This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon's moment in the sun. But as the television crew takes positions, the 34-year-old scientist glances at the gray, churned-up lake behind her and gathers her collar around her neck. On cue, she begins her explanation of this lake's unique chemistry, her voice rising in volume and pitch above the wind.
She's halfway through the take when the gulls arrive. They swoop and swirl above the shoreline in a swarm, calling in harsh, jeering tones that drown out her carefully chosen words. As the sound technician pulls off her headphones in frustration, the director Oliver Twinch halts the taping and ventures a smile in Wolfe-Simon's direction. "How about we try that one again?" he says.
"I think we'll have to move," Wolfe-Simon says, peering down toward her boots. "I'm sinking in the mud."
It is this mud, and the peculiar microbes in it, that have stuck Wolfe-Simon in the middle of one of the most extraordinary scientific disputes in recent memory. Last December, at a highly publicized NASA press briefing, Wolfe-Simon announced that her research team had isolated bacteria from Mono Lake, on the edge of California's Eastern Sierra mountain range, that could subsist on arsenic in place of phosphorus, one of the elements considered essential for all life.
The research, financed mostly by NASA and published initially in the online edition of Science, jolted the scientific community. If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. It would open up the possibility of a shadow biosphere, composed of organisms that can survive using means that long-accepted rules of biochemistry cannot explain. And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter's moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where "alien" life was discovered.
the conflict spilled into the mainstream, the scientific community witnessed something few would have predicted: meaningful public engagement over a serious scientific issue. For several days, at least, a good many watercooler conversations revolved around the metabolic capabilities of a Gammaproteobacterium.But within days, researchers began to question Wolfe-Simon's methodology and conclusions. Many of them cast aside traditions of measured commentary in peer reviewed periodicals and voiced their criticism directly on blogs and Twitter. Then, as
Among academics, the debate devolved into something more vitriolic and personal. One researcher questioned whether Wolfe-Simon and her team were "bad scientists." Another called her work "science fiction." One blog post bore the title "Is Felisa Wolfe-Simon an Alien?"
In early June, a few days before going to Mono Lake, Wolfe-Simon and I met at a café in Palo Alto. Standing just over five feet tall, she has curly brown hair and wears a tiny diamond stud in her nose. She ordered an espresso at the counter, sat down, and pulled a digital audio recorder from her bag.
"Mind if I tape this?" she asked.
Wolfe-Simon had spent much of the previous six months avoiding the media, insisting that she and her colleagues needed to focus on their formal "technical response" to the criticisms leveled against them. The months we'd spent negotiating this face-to-face interview had featured several last-minute cancellations, including one issued when I was on the plane out to meet her. She told me she had been misquoted and misunderstood by both her scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths. Hence the recorder. "Now I understand what's going on," she told me, "when you see 'So-and-so's office has been contacted, but they will have no comment.' "
Wolfe-Simon has learned to be cautious in her dealings with the media—she has learned that it can be dangerous to reveal too much of herself—but she does have comment. The daughter of trumpet players, she earned two bachelor's degrees from Oberlin College, one in oboe performance and one in biology (with a chemistry minor). When she talks about the process of science, she talks about rigor, the need to build in yourself the tools necessary to answer the questions you ask. She talks about endless repetition. "When musicians go up there and it looks like they're having fun," she says, "what you're seeing are the long hours in the practice room." She says this in a way that suggests that to her it's the long hours that are fun, or at least deeply satisfying. "Science isn't easy," she says. "But there's a joy and synergy in coming to a deeper understanding of the nature around you."
An excellent article to read! Felisa Wolfe-Simon appears to be an awesome scientist and a victim of politics from different directions.
"And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter's moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where 'alien' life was discovered."
Would it not have to be extraterrestrial in order for it to be alien? lol j/k
'Alien' can refer to anything unfamiliar; like the genetic make up of arsenic bacteria vs phosphorous.
"She told me she had been misquoted and misunderstood by both her scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths."
