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A "not insignificant" defense of gleeful scientists

Just a few minutes ago, researchers with NASA's MESSENGER mission announced the publication of data that strongly suggests the poles of Mercury contain significant quantities of frozen water.

On the one hand, this is not exactly new news. The possibility of water on Mercury has been a topic of research for something like 20 years. And scientific discoveries tend to move in little mincing steps, not giant leaps, so there have been lots of previous announcements about evidence supporting the hypothesis of water of Mercury — including very similar announcements from the MESSENGER team in December 2011 and March 2012. Your life will not change in any significant way because there is frozen water on Mercury. You probably won't even make a note to tell your children where you were the day NASA announced that ice most likely existed there.

But that doesn't mean this news isn't damned exciting. And it doesn't mean that the scientists involved shouldn't be giddy about it. We are, after all, talking about a mission that sent a spacecraft into orbit around another planet and has quite likely found frozen water sitting on a landscape that is hot enough to melt lead. What's more, they think that ice is covered in places by a thin layer of some coal or tar-like organic material. That is huge news. It's going to change textbooks. And because the scientists think both the ice and the organic material got to Mercury via collisions with asteroids and comets, it's going to be an important part of our ongoing efforts to understand how life begins on planets like Earth.

All of this makes for a really nice, topical lead-in to an essay Robert Gonzalez published on iO9 today. It's totally reasonable to be frustrated by the recent whiplash of hearing that Curiosity discovered something "Earth-shattering" on Mars, only to have that announcement quickly revised to something "interesting" and/or "not insignificant". But, Gonzalez argues, it's also reasonable for scientists to look at something that is merely not insignificant from the public perspective and see it, from their own perspective, as groundbreaking. In fact, he says, we want more scientists who get excited about their work, not fewer.

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Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Beating Metal Heart

A simple experiment makes a drop of mercury beat like a nervous, little mouse heart.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user SharkeyinColo via CC