Guest Post: More Chemists Should Talk About Space Dinosaurs

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You may have seen the extensive (and entertaining) press reaction days ago to a recent press release that cited Columbia University chemist Ronald Breslow taking liberties in his paper on the chirality of α-methyl amino acids.  Breslow mentioned “advanced versions of dinosaurs,” who may live “elsewhere in the universe.” Gasp! The kicker? “We would be better off not meeting them.”

It’s not surprising that a leading chemist discussing alien – and apparently dangerous – dinosaurish life forms would get some coverage.  Who doesn’t love giant highly-evolved deathly space-reptiles?! Breslow was likely being facetious (though this is unconfirmed), and presumably knows that the chance of distant alien life forms closely resembling distinct fauna of earth is extremely improbable.  Breslow’s paper is really just about amino acid chirality in a sample of meteoric rock.

Amino acids on earth have a stubbornly fixed chirality (“homochirality”). This gives our earthly amino acids a distinct chemical symmetry.  An oft-used metaphor to describe chirality is that of “handedness” – the building blocks of life here on earth happen to be “left-handed” with no exception.  Evidence of left-handed amino acids in recent samples of a meteorite (specifically, the Murchison meteorite, which fell to Earth in 1969 near the town of Murchison in Victoria, Australia) have been analyzed by chemists including Breslow, and used to buttress theories of exobiology.  Exobiology is the idea that life did not spontaneously arise from chemicals already on earth after it formed, but were expressed shipped to earth on meteorites. Perhaps, according to Breslow, all our amino acids are intractable lefties because they were “seeded” here by an asteroid billions of years ago and never had an opportunity to be different.

Before we get any deeper on theories of exobiology, I need to admit something: I am writing about exobiology at this particular moment because a chemist with a sense of humor decided to mention (and caution us of) the highly improbable existence of space dinosaurs.  A cynic would say he was cheaply getting attention; I would say, with tongue half in cheek, that he’s being a shrewd professional.  The fact is, so much interesting science (like the amazing bodies of work on the origin of life) often falls under the radar of the modern internet press engine.  Molecular chirality and 40-year-old meteorites don’t have as sexy a ring as research on “What Facebook Is Doing To Your Brain.”  With American K-12 students ranking 21st in a sample of 30 industrialized countries, maybe it’s time we hook them with some space dinosaurs (and then softly explain that they probably don’t exist, of course).

Ok, back to exobiology (or the fact that we may all be aliens) — chemist Sandra Pizzarello and her team published work last year showing that some Antarctic meteorite samples contained traces of ammonia, which is a byproduct of organic chemicals, and suggested a link to exobiology:

Given that meteorites and comets have reached the Earth since it formed, it has been proposed that the exogenous influx from these bodies provided the organic inventories necessary for the emergence of life…an abundant exogenous delivery of ammonia, therefore, might have been significant in aiding early Earth’s molecular evolution toward prebiotic syntheses and the data in this study, showing the capability of some asteroidal bodies to provide it, would make a reasonable case for exobiology.

Interesting as these ideas are, it will be hard to ever prove the speculations of exobiological theories, as Breslow mentions in his paper:

The unusual amino acids delivered to Earth by the Murchison meteorite and related ones could have led to the dominance of [left-handed] amino acids and d-sugars on early Earth that would permit life to start. Of course, showing that it could have happened this way is not the same as showing that it did.

The origin of life is highly debated topic in astronomy, biology, and chemistry, and has various implications for our understanding of life on both earth and the broader, dinosaur-infested universe.

Sure, maybe it’s dishonest to allude to, in a chemistry paper, fantastical creatures that very likely don’t exist.  But if it gets a few more people to at least learn what chirality is, then that’s fine by me.  (Though, admittedly, it may only work once, and perhaps only with reference to space dinos.)

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Sam McDougle is a freelance science writer based out of Brooklyn, NY. He was born and raised in New York City, and feels its particular magnetism as a city rat feels the magnetism of a damp sidewalk on garbage day.  Sam used to study the neural basis of motor learning in the lab of Javier Medina at the University of Pennsylvania before exchanging the brain electrode for the laptop and coffee shop.  Most of Sam’s writing can be read at Vice Magazine’s science and tech uber-hub, MOTHERBOARD.  Follow: @smickdougle

Photo credits: Flickr user “anajonmary”; Sam McDougle

 

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21 thoughts on “Guest Post: More Chemists Should Talk About Space Dinosaurs

  1. “Maybe it’s dishonest to allude to, in a chemistry paper, fantastical creatures that very likely don’t exist. But if it gets a few more people to at least learn what chirality is, then that’s fine by me.”