Most people tend to shun any new ideas that upsets the old order because of dogma and egotism. People like being right, and are afraid of the type of change that shakes the foundation of all the truths they hold onto.
I wonder how the investigation into the readings of the FTL neutrinos is going.
i agree, thanks a lot politics, you've captured another victim of the great society
"victim of the great society"?
Care to elaborate on that one? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society)
"Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill.
Tell them firmly:
I am not paid to listen to this drivel.
You are a terminal boob." - William S. Burroughs
"Maybe she should go into marketing"
I died a little when I read that. I've shared the same thought many times, though.
Einstein, Kepler, Tesla, Fermi, Newton and Curie could all rise from the grave tomorrow and get back into research, and I doubt they'd be any richer than most bankers, traders or corporate lawyers. Money doesn't lead to happiness, I know... being rich isn't the ultimate goal, I know... but it seems unjust that scientists performing fundamental research get such a meager reward for unraveling the mysteries of our world. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, whether her discovery turns out to be true or not, has contributed more to humanity than the ShamWow or the numerous Apple-Samsung court cases ever will. Still, she's left wondering whether her distant admirer shouldn't just save herself the trouble and study marketing instead of science.
"Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us." - Henri Matisse (apparently)
The data in the original Science article are very poor or irrelevant to the points that the authors wish to establish. Even worse, the data are fundamentally misrepresented in the text of the article. There is practically no one in the scientific community who sees anything worthwhile in the article. The inability of the authors of the article to accept the validity of the numerous criticisms is evidence for their inadequacy as scientists. The media has also demonstrated its incredible naivete. Its unwillingness to perform a self-examination about how it could be so easily taken in by such a confidence trick is disturbing.
I did a search of Felisa Wolfe-Simon on the internet. There seems to be a problem of her and her pears representing themselves, but at the same time there exist some validity to what she says. So maybe a new discovery of a new life, microbe arsenic life form has been discovered. It just needs further verification from another completely separate scientific source. So it’s kind of confusing and unverified; no time to make a party yet it seems or even publishes an article about it too.
Other than the fact that science is much harder than any other academic pursuit, the fact that it's far less financially rewarding is what drives people to make the other decision. Scientist make the major discoveries that are not realized until several years after the fact. For this, present emphasis on importance does not rest with scientists' advocacy on the possibilities that could be, but on the engineers' advocacy of what's possible (and affordable) now.
Good article, I think the most important point here is the following: "No matter how the peer-review process is amended, the arsenic-life affair laid bare the challenges of scientific discourse in a new media age. The productive collision of ideas and personalities and opinions has long been refereed and filtered by science journals. If that process has made science seem, from a distance, civilized and rational, it has also made it slow and undemocratic."
Technology allows us to process information quicker than ever before. Review through the internet certainly is an interesting idea. The only hurdle is how to ensure that opinions in the discussion is constructive and filter out ones that are not. Unfortunately, the need to filter seems to be counteracting the free-discussion and openness of this approach.
In the end, the public needs to be more aware and educated in the sciences to be able to think critically, instead of accepting/speculating what they are told through the media. Science is never ending, ever improving. And understanding that any new discoveries needs to be tested and reconfirmed by a large number of experiments before it may be widely accepted will be beneficial to us in the long run.
This is academia at its best. Any new idea in any subject is met with resentment, terror, and then complete hostility. The only thing that is surprising is how they have drug this out into the open to become water cooler conversations. All I can say to that is it really must scare the piss out of people who have staked their professional reputations on life only being what we have always thought it to be.
@SD...many of her critics have re-examined their criticism and now have a different opinion than yours, or are you just trolling...funny how the critics used the internet and media to criticise her for using the internet and media to communicate her hypothosis, these critics should be ashamed of themselves and hopefully she has learned from her mistake (it appears she has) and that her carreer does not suffer permanent damage, to bad this wasn't handled like the CERN neutrino findings, cheers
I understand that the root of the problem is that it's hard to monetize a discovery when it's only used in an application years later. Plus, there is no mechanism in our current legal framework to give credit to a scientist's part in product development. There are only patents, but you can't patent a discovery related to fundamental science. And rightly so... (don't get me started on gene patents :-\)
Still, the US has wholeheartedly and comprehensively embraced capitalism. In that specific context, it seems that scientists performing fundamental research are getting the shaft. From the birth of a consumer product to its death, everyone is getting a piece of the pie: engineering, manufacturing, testing, management, marketing, publicity, legal, finance, distribution, retail,... but the scientist who originally discovered the fundamental principle that allows the product to exist is left writing countless grant applications to keep his/her lab running.
