Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Fermi vs. the Wave: battle of the press releases

It all began with this paper that was made public just hours after the announcement of the first detection of a gravitational wave on Feb. 11: the Fermi satellite had seen "a weak transient source above 50 keV, 0.4 s after the GW event was detected, with a false alarm probability of 0.0022" - which no one had predicted to accompany a merger of two black holes. A flood of papers followed within days ("Eine Flut von Papers zur ersten Gravitationswelle") trying to make astrophysical sense of the coincident signals. And there was also a paper on the non-detection of a gamma signal by the Integral spacecraft at the same time which its authors said killed the Fermi observation (in an updated version of their paper the Fermi observers immediately rejected that). So far all this debate had taken place in academic circles and on ArXiv only, though noted by a handful of science writers who actually follow scientific developments first- or close-second-hand.

One of the theory papers trying to explain the allegedly related gamma signal, however, was eventually hailed by the Center for Astrophysics in a Feb. 23 press release which led to several more media reports. But then came a counter strike by the ESA PR department with a press release on the Integral non-detection on March 30 once said paper had been accepted by the journal it had been submitted to. Way down in the text (under the 'fold' actually) the release stated that "if this [Fermi-reported] gamma-ray flare had had a cosmic origin, either linked to the LIGO gravitational wave source or to any other astrophysical phenomenon in the Universe, it should have been detected by Integral as well. The absence of any such detection by both instruments on Integral suggests that the measurement from Fermi could be unrelated to the gravitational wave detection." The arguments in the Fermi paper trying to fit the Integral negative as well were not discussed.

And now Strike Three in what has become a rare transatlantic battle of press releases: On April 18 NASA suddenly came around with a press release on the Fermi paper, now over two months old and apparently still not accepted by its journal. "Gamma-rays arising from a black hole merger would be a landmark finding," the text read, and the first author is quoted: "This is a tantalizing discovery with a low chance of being a false alarm, but before we can start rewriting the textbooks we’ll need to see more bursts associated with gravitational waves from black hole mergers." The non-detection of the signal by Integral and the - pretty adamant - claims by its observers that the Fermi result cannot be right (emphasized in discussions with this blogger, I may add), are not mentioned at all! And so the I'm-only-reading-press-releases faction of science churnalists is left in utter confusion - while everyone else is waiting for more concurrent LIGO and Fermi / Integral / etc. observations that should eventually settle the issue.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Communicating Rosetta

It may seem odd to 'review' an issue of a magazine, but the March 2016 "Rosetta special" of Communicating Astronomy with the Public forms almost a book with its 48 pages and interconnected points of view of most of the authors. With the sole exception of the very last article, all contributors were either insiders of the outreach machinery of the Rosetta mission or journalists 'embedded' in some way: this provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of a major science communications and public relations effort, and the broad range of ideas brought to fruition during Rosetta's key years from its 'waking up' in January 2014 has never before been presented in such a comprehensive fashion. The Rosetta outreach community really tried everything they or their contractors could think of to get the public at large excited about this risky flagship science mission which space and science nerds had been salivating about anyway, eager for nuts and bolts information and actual results, of course.

The most exotic venture discussed has also led to the most entertaining article of the Rosetta special in which the ESA-led making of the science fiction short "Ambition" is described as a super-secret operation eventually taking almost everyone by surprise. Here, for once, the actual struggle to succeed is coming to life while many of the other contributions to the magazine issue come over rather self-congratulatory, largely ignoring frustrations along the way and controversies erupting, some of which are even public knowledge. Or they are missing irony, e.g. when the introductory article talks about bringing a 'real-time' experience of the mission to the world (when the opposite was often the case, in stark contrast to the raw drama of Giotto's two comet encounters; best practice and/or failures from previous missions are missing in general). The same can be said when the 'Ambition' piece makes no mention of the fact that the key message of the movie was that comets brought water to the Earth when soon Rosetta's first major scientific discovery would be that at least this comet clearly didn't.

What the contributors - with exception of the one truly independent voice at the end - also gloss over is the major controversy over who's got to see which images from Rosetta's cameras when (that even left the ESA DG frustrated) and how it was semi-resolved with a moderately free sharing of NAVCAM imagery. Or how the unique chance was missed to illustrate the Philae (touch-and-go) landing at Agilkia on that very day with the complete ROLIS descent sequence which was available within hours but officially published only ten months(!) later. Absent is also Philae's biggest unscripted PR success when a MUPUS scientist suddenly revealed all the drama on Twitter - for once the space nerd community was served, too. But most sorely missing in the 48 pages are actual metrics beyond social media likes and anecdotes of how the unprecedented broad Rosetta communications effort really shaped the public's view of ESA: how many more in Europe and outside do now know about that space agency's very existence and/or appreciate its science activities? Were such numbers never researched (e.g. by not too complicated phone polling) or ...?