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Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem, but it's a good problem. They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.
NPR's Joe Palca has started a new beat, which began as a series called Joe's Big Idea, where he explores the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Today, he reports on what rover scientists are going through as they wait to confirm their new discovery.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The lead scientist for the Mars rover mission is John Grotzinger. I interviewed him in his office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week. While I was setting up my equipment, Grotzinger was glued to his computer screen.
JOHN GROTZINGER: We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak.
PALCA: SAM is a kind of mini chemistry lab.
GROTZINGER: And the data looks really interesting. The science team is busily chewing away on it.
PALCA: Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM and it will tell you what the sample's made of. Right now, SAM is working on a Mars soil sample, and Grotzinger says the results are earth-shaking.
GROTZINGER: This data is going to be one for the history books. It's looking really good.
PALCA: Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he'll tell me what the heck he's found.
GROTZINGER: I know I'm killing you.
PALCA: So why is Grotzinger being coy? Well, scientists tend to be cautious. They know that promising results can disappear when you repeat a measurement. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before.
When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it. And at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms. So maybe the methane came from something living on Mars? Well, Grotzinger and his colleagues wanted to be darn sure they were measuring Martian air and not air brought along from the rover's launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
GROTZINGER: We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida. And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again.
PALCA: And when they made the measurement again, the signs of methane disappeared. Grotzinger says it'll take several before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime, he'll fend off requests from pesky reporters and probably from NASA brass as well.
Like any big institution, NASA would love to trumpet a major finding, especially at a time when budget decisions are being made. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes.
Lots of scientists can appreciate what John Grotzinger is going through. Richard Zare is one of them.
RICHARD ZARE: You're bursting.
PALCA: Zare is a chemist at Stanford University. In 1996, he was part of a team that reported exciting findings from a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica.
ZARE: You're bursting with a feeling that you want to share this information, and it's frustrating when you feel you can't talk about it.
PALCA: Zare and his colleagues found organic compounds in the meteorite and that caused a huge sensation since finding organic compounds in a Martian rock suggested the possibility at least that there was once life on Mars.
It wasn't scientific caution that kept Zare from announcing his results. It was a rule many science journals enforce that says scientists aren't allowed to talk publicly about their research until the day it's officially published. Zare had to follow the rules if he wanted his paper to come out. He did break down and tell his family.
ZARE: I remember around the dinner table with great excitement explaining to my wife Susan and my daughter Bethany what it was we were doing.
PALCA: And then he experienced something many parents can relate to when talking to their kids.
ZARE: Bethany looked at me and said, pass the ketchup. So, not everybody was as excited as I was.
PALCA: Zare says in a way scientists are like artists, sharing what they do is a big part of why they get out of bed in the morning.
ZARE: How many composers would compose music if they were told no one else could listen to their compositions? How many painters would make a painting if they were told no one else could see them.
PALCA: Zare says it's the same for scientists.
ZARE: The great joy of science is to be able to share it. And so you want to say, look at this. Isn't this interesting? Isn't that cool?
PALCA: For now though, we'll have to wait to see what's got Mars rover scientists itching to say what they found.
Joe Palca, NPR News.
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