Arsenic and Old Lake(s)

Science of apparently astronomical proportions happened last week, with the announcement that Mono Lake harbors arsenic-munching critters in its waters hit the news.

Maybe. Maybe not.

“NASA’s Mono Lake Arsenic Microbes Not Quite as Advertised,” headlined the Tucson Citizen on Dec. 9.
“Serious concerns have been raised about the conclusions,” said Discover Magazine, linking to Guardian.co.uk, an ocean away.

It was a good lesson in how science works.

Science is circular, that’s why they call it “re”-search. When a scientist’s observations are consequential, the next step is to publish them to gather just this sort of criticism. One scientific team’s observation is never good enough, not even if it’s NASA.

The purpose of publication, meanwhile, is to expose new ideas to a larger body of criticism, to generate discussion, to invite replication and to stimulate new questions.

In this way, research gets better.

There’s an aesthetic quality of science, too, which we all experienced last week with the NASA announcement at Mono Lake.

Our imaginations wandered into the future and throughout space, wondering what other living things could be found that integrate improbable elements in their structures.

Imaginations zipped into the past to reassemble the beginnings of life from elements that had not been considered previously. Sulfur-dependent tubeworms and the biocorrosive effects of iron-eating organisms returned to memory.

No observation can ever be considered proven, while just one contrary observation can deliver a knockout to centuries of replicated observations (the world is flat).

Not in spite of, but because of critics, science is still happening, and all is right with the world.