June 25, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Salting News with the L Word Life

Small amounts of sodium were detected in ice particles erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.  Deduction: this might lower the melting point of underground ice, forming subsurface pockets of liquid water – perhaps an ocean.  Conclusion: Life!  It doesn’t matter that Enceladus has no other factors conducive to life than water, or that salt is generally thought to be a deterrent to the formation of biological molecules (see “No Salt, Please,” 11/23/2007, and “Primordial Soup Cannot Tolerate Salt,” 09/17/2002).  But the slightest mention of possible conditions for life seems to give some science reporters hallucinations.
    The announcements were made in Nature.  One paper described the detection of sodium in ice grains picked up by the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) onboard the Cassini orbiter.1  This paper made only one quick reference to the L word: “Alkaline salt water, together with the observed organic compounds, and the thermal energy obviously present in the south polar region, could provide an environment well suited for the formation of life precursors.”  The second paper, surprisingly, failed to detect sodium in the gas plumes erupted from the small moon.2  That paper said nothing about life.
    John Spencer, Cassini scientist at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), commenting on the two papers in the same issue of Nature,3 explained why evidence for liquid water under Enceladus is interesting: “The chemistry of the plumes is of intense interest not only because it provides a unique opportunity to sample the interior of an icy moon directly, but also because the interior of this particular moon provides a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life.”  He did not say, in other words, that Enceladus has life, or even water, but explained why it would be interesting to detect water, in case this could be seen as a potential habitat for life.  “So the question of whether Enceladus’s internal heat can provide that water, by melting a portion of the ice shell that comprises much of the moon’s bulk, is one of the hot issues in planetary science today.”
    Spencer was less restrained in his statements to the BBC News.  “We need three ingredients for life, as far as we know – liquid water, energy and the basic chemical building blocks – and we seem to have all three at Enceladus, including some fairly complex organic molecules,” he said.  “That’s not to say there is life on Enceladus but certainly the ‘feedstock’ is there for life to use if it does exist.”  Given that the scientific papers said so little about life, one wonders why Spencer made this such a focus.  In fact, the two papers seem somewhat contradictory in their findings.  Even if they can be reconciled by the fact that the vapor would tend to shed its sodium on the way out, scientists disagree on the implications for the moon’s under-surface geology.  The JPL press release shows five competing models for the plumes; some require an ocean, some do not.  The press release also barely mentioned the environment being possibly suitable for “life precursors” if water exists – not a statement that life could actually form and thrive there.
    News reporters, though, took that life reference and ran with it.  The BBC News took the “stunning result” about sodium and said, “It means the Saturnian satellite may be one of the most promising places in the Solar System to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.”  Two stories in Science Daily (Science Daily #1, Science Daily #2) presented the controversy about whether an ocean exists, but both included the L-word.  “The discovery could have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life as well as our understanding of how planetary moons are formed,” the first article said.  Jeanna Bryner on Space.com echoed the line about Enceladus having a suitable environment for life precursors.  Her line got copied by MSNBC News in the subtitle: “Water, other ingredients could provide environment for life precursors.”  National Geographic restrained its report to the question of a liquid water ocean, but the UK Daily Mail cast all caution to the wind, announcing in bold headlines, “Are we alone?  Alien life may be thriving on Saturn’s frozen moon.”  David Derbyshire continued, “The findings, published in the journal Nature, raise the prospect that alien fish and other marine life might have evolved there.”  (See also “Mooning the Public: Life Sells” in the 04/27/2009, and “The Building Blocks of Lie,” 03/19/2008.)
    Apparently this was too much even for Live Science.  A short article was titled, “Claims of Life on Saturn Moon Overstated.”  The article said that the UK Daily Mail article “might sell papers and generate web clicks, but it’s overstated.  What NASA found was strong evidence for a salty ocean under ice on the diminutive moon Enceladus.  No signs of life were found, and in fact even the ocean needs to be confirmed, scientists said.”  It further stated that “Water is a key ingredient for life as we know it, but water in no way means there is life.”  The article written by LiveScience Staff ended by saying “nobody knows if there is life anywhere beyond Earth.”

1.  Postberg, Kempf et al, “Sodium salts in E-ring ice grains from an ocean below the surface of Enceladus,” Nature 459, 1098-1101 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08046.
2.  Schneider, Burger et al, “No sodium in the vapour plumes of Enceladus,” Nature 459, 1102-1104 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08070.
3.  John Spencer, “Planetary science: Enceladus with a grain of salt,” Nature 459, 1067-1068 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591067a.

Hallelujah!  LiveScience got it right.  The normally Darwin-worshipping, creation-ridiculing site said the right things this time: just because water is found, that does not mean life will be found, and no life is known beyond earth.  This should be patently obvious to anyone with common sense, but in this day of Darwin-drunk media, we must be grateful for small signs of progress.  National Geographic also stayed on subject.  They did not swallow Postberg and Spencer’s lure about conditions for life.  They realized that the empirical evidence relates only to the possibility of liquid water under the surface of an icy moon.
    For the rest of you science reporters out there, wise up.  We’re onto your propaganda tricks and they don’t work any more.  The titillating distractions about life are not going to sell papers and fund space missions.  Show your scientific integrity.  Maybe, then, we’ll give you a moment’s attention out of our busy lives on this life-blessed planet.
Update 06/26/2009:  Next day, Space.com posted another story about life on Titan.  “If there is life on Titan it would be very different from that on Earth.  And we don’t know if such life is possible at all.  It’s just speculation,” the speculator said.  How come Darwin Party speculations get published on science news sites, and those of sensible people do not?  Speculation is cheap.  Try ours: “If there is common sense in a Darwinist it would be very different from that in normal people.  And we don’t know if such sense is possible at all.  It’s just speculation.”  Publish that, DODOs.

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