When Press Releases Collide

Consecutive entries in my RSS reader yesterday:

Salty ocean in the depths of Enceladus

Discovery could have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life

An enormous plume of water spurts in giant jets from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In a report published in the international science journal Nature today (25 June), European researchers provide evidence that this magnificent plume is fed by a salty ocean. The discovery could have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life as well as our understanding of how planetary moons are formed.


Jets on Saturn’s moon Enceladus not geysers from underground ocean, says study

Water vapor jets that spew from the surface of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus are not really geysers from an underground ocean as initially envisioned by planetary scientists, according to a study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

So, I hope that clears everything up…

Before you go rushing to condemn the press offices of the institutions in question, though, note that these refer to consecutive papers in Nature (Sodium salts in E-ring ice grains from an ocean below the surface of Enceladus and No sodium in the vapour plumes of Enceladus), that use two different methods to check for sodium in the water spewing from Enceladus. One group saw signs of sodium (in data from the Cassini spacecraft), which they take as evidence for an ocean; the other saw none (in spectral analysis of Earth-based telescope images), and took that as evidence that no ocean is present. Both press releases accurately describe the papers they’re about.

The Colorado group (no ocean) gets bonus points for having the decency to mention the other paper in their press release. The European group loses points for pretending the other paper doesn’t exist.

Which group is right? As the eight-ball says, “Answer unclear, try again later.” A third (and probably fourth, fifth, and on up through Nth) study will be needed to settle the question.