Anyhow. I realize that this isn't an easy problem to solve. I just find the current situation ... lacking.
"If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. [...] And it would give Mono Lake [...] the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where “alien” life was discovered."
I don't know which "scientists" you consulted for that piece of hyperbole, but they're flat wrong. Not even Felisa Wolfe-Simon would make such an outrageous statement, I'd hope.
No, IF her results are correct (and that's still a big IF), all it would show is that some otherwise fairly ordinary bacteria have a very interesting trick up their sleeves that we hadn't seen (or even thought possible) before. And this would have consequences for the range of environments we might be able to find "life as we know it" in the universe (hence the NASA exobiology link).
But there's absolutely nothing "alien" or "distinct from all others forms of life known on Earth" about Halomonas GFAJ-1. Heck, it's not all that different from good ol' E. coli, for that matter.
I wish Felisa Wolfe-Simon well and I hope her career continues prosperously! ;)
Nice article! Would like more like this from POPSCI.
Always thought the overreaction to her findings were way out of proportions. Sounded like a bunch of jaded/disgruntled scientists though.
I'd like to know one way or the other whether what was claimed is actually happening and wasn't just a false observation based on our lack of being able to actually observe something so small.
The point of the discovery is that it's fundamentally changed the chemical composition necessary for what we call "life".
This means we could expect to find "life" in places we thought it might be impossible before.
If GFAJ-1 can live off of arsenic instead of phosphorous, then perhaps other life-forms can as well. That's why it's special.
"Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill.
Tell them firmly:
I am not paid to listen to this drivel.
You are a terminal boob." - William S. Burroughs
Those who control the system have set up peer review to stop anything from upsetting the status quo. Like Michael Crichton once famously said:
Consensus science is not science it is politics.
Seems like we have another scientists who has fallen victim to a insidious system.
This was one of the best science writing articles I've seen in a long time. Thanks for doing her story justice.
I look forward to a follow up story on this, particularly if the assertion that arsenic can and is working in DNA. I'm rather surprised this article came out before that conclusion was actually able to garner more support or whether it was fully refuted. This is one of the few times where I would think science could prove this one way or another in a pretty simple manner. (simple being relative, of course)
Anyone who has gone through a graduate program in the sciences (see the link in my sig) should know that you must anticipate the questions which will be raised by your findings and you must answer those questions yourself first. You must take a hard look at your findings and try your hardest to disprove them yourself before anyone else has a crack at them. The more outrageous the claim you are making, the more heroic the effort you must make to test it yourself before you go public with it. The claim that arsenic can make a stable link in DNA in place of phosphorous goes against all chemical observations of arsenic made for over a hundred years. If I were to want to publish a paper claiming this new and previously unobserved property of arsenic, I would do more to anticipate my critics than this team did.
There are some simple experiments these scientists could have done to disprove their claims, but they did not choose to do them.
Great story and very well presented.
The results of her work will either be duplicated and confirmed or refuted. And either way the analytical techniques developed will benefit future science.
The fact that NASA hyped the story does not excuse the personal attacks.
Fortunately, for her and her team members, their work did not challange AGW.
That would have lead to much more serious and career affecting attacks.
This article points out the biggest problem in science today. It is made up largely of a bunch of pathetic immature egotistical arrogant creatures, whose only concern is being recognized as smarter than their peers.
