Scientific Discovery

September 28, 2015

Mark was so excited by the news it was all he could think about. He was in the break room eating his morning doughnut when Carrie from Cosmetics walked in. “Hey Carrie, have you heard the about the NASA announcement?!”

Carrie shook her head. “No. What is it?”

“Well we don’t know for sure yet. They just said they have a big announcement and will be doing a press conference later today. But I think it’s probably going to be some evidence of life.”

Jason from footwear, who had just walked in, said “Whoa! You mean like they found dinosaur fossils or something?”

Mark desperately wanted it to be dinosaur fossils or something. He manfully suppressed his fantasies, however, and replied in a would-be nonchalant tone “Nah, nothing that dramatic. But they might have found microbial lifeforms or evidence of past microbial lifeforms.”

“Like, bacteria? Who cares about bacteria?” Carrie’s tone was teasing but she was clearly underwhelmed.

Alien bacteria, Carrie! That would be super huge news! Trust me!”

Later that day, a group of employees were clustered around the break room TV watching the NASA news. At the end of the segment, the room was silent. Then someone said “But … hadn’t they already found water on Mars?”

“This was different. It’s flowing water, not ice.” Mark was struggling to keep his disappointment in check. “Big difference. It is a huge discovery.”

“So if there’s flowing water, there could be like bacteria and stuff in the water then?”

“Not in this water. It’s too briny. But still, it is flowing water.”

“Okay… Alright, who wants to go get some burgers?” and the room quickly emptied out.


A little over a month later

Carrie and Mark were on their lunch break when Jason walked in. “Hey Mark. Dude, I hear NASA’s making a big announcement again. You know what, I bet they found water on Mars!” He chuckled “Like it’s 50% more watery than the water they found last time.”

“No no,” giggled Carrie “It’s like water flowing down a hill this time. They proved that water on Mars flows downhill! OhMyGawd!”

“Very funny guys. The rumors are that it’s something about the rate of escape of the atmosphere. Mars used to be like Earth but then turned into this dry arid planet. There has been speculation the atmosphere was stripped off by solar storms and now it appears they’ve proved it.”

“Wow dude, that’s lamer than the salty water.”


That evening, at the White House

The president sat at the head of a very long conference table. For a moment, before the other attendees came in, he allowed himself to slump with his head between his hands. It had been a long day.

Then the door opened and the others walked in. The president sat up and watched them enter with tired but alert eyes. There was an older man in an impeccable civilian suit that did not hide his military bearing — the director of NASA. He had brought one of his minions along, someone whose name was too unimportant to figure in the presidents briefing notes. The minion was much younger and also formally dressed but still managed to convey that undefinable air of hipster-ness given off by self-labeled “creatives”.

The director launched into his briefing with military precision. The announcement had gone off well. Several scholarly and surprisingly accurate articles had appeared in nearly all the major news outlets covering the story. The discovery was well covered, its implications were also made clear, in admirably non-sensationalist tones.

“What about the PR angle?” asked the president.

The hipster piped up “PR was perfect. Generated a ton of positive energy for NASA. At the same time there was just the right amount of perplexity, cynicism and disappointment. It was perfectly orchestrated : the lead up time gave space for speculation. Bunch of crazy theories thrown around that were laughed at but sunk in the subconscious. Ultimately it all becomes part of the zeitgeist. And then the delivery of the actual news was comforting in its relative inanity. But the needle had been moved just a little forward. Hehe, there was this one cartoon that showed the NASA press conference just as a big board with two check boxes for ‘Aliens’ vs ‘No Aliens’ …” He trailed off into silence as his boss glared at him.

The director resumed “So yes the PR has gone well. In fact, this announcement was textbook.” He gave a pleased smile.

The president did not smile. Instead he said abruptly “Walk me through the rest of the plan.”

“Yes, sir.” The director did not need to consult his notes. He began to rattle off at top speed “It is based on the theory of drawn out surprise. We have planted some very crucial seeds in a way that’s not alarming to anyone. We continue to follow the same policy… About three months from now we will announce that the rate of atmosphere loss was sped up by various comet collisions, so that Mars was habitable much more recently than previously believed. Then about two months later we’ll announce that a comet collision 5 billion years ago displaced Martian physical material and launched it directly into earth’s atmosphere. Give that six months to sit, then we’ll announce that based on our analysis of the liquid water channels we are now confident that microbial life existed on Mars. Inevitable speculation starts that microbial life on Earth could have been seeded from Mars. Say four months for those rumors to spread, be discussed and digested. Then we will officially confirm them. That has got to be a big splash. Probably trigger a lot of controversy. But the nice thing is it’s all safely in the past. While there’s vigorous debate, it all feels academic. Still, you need to give a while for it to settle down. So for a while, instead of any big news, there is a steady trickle of small hints. Geological analysis showing interesting fossil fuel like substances. Topological assessments showing interesting features that cannot be explained by natural erosion. Possibility of underground flowing water. Subterranean cave like structures of astonishing size and regularity. Build up for about a year. I assure you that shrewd minds will be putting two and two together easily. There will be a second round of vigorous speculation. The speculators will be dismissed as crazy but as the evidence piles on, they will go more and more mainstream. Their theories will be discussed in science magazines, web forums, talk shows, satirized on SNL. People will laugh, they will scoff but they will start to be mentally prepared. And when the idea has seeped sufficiently into the — uh, the zeitgeist — but while it’s still fresh and hasn’t rotted into ugly fear mongering — we swoop in and land the rest of the news. We announce that thorough investigation by a cross-functional committee of top scientists has concluded that intelligent life did evolve on Mars. Very intelligent life.” The director finally had to pause for breath. He took off his glasses, rubbed them and put them back on.

“When the planet became increasingly unlivable, they built structures underground to survive. And then we’ll transport the Martian king and his cabinet here and they will immediately do a live in-person press conference. They have been extremely cooperative about the whole idea.”

The president leaned back in his seat, staring up at the ceiling. Then he broke into a wide grin.

“Yes, sir?” asked the director.

“I was just thinking … by then my term will be long over.” The president stood up suddenly, gathered his papers and started to walk out. “And by then this can all be President Trump’s problem.”

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.