What more could be out there? Photo: Getty
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Nasa chief scientist says we're (possibly) only a decade away from finding alien life

It's increasingly clear that the Solar System is more life-friendly than we'd previously suspected.

Some provocative news today, as reported by Space.com - Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan told a panel yesterday that we're only "decades" from having "definitive proof" of alien life:

I think we're going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we're going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years," Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan said Tuesday (7 April) during a panel discussion that focused on the space agency's efforts to search for habitable worlds and alien life.

"We know where to look. We know how to look," Stofan added during the event, which was webcast live. "In most cases we have the technology, and we're on a path to implementing it. And so I think we're definitely on the road."

Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, also speaking on the panel agreed, arguing that evidence for life both in our Solar System and further afield is only "one generation away".

It's heady stuff, bolstered by a range of recent discoveries that have shown us that water is everywhere in the Solar System. Most prominently, we've got Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede, all large moons with vast oceans beneath their icy crusts; but we also know that smaller objects - which, to an extent, had been dismissed as dull and rocky until recently - are also wet, or at least in possession of some surface ice. That group includes Mercury and Ceres, and, of course, Mars. Together with our increasing awareness of the wateryness of asteroids and comets, and it does appear that the Solar System is a place of water - and water is the crucial factor for life as we know it, especially when liquid, as it appears is the case on some of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons where gravity and radiation make up for the distance from the Sun.

What life is present there is, if it exists, microbial at best. The chances that there's anything larger than bacteria floating around beneath the surface of Europa is so slim as to be effectively impossible, but that hasn't put a brake on the excitement felt around the space community right now. And this comes at an important time for Nasa, which is coming towards the end of its current generation of missions and preparing to pitch for funding for its next - and it will have to pick its targets carefully, as the appetite for space exploration within the US government is increasingly hostile to anything without a clear economic or prestige benefit, such as the next-gen Space Launch System heavy lift rocket. That makes the pure science of probes like, say, Cassini, harder to justify.

Despite receiving a slight budget increase in late 2014 after several years of cuts, at the end of March it was revealed that the Opportunity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter could both be victims of budget cuts imposed by Republicans in Congress, while key prestige projects - like the agency's much-feted plan to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon - have been repeatedly scaled- and pushed-back as technological and monetary challenges have grown in number. And there are those who question whether its disproportionate focus on Mars - and on the endless search for life elsewhere in the Solar System - is the most effective use of its resources.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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