    Ugh. This ends-justify-the-means excuse gets trotted out every time someone makes overhyped, unsubstantiated claims. Ida = our ancestor? It’s okay that it’s not true because people are talking about human evolution. Arsenic life? It’s okay if it’s not true because people are talking about chemistry.

    Non, and I might add, sense. If you are forced to mislead in order to communicate and/or educate, then you are a piss-poor communictor and/or scholar.

    Sure, getting people interested in science is hard. But scientists and science writers have to work with what we’ve got. The minute
    we say the situation is so dire that the only way we have of making people interested in a topic is to baldly *make shit up*, then we have already lost.

  2. Some interesting points… but just a heads up; I think you’re using ‘exobiology’ when you mean ‘panspermia’.

    Exobiology is the study of potential alien life, panspermia is the theory that life originated elsewhere and was brought to earth is cosmic debris. Sorry to be a pedant :)

  3. I agree with Ed Yong. Using a creative “hook” is one thing, but lying is right out.

    In the case of chiral molecules, “handedness” can be a useful metaphor, you could even bring in aliens by proposing it as the answer to “how would you explain left and right to an alien?” or some such conundrum.

    Also, you’re writing about exobiology, which is great, because a chemist mentioned space dinos. So you’re not writing about the chemistry.

  4. I’ve got to say, I’m with Ed on this one. Interesting science doesn’t need to be dolled up in pantomime outfits. You just have to think a bit harder about how you make it engaging. The minute you start lying about what your research is about, you’re on the slippery slope to data fakery and hoodwinking. If I ever have to justify my research in terms of Space Dinosaurs, I’m quitting and becoming a sci-fi author.

  5. Also:

    “Exobiology is the idea that life did not spontaneously arise from chemicals already on earth after it formed, but were expressed shipped to earth on meteorites.”

    No, exobiology is the search for life beyond Earth. What you’ve just described is panspermia.

  6. Great pictures! Where did you get them?
    Also, excellent comments. Professor Brenslow should start a blog. Then he can talk about alien dinosaurs if he wants. There’s a time and a place for everything – especially on the ‘net.

  7. I’ll add to the pile. Medical ethics writ large: “First, do no harm”.

    Since I’ve had a token course in astrobiology, I’ll also pitch in on that.

    – Panspermia is originally the hypothesis of widespread life through “transpermia”, which I personally define as life colonizing from a body to another. Seeing how easy and pervasive chemical evolution is, and how difficult DNA preservation is in a cosmic radiation environment, it seems a highly unlikely mechanism.

    – In any case, I think it is better and more technically correct to say transpermia or something equivalent in these cases when we mean local travel. Transpermia also suggests the possible to’ and fro’ that impactors may mitigate between early habitable planets and ice moons. Extinguished abiogenesis attempts may mean a set of travels until the resultant biospheres ‘takes’.

    – I don’t think it is technically correct to describe evolved chemicals and their impact on local chemical evolution as panspermia (or transpermia). Maybe I’m incorrect, it is certainly a nice abstraction.

  8. First, Ed –

    Good points all. But I’m going to sidestep the rabbit-hole of ethical philosophy and the application of an “end-justify-the-means” interpretation of my post — Breslow was clearly joking. In my view, his “space dino” comment was an innocuous goof, and funny at that. To view his toss-off comment, or my caution (tongue-in-cheek) championing of it, as somehow “harmful” (re: TL’s comment) or a step on the “slippery slope to data fakery and hoodwinking” (re: PE’s comment) seems a bit hyperbolic to me (the interesting nature link posted by GB notwithstanding).

    Ed: the Ida point is an interesting one, though to me it seems like “Ida was our ancestor” was a logical jump from, say, A to F, and Breslow’s was from A to Z, and clearly in jest (“we would be better off not meeting them”). Ida was a case of scientific exaggeration, which is far more pernicious than goofy claims about improbable space creatures.

    Ultimately, there’s an issue no one here has mentioned — humor in the scientific community. We probably agree there is problem with public engagement in science in America, especially among kids, and I think one element of this issue is the often humorless cocoon of scientific literature. I’ve been in the cocoon – it’s beautiful and profoundly interesting and exciting, but it’s still a cocoon (weird metaphor, apologies). OF COURSE truth and accuracy in science should reign supreme (space dinos almost surely don’t exist), but, without watering it down, there needs to be a better way to get the public into it, and humor could be one of those ways (i, for one, think space dinos are funny). Ed says:

    “Sure, getting people interested in science is hard. But scientists and science writers have to work with what we’ve got.”

