Thursday, August 4, 2011

Talking about briney water on Mars makes me VERY ANGRY!

I just watched the live NASA press conference about the new evidence of water on Mars. (Here's Phil Plait's take on it.) I actually have a sore throat now from yelling at the screen. I am too touchy when it comes to ignorant people getting jobs covering NASA press conferences when I don't get to go. (I may be especially touchy when it's a blonde woman who shames us all. Actually, no, I would have reacted the same way if it had been anybody. I'm going to avoid referring to her in terms that draw attention to her appearance because that would seem misogynistic and would hurt my argument. Just so you know I thought about it. I'm trying not to do that.) It just hurts me that people sit in the presence of these scientists and insult them. Going to a press conference about geological evidence on Mars when you didn't pay attention in high school science class enough to know the most basic vocabulary is just insulting. It insults me as a person who did pay attention and can't get a job, it insults the people who tried to make their findings accessible to the audience they expected to be there.

So here's the science part. It was pretty straightforward. They have photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that show dark areas at the ends of gullies as though liquid ran out the end during the heat of the summer. There are other possible explanations but none that are related to the effects of additional sunlight.

Mars is salty. This makes perfect sense to me. Just look at it. If I went down to the dried-up creek near my house and found a dried up puddle that had been wet and then dry over and over and I licked it I would expect it to taste salty. I wouldn't expect it to be very salty, but I would sure be surprised if it was sour or sweet. If you filled up a pot and boiled it dry on the stove and did that over and over until you got a crust on the bottom from the minerals in your water and you tasted it wouldn't you expect it to be salty? And if you added back a tiny bit of water wouldn't you expect to get some kind of salty mud?

I don't understand how people are so ignorant. It's like they go through life without observing anything. And somehow they don't even care? It's socially acceptable now to be utterly ignorant of what everybody around you is talking about? So what happened in this press conference that got me in a rant is somebody claimed that as an "average reader" she didn't understand what they meant about the liquid behaving unlike regular water. Could they explain in terms of something she would be familiar with on earth? Was it like say, buttermilk? This is where I got a sore throat. Fortunately the NASA experts, or unfortunately maybe, have more experience with dumb questions I guess so they handled it very calmly and tried to explain what brine means. Has this woman never eaten a pickle? Has she never watched a cooking show? Did she sleep through her junior year of high school? Does she not realize she could go back to her cubicle and look this up on Yahoo Answers? It's not like I expect her to read Spasms of Accommodation, where I already explained this in terms of things that happen on earth.

What does salt do to water? 
 It lowers the freezing point.
Sea ice is fresh. When the ice crystals form on the surface of the North Sea in the winter, for example, the salt molecules are excluded. Fresh ice floats on top of the salty seawater. If it's really windy and cold the surface becomes a strong salty brine and this water gets a good deal colder than 32°F or 0°C. 
I regret that I missed the beginning of the press conference so I didn't get the introductions with everybody's name. The first person who tried to answer her question kind of struggled. Then the lady at the end of the table gave a great example of freezing a bottle of soda. (I think it was Lisa Pratt, a biogeochemist at Indiana University, because that's the one woman they refer to in this article) You get a chunk of water ice in the middle and all the syrup is left unfrozen. They are guessing that the Mars water is like that. A non-freezing syrup.

Now that's a good explanation but I don't think the reporter who asked the question gets it. The one week's lesson in the phase shifts in water in high school science class is really pretty key. Unless you understand that you aren't going to get that adding salt to it changes where the transitions happen, or if they happen at all.

I think really she wanted to know if settlers on Mars could drink the water. Or get a spa treatment with it. I really think she was going for something she could relate to the "average reader." I just don't think she grasped at all that they were just talking about the most basic concepts of geology, nothing related to human beings whatsoever.

So they took some more questions then this same reporter had another question. "Could you explain what you mean by 'gully'?"

WHAT?! Kick her out. Just... she's out of there. I was not a journalism major but I'm pretty sure they teach you not to ask experts to define a word you can look up in an unabridged dictionary. Jot it down and look it up later. Clearly they are all talking about gullies like they are completely common and well known to everybody. I've linked to three articles about this press release and two of them avoid the word gully and refer instead to as "finger-like features lining certain Martian slopes." Phil Plait says gullies without any attempt to define them. I'm guessing it says "finger-like features" in the Science article. I know Phil was watching the press conference because I picked up the URL from his Twitter feed. The gullies they talked about were in addition to the finger-like features. Gully, like a natural ditch, erosion, have you NEVER watched water flow over the ground? Been to the beach and stood in the sand in the surf? Maybe it's just me that imagines where the water flows when I go hiking. I'm afraid it's just me.

So is it acceptable for a science reporter to be blatantly ignorant in front of her colleagues like this? Did I miss something? Are we not trying to be appear intelligent anymore? Is this why I can't get a job? My tendency to privately research embarrassing lapses in my expertise is out of fashion? I have to applaud her for not being shy I suppose. She was clearly thinking of how she was going to write this up for her audience, whoever that is. But it's like she wanted it all to be down in that spiral notebook before she even got out the door. She wanted the scientist presenters to do her job for her.

My expectation with these things is that there is a stair step of dumbing down. You have a Science article that is written for scientists. Discover and Discovery and PCMag bloggers dumb that down one notch for their readers. If a writer asks the original author to explain it at a People magazine level that's just wrong. Or at least lazy. Or ruins your job security.

The engineer in me thinks there has to be a solution to people getting into these press conferences and making me furious (NSFW link. I was EXTRA ranty when I wrote that one.) Could they give them a quiz or something at the door? A handy-dandy bridgekeeper? "What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" I would be sure to watch from the very beginning of the press conference if they would include highlights of the spring-loaded reporter exclusion device in action.


  1. She could be the "Science Writer" for Vogue, perhaps. Maybe?

    Although I didn't see this press conference and can't relate to your experience with this reporter, I wasn't too disturbed by her question about the water. Not a brilliant question by any means. It is possible her readers needed a more simplistic description (trying to give the benefit of doubt here). However, if she's supposed to be a science reporter, then she really should know how to do this already.

    The question of what a gully is should definitely have been the signal to shove her out of the room, however. That's just plain stupid.

  2. Also, this post reminds me that I need to reorder my Marvin the Martian sticky notes. I'm almost out!