news coverage wants to make it sound fast paced and exciting, even if editors have to sell the same stories again and again.
alien planet with oceans

Sometimes, when you look at what’s buzzing in the science headlines of major publications around the world, you come across articles that make you bolt upright in your chair and groan “oh come on, that’s just a recap of the same old stuff we’ve all heard before re-packaged as news!” And this is especially true when it comes to constant ruminations on the search for alien life across the universe, citing the same research and the same cautiously optimistic quotes from astrobiologists and astronomers. From the last find of water molecules in a distant nebula, to another recounting of how comets and asteroids are filled with organic matter, any news of potential for otherworldly life in some shape or form becomes fodder for another rehash of everything told us the last time a telescope saw a trace of water or a microscope found an amino acid in an ancient meteorite.

Maybe the media outlet had a massive surge of traffic after it ran its first story about the search for otherworldly life, maybe the number of comments on its subsequent stories in the same vein went off the charts, or maybe it’s just a slow news day, but quite a few of the biggest newspapers and blogs around the world just keep on repackaging the same ten articles about the day we may find an alien world scurrying with living things.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very important studies that certainly deserve extensive coverage in the world of popular science, like the finding that water in meteorites can affect the chirality of amino acids, or that after exposure to typical cosmic radiation, certain chemicals in space debris become nucleobases in RNA, and a few curious ideas about finding traces of forests and vast biospheres just by looking at the light they reflect. However, articles like the Telegraph’s newsflash recounting that meteorites might have helped spark life on Earth simply fail to add anything even remotely new to an extremely popular and oft repeated theory.

I know, exciting research regarding potential aliens doesn’t happen every day. Trying to find something which may be radically different from life as we know it in almost every imaginable way without knowing what it is we’re actually trying to track down is very difficult. Even if we were to stick to searching for clear markers of life we could readily identify, these efforts require a major investment in an entire fleet of orbital telescopes and years of searching to find another terrestrial planet we could photograph with a high enough resolution to get some concrete data, something that’s simply not going to happen overnight or any time soon for that matter.

Profound science like this takes time, effort and a commitment to press onward with space exploration efforts for decades to come, something sorely lacking in today’s political climate. Maybe the very real potential for the developed world to throttle back its scientific and technical leadership thanks to today’s short sighted politicians could be the pop sci subject of choice on a slow news day since this problem hasn’t been getting through to the public nearly as well as another rehash of basic astrobiology primers.

# astrobiology // alien life / astrobiology / mass media

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