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Marketing the cosmos

There's a fine line between generating buzz and spreading misinformation.
RELATED TOPICS: COSMOS
bob_berman_2009
Every day brings astronomy news. What grabs attention is the headline. Those big letters at the top of the page pull you in. But have you noticed how headlines have been changing?

It sometimes starts with academic, corporate, and governmental agencies that crave media attention. Public awareness brings them business or helps get them funded. So nearly everyone wants major newspapers and Internet sites to carry their event or discovery.

There’s lots of competition. Countless scientific agencies, private space companies, universities, and research facilities send out daily press releases. Editors of mass media entities wade through a steady stream. They disseminate only a tiny percentage, which is what you end up reading.

I’m a player in that ballgame. At Slooh.com, we always try to get the media interested in our upcoming webcasts. In the old days, we merely announced ahead of time that we’d be streaming a meteor shower with low-light video cameras or using our Canary Island telescopes for live views of some comet. But a few years ago, we got wise. We realized that more of the mass media would focus on an event if we gave it a catchy headline. When announcing last July’s close approach of asteroid 2011 UW158, we called it the “5.4 Trillion Dollar Asteroid.” That’s the value of the platinum it may contain. Our show included me interviewing the president of Planetary Resources, the company that hopes to mine that planetoid. Nothing phony about any of it. But the catchy headline garnered lots of attention.

And instead of merely announcing this past September’s lunar eclipse, Astronomy magazine’s cover called it the “Eclipse of the Super Moon.” That article accurately and candidly discussed the recent explosion of media hype of sky events and how they sensationalize astro-phenomena that professional astronomers know to be subtle or even unobservable.

“Near miss by an asteroid” is another universal attention-grabber because people worry about impacts, and tying astronomy to personal paranoia is one key to generating interest. The point? The art of marketing now often envelops science.


NEARLY EVERYONE WANTS MAJOR NEWSPAPERS AND INTERNET SITES TO CARRY THEIR EVENT OR DISCOVERY.


It can easily create misinformation. Last July, the NASA Kepler folks found yet another exoplanet. Researchers had already found thousands. Our Milky Way Galaxy might boast more than 20 billion Earth-like worlds in orbits where liquid surface water could exist. So what could justify a front page New York Times story about finding yet another one, one that’s less Earth-like than previous discoveries?

Packaging, that’s what. The Kepler media people issued a press release calling their newly found world “Earth’s bigger, older cousin.” Then the news media went further, calling it “Earth 2.0.” Catchy. It made headlines around the world. Unfortunately, some news outlets mistakenly called it an “Earth twin” or “the first found beyond our solar system.”

In truth, that particular exoplanet, named Kepler-452b, has five times the mass of Earth, a 50 percent larger diameter, and twice our gravity — not remotely an Earth twin. Indeed, it’s a coin toss whether it even has a rocky surface as opposed to being a gas world like Neptune. It really didn’t deserve the front page. But the “Earth 2.0” phraseology resonated among editors looking for a news hook.

The public adores the notion of “another Earth,” and the hope of finding E.T. life is the engine driving that train. You can thus count on many more hyped-up headlines surrounding routine exoplanet discoveries. The honest-to-goodness major discoveries in that area were: a) the first exoplanet detected around a sunlike star, 51 Pegasi, two decades ago, and b) finding thousands more of all kinds, letting us know there are many billions in our galaxy.

Those are the important takeaways. As for the future, truly sensational news would be discovering either radio signals signifying intelligence or at least free oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, which would indicate plant life. Nothing else matters very much. Having Earth’s mass and a comfortable orbit makes for a good storyline because it makes readers imagine an Earth look-alike. In reality, those characteristics may or may not mean there’s life. Or even any resemblance to our world. Millions of planets will meet those criteria. But then what? We can’t go for a close-enough look, not for centuries to come.

Anyway, if finding E.T. is important, life-friendly oceans might lurk just under the ice on several bodies here in our solar system. The easiest to examine is probably on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Shouldn’t we fast track a lander to check it out? We could get there in three years with today’s rocketry. Care to guess how many such life-probing missions are being built?

Zero.

Those saltwater seas need media attention, which would ignite public interest, jump-start funding, and get NASA moving beyond a few flybys and onto the surface. Europa’s warm ocean desperately needs marketing assistance. First hype requirement: a catchy name.

Got an idea?

Contact me about my strange universe by visiting http://skymanbob.com.
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