A few days ago a pre-print of a research paper appeared in the Astrophysical Journal appeared online. The article is about the fascinating object ‘Oumuamua’, which was found in late 2017 and is the first object of interstellar origin to be observed in our solar system.
Scientists are still not sure what the strange cigar-shaped object is, and they were even more intrigued when they saw it accelerate away from the sun. An analysis based on multiple telescopes pointed at the object late last year found that ‘Oumuamua accelerated away from our sun significantly faster than could be explained by gravity alone. Unfortunately, scientists had no good explanations for why this apparent acceleration occurred.
The new paper explores the possibility of solar radiation pressure, or the momentum transfer of photons hitting an object. This radiant pressure is the driving idea behind “solar sails” that could one day power spacecraft around our solar system or beyond.
The Harvard University-based authors of the study, Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb, spend most of their new paper discussing the shape and mass of an object that can be exposed to sufficient radiation pressure to explain ‘Oumuamua’s motion, and through which natural processes this can happen. However, at the end of their paper, the authors present “a more exotic scenario” in which they speculate that ‘Oumuamua may be “a fully operational probe deliberately sent to the Earth’s environment by an alien civilization”.
In recent days, some media outlets have grabbed this single line from the paper. Such language, especially from a source like Harvard scientists, is catnip to online news editors, with the ability to use phrases like “aliens” and “mysterious cigar-shaped object” and “Harvard researchers” in the same headline.
As a result, we’ve seen a lot of hyperbolic coverage. NBC News reported: “Scientists say the mysterious ‘Oumuamua’ object could be an alien spacecraft.” Fox News had: “Mysterious interstellar object could be a ‘light sail’ sent by another civilization.” CNN headlines: “Cigar-shaped interstellar object may have been an alien probe, Harvard paper claims.” Simply search for “‘Oumuamua” in Google News to get the full effect.
This is, of course, rather sloppy coverage of science. But in this case, most of these stories aren’t written by trained science writers, but rather by online reporters who see the potential for a flashy headline. While it’s not “fake news,” it’s definitely a classic clickbait headline.
But there is more at work here. Katie Mack, an astrophysicist and astute observer of scientists and the media, commented on Twitter that the Harvard scientists knew very well what they were doing. “What you need to understand is: Scientists are very happy to publish a bizarre idea if it has even the slightest chance of not being wrong,” she wrote. “But until every other possibility has been exhausted dozens of times, even the authors probably don’t believe it.
“Some of us are of course more conservative,” she continued. “And it certainly varies by field. But in my field (astrophysics/cosmology) there is generally no downside to publishing something that is (a) interesting in some way and (b) not completely excluded, or whether or not it is the right answer.'”
In other words, if you’re a researcher looking to create a media splash, play the “I’m not saying they were aliens…” card.