Great article!! It brings to light a disturbing trend. Recent scientific disagreements have increasingly become filled with personal attacks and venom, much like the political extremism pervasive across the nation. What is this country devolving into? This attitude of "either my way or the highway" is not going to foster any progress. We've become a collection of tribes at war with one another. If we cannot discuss differences of opinion calmly and with civility, focusing only on observable and repeatable data, the outcome will inevitably be based on who ever shouts the loudest gets his way. Not exactly a process to find the truth. To be passionate about the truth is good science, to be passionate about protecting one's own position is narcissism.
The perils of open science, where everyone is an expert and the level of cynicism runs high. In part, the scientific community is to blame, relying as it does on internal sources for a sense of how it is doing, inevitably wrong as it would be for anyone so self-reflexive. In part, scientists have shilled for problematic sponsors like big corporations concerned only with the bottom-line -- for example, Monsanto with its genetic sports that it passes off for food -- or the Defense Department, consuming trillions of tax dollars for demonstrably failed purposes. (Have we won a war since WW2?)
But the bigger problem nowadays is the raging anti-science movement that wants to take societies, not just in the USA but elsewhere, back to the Middle Ages. They would prefer we put our faith (no pun intended) in priests with magic powers and ideologies that require suspending not just scientific process but common sense. Let's all believe in ghosts and divine images on tacos, they say, meanwhile pocketing contributions from followers scared out of their wits by an incomprehensible world made more so by lack of confidence in science.
Who willingly would subject themselves to the wisdom of the mob as too often epitomized by the Internet? But scientists must, because their calling requires findings to be scrutinized and hypotheses tested, the tests themselves first having to pass muster. Wolfe-Simon's just one of many scientists who have two choices, apparently: retreat back into the cloister, speaking only to like minds; or take the offensive and show the anti-science louts for what they are -- at the expense of doing more useful work.
What a dilemma. The rational majority wishes her well.
PS ... And yes, even scientists can be anti-science, anti-new paradigms, when their bread is buttered on the other side. Case in point.
Sounds like all it needed was a 3rd party to confirm the findings (no doubt done by now). Not sure why people choose to jump to slandering someone before even attempting to confirm the evidence scientifically. Its a shame, but luckily the truth is what remains and the slanderers eventually move on to their next victim.
While science must be scrutinized for validity, brutal personal attacks are both unprofessional and a sign of the larger societal problem of the loss of civility.
I hope that the science community will treat my daughter, Felisa, and all scientists, with civility and respect, despite disputes about their research. Jealousy is not an attractive personality trait.
Hats off to Felisa!
Theory doesn't prohibit it, the morphology of arsenic suggests it, and an experiment seems to demonstrate it, so it's proposed that life can be based on an arsenic cycle similar to the phosphorus cycle. Yes, the implications are exciting.
OK, so Felisa got a bit giddy over at NASA. Hey, they were paying the tab, why shouldn't she join the party?
What Wolfe-Simon is experiencing a massive dose of sour grapes. Redfield is a hack and looks like an alien herself. Of course she'd object to this, claiming she's been mis-characterized by the media. It would have been nice if she'd allowed Wolfe-Simon the same.
It's a solid hypothesis and a solid experiment and a solid paper, and the editor of Science doesn't need to make a silly mea culpa.
Wasn't science pretty certain that life couldn't exist in super-hot environments until we found out it could. As with neutrinos, don't blame the observer for reporting something you don't like.
What is there about scientists that cause them to freak out every time someone comes up with a new "discovery?" Science is based on the world we think we understand to exist at any given time and place. The world isn't necessarily consistent in all its forms, and god only knows what "contradictions" lie before us in Space. Or is it simply that ego doesn't like to be up staged? Sadly, there is a significant element that feeds off government contracts based on one's unique place in the sun. That shouldn't need further explanation.
Have we arrived at a point where science is secure in the concept that they have discovered everything to be discovered? One would certainly hope not but the backlash as detailed here sure reeks of something akin to an inquisition.
We don't have to bend or break the rules of science and discovery to accept that we might not be quite as smart as we think we are.
This news is troubling because it does now frame mainstream science in the same gallery where we once found a smothering, church-driven theocracy that behaved the very same way to others... like Galileo.