Friday, 17 April 2015

No, this won't tell us how life evolved on Earth

Probably the worst aspect of science journalism is the way that editors feel the need to have world-shattering headlines. New Scientist is one of the worst for the this. Time after time you see something really exciting on the cover like 'Black holes don't exist!', then when you read the actual article it delivers nothing of the kind, telling you that someone has a disputed theory that in some circumstance black holes may not form. In a way it's the grown-up version of what I was moaning about the Daily Excess doing yesterday.

So I was a bit wary when I saw the Observer headine Scientists hope Venus will give up the secret of how life evolved on Earth. And rightly so. What we got was an interesting article about Venus and how we might discover why Venus, a similar size to Earth and also 'well within the Goldilock zone' is so different from Earth (and so inhospitable to life).

In the end, the analysis came down to 'Venus may have had a water/carbon dioxide like the early Earth, but being closer to the Sun, the water could have been driven off - no water, no life.'


I have a couple of problems with this. One is whether Venus really is in the Goldilocks zone. See the image above from Penn State University, which clearly puts it outside. But also it's hardly telling us 'how life evolved on Earth' to say that a planet that has water is more likely to have life than a planet that doesn't. It's not news.

If you really want to find out more about the way life probably evolved on Earth you need a book like The Vital Question (though it is more modest in its claims, only saying 'why is life the way it is') not a study of Venus.

In case there's any doubt, I'm not criticising the original article - it has some good material on Venus and what may have caused it to be different to Earth (apart from my slight dispute over the Goldilocks zone), but putting an overblown title on it leads to disappointment. Science articles should do what they say on the tin.


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