    If we have a sense of humor, let’s work with it.

  9. ““We would be better off not meeting them.”

    Obviously he never read the science fiction classic “Think Like a Dinosaur,” in which super-intelligent space dinosaurs bring enlightenment to our primitive monkey brains.

  10. “But I’m going to sidestep the rabbit-hole of ethical philosophy and the application of an ‘end-justify-the-means’ interpretation of my post”

    … and in the process, you sidestepped the whole argument. Waving your arms and repeating “Can’t you people take a joke?” is a non-starter of an argument.

    My interpretation is more on the cynical side. At best, Breslow’s ill-informed comment was a bid for media exposure. Look any any of the stories that came out of the paper’s release – chilarity was a footnote to headlines of “ZOMG! Space DINOSAURZZZ!” A one-off joke was taken as being the whole point of the study. Therefore, Breslow failed. He threw in something so fantastic and ridiculous that it actually overshadowed what the paper itself was about. And that’s the risk inherent in tacking poorly-conceived jokes to the ends of papers. Adding space dinosaurs doesn’t give your research a broader platform. Your work winds up trampled under the spectacular bullshit.

    And, I have to admit, I was disappointed by Breslow’s poor excuse of a joke. If he really wanted to talk about space dinosaurs, and whether or not dinosaurs might evolve elsewhere, there’s plenty of papers about convergence, exobiology, etc. to draw from. Instead, the conclusion was a non sequitur that failed as a punchline because there was no appropriate setup.

    I think Ed already said it best. If scientists make up fictitious, fantastic scenarios in papers to get the public’s attention, then they – and those who parrot the weird claims – fail at science communication. And promoting unsubstantiated nonsense will only catalyze a greater distrust of science. If scientists promote fictions about space dinosaurs, just for the hell of it, why should we listen to anything else they have to say?

    This isn’t to say that humor should be barred from science. But you have to do know the appropriate place. Naming a beetle Agathidium vaderi after Darth Vader? Amusing. Sharing space dinosaur fantasies just to grab extra attention? Stupid.

  11. Brian –

    First of all, I love “ZOMG! Space DINOSAURZZZ!”

    Secondly, I agree that I’m “waving [my] arms and repeating ‘Can’t you people take a joke?’” That’s kinda my point, and does actually fit into the argument — the media responses you are referring to we’re almost all in on the joke in their own way (case and point: “ZOMG! Space DINOSAURZZZ!”). I will certainly concede that in this specific case Breslow may have hurt his work in some way by having such a silly sentence in his paper. Well I’m bummed about any interesting science getting hurt by doofy pseudoscience, I think it’s sort of a shame that such a sentence would hurt his paper in the first place. And it’s also a shame that the internet has to troll around for references to space dinosaurs to get excited by what is actually very interesting chemistry work — it suggests a broader problem with the often cold presentation of scientific discoveries and movements. [*I love when peer review papers have hidden gems of humor in them - ive seen Woody Allen quotes before]

    And I dont think Breslow was trying to promote fictions about space dinos, or merely grab attention — I think he was being absurdist for humor’s sake (and absurd jokes usually have punchlines with no, or an unrelated, setup) and the attention was the the consequence of an equally absurd press release.

    This may all sound like a silly and quaint argument to make on my part (but did you see my photoshop work?), though I think it fits into a bigger issue, which is the public’s view of science as being a humorless stern-faced old guy plopped atop a very high horse. People like space dinosaurs. I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably ended up studying science because I loved dinosaurs as a kid and still do ( I also loved space, of the Star Wars variety mainly). If, somehow, the connection between the highly specialized and painstakingly slow-moving (thankfully) world of scientific literature and some kids at their computers can be strengthened (which i assume is a good thing) silliness may be part of that struggle. Or it may not.

    Either way, Michael Bay apparently comments here so I’m gonna take a brain nap now.

  12. Ed Yong: I sense a bit of overreaction. I am pretty sure Breslow’s technical paper in JACS was not supposed to be an attempt at science communication for the public, so I am not sure your criticism applies in this specific case. And I think it’s also unfair to say that the statement about dinosaurs was some kind of attention-grabbing device. At best it was a facetious, poor attempt at humor which the ACS and other media later inflated into a sensationalist headline. Let’s see the original piece for what it was, rather than interpret it as a gross failure at public science communication.

