A few days ago, a pre-print of a research paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal appeared online. The paper concerns the fascinating object known as ‘Oumuamua, which was found in late in 2017 and is the first object of interstellar origin observed in our Solar System.
Scientists still aren’t sure what the oddly cigar-shaped object is, and they were further intrigued when they observed it accelerating away from the Sun. An analysis based upon multiple telescopes aimed 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 great explanations for why this apparent acceleration occurred.
The new paper investigates the possibility of solar radiation pressure, or the momentum transfer of photons striking an object. This radiation pressure is the driving idea behind “solar sails” that may 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 might be subjected to enough radiation pressure to explain ‘Oumuamua’s movement, and by what natural processes this might occur. At the end of their paper, however, the authors, present “a more exotic scenario” in which they speculate that ‘Oumuamua may be “a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”
In recent days, some media have seized upon this single line from the paper. Such language, especially from a source like Harvard scientists, is catnip for online news editors, with the possibility of using phrases like “aliens,” and “mysterious cigar-shaped object,” and “Harvard researchers” in the same headline.
As a result, we have seen lots of hyperbolic coverage. NBC News reported, “Scientists say mysterious ‘Oumuamua’ object could be an alien spacecraft.” Fox News had, “Mysterious interstellar object could be ‘lightsail’ sent from another civilization.” CNN headlines with, “Cigar-shaped interstellar object may have been an alien probe, Harvard paper claims.” Simply search Google News for “‘Oumuamua” to get the full effect.
This is, of course, some pretty sloppy science news coverage. But in this case, most of these stories are not being written by trained science writers but rather online reporters who see the potential for a flashy headline. While it is not “fake news,” is is certainly a classic clickbait.
But there’s more at work here. Katie Mack, an astrophysicist and astute observer of scientists and the media, has noted on Twitter that the Harvard scientists knew perfectly well what they were doing. “The thing you have to understand is: scientists are perfectly happy to publish an outlandish idea if it has even the tiniest *sliver* of a chance of not being wrong,” she wrote. “But until every other possibility has been exhausted dozen times over, even the authors probably don’t believe it.
“Some of us are more conservative, of course,” she continued. “And it surely varies by field. But in my area (astrophysics/cosmology), there’s generally no downside to publishing something that’s (a) somehow interesting and (b) not completely ruled out, whether or not it ends up ‘the right answer.'”
In other words, if you’re a researcher looking to create a media splash, you play the, “I’m not saying it was aliens…” card.