  13. This is an interesting discussion. This episode has reminded us that there are repercussions to publicity, and damaging repercussions when publicity isn’t done well. I expect there’s some level of embarrassment being shared by Ron Breslow, the American Chemical Society and the author of that press release, about how far those poorly chosen sentences at the end of the paper were carried. It’s likely there was extra scrutiny placed on the paper because of the publicity, perhaps helping to reveal the other problems with it, as mentioned by Geoff Brumfiel. I think the Hollywood line “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” holds even less in science than in many other fields. Reputations are important.

    Over at the chembark blog an argument has been made that the paper and press release should be retracted and that Breslow should be barred from publishing in the journal for at least one year:

    http://blog.chembark.com/2012/04/25/what-the-acs-must-do-regarding-the-dinosaur-paper/

    Apart from the self-plagiarism, I don’t think this ranks too high on the scale of publicity messes. Charlie Petit argued that this story was a misdemeanor at most:

    http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/2012/04/11/american-chemical-society-chirality-lefthanded-amino-acids-and-oh-yeh-alien-dinosaurs-rule/

    Many reporters seemed to recognize that the press release story wasn’t a serious one and the ones who didn’t have some explaining to do. Contrast this with arsenic life, where the claims in the publicity were the basis of the paper, rather than some flippant speculation tossed in at the end. Journalists reported the arsenic story – which had significant problems – at face value, until outside experts weighed in.

    About Ed Yong’s first comment: I remember the commentary on arsenic life being overwhelmingly negative. I recall one or two people defending the author’s decision not to respond to criticism, and instead wait for a peer-reviewed response. But, I don’t recall people defending the result and publicity by saying that it’s ok if it’s not true because people are talking about chemistry. I don’t suppose the authors would have said that. Who did?

  14. PE –

    Thanks for commenting. ***can i say that I LOVE that this space dino thing has become a “discussion?”***

    I agree that the arsenic life forms and, in my view, the ‘Ida = ancestor,’ controversies were of a different species (pun mostly unintended).

    I’d like to backtrack for a second though, while I have a minute while my water SLOWLY boils on my sorry excuse for a stove in my sorry excuse for an apartment. The discussion we have gotten into here has mostly focused on the idea that Breslow’s MOTIVE was to drum up attention (re EY: “The minute
    we say the situation is so dire that the only way we have of making people interested in a topic is to baldly make shit up…” & re PE: “I don’t suppose the authors would have said that. Who did?”).

    The portion of my post Ed quoted (“…if it gets a few more people to at least learn what chirality is, then that’s fine by me.”) did NOT make the claim that “attention-grabbing,” on Breslow’s part, is acceptable, nor did I posit that it was his motive in the first place. My hypothesis was that Breslow’s “ends” were merely the “means” of humor, and the other “means” (press reaction to dinos) were entertaining (entertainment through science is important, from my POV) and potentially, though in an angular fashion, educational (by turning attention to his suggestions about panspermia). I read Breslow’s concluding paragraph as: Alternate, exobiological life forms with amino acids of R-chirality? – interesting musing…space dinosaurs? – silly, entertaining departure from logic.

    When I mentioned “hooking” kids with space dinosaurs (a section of my piece where I even conceded that my tongue was half in my cheek) I didn’t mean through sheer “lying” — I meant more from engendering an atmosphere (in the science and science press communities) where humor is allowed, if not enjoyed.

    My reason for writing this was because of the cold, humorless press response to what I thought was a hilarious turn of events.

    A scientist asserted his character, made a joke, a press rep at columbia wrote a wildly deranged press release, no one now actually believes in space dinosaurs, and the response was that “Breslow is a fool! A sloppy scientist!” I don’t know, That comes off as a bit humorless to me.

  15. “But I’m going to sidestep the rabbit-hole of ethical philosophy and the application of an “end-justify-the-means” interpretation of my post — Breslow was clearly joking.”

    As Brian notes, you sidestep and then explicitly deny that Breslow’s comment _was_ harmful. The press release was spread, not primarily because it was funny but because it was misunderstood.

    For example, top of your google search: “Intelligent space dinosaurs: How worried should we be?

    An eminent chemist concluded an article in an academic journal with a fanciful note, positing the existence of advanced dinosaurs on other worlds. How plausible is his assertion?”

    That piece was, mostly, damage control.

    And yes, perhaps Breslow damaged the publication of his own work a bit.

    As for the humor, I have never seen it be an inside problem. Scientists are mostly high functional, so the humor flies outside and inside of papers, and mostly not laboring under prestige, so can joke with themselves.

    Communicating that science & empiricism is fun is all over the internet, from Sagan’s Cosmos over “Nye, the Science Guy” to Mythbusters and youtubes of chemistry of elements (a recent but popular series).

    The problem is that not all humor is harmless. And that is not funny.

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