Kepler Co-I Sasselov Blames Media For Misunderstanding

Keith's 27 Jul 6:28 pm EDT note: This was just posted on the Kepler website and at NASA.gov: "Earth-size is not Earth-like: the TED Talk by Dimitar Sasselov: Two weeks ago, I gave a talk at TED Global 2010 which was very well received, but caused confusion. I talked about Earth-like planets, which many people would equate to Earth-size and "habitable." Earth-size and Earth-like is certainly not the same. Take the example of Venus, an Earth-size planet whose surface will melt lead. I understand that the term "Earth-like" was misleading to most of the media coverage. The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-size planets but it has not yet discovered any; at this time we have found only planet candidates. The June 2010 Kepler data release with 306 candidates is an encouraging first step along the road to Kepler's ultimate goals, and specifically - the goal to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in and near the habitable zone. However, these are candidates, not systems that have been verified sufficiently to be considered true planets. It will take more years of hard work to get to our goal, but we can do it."

That's all that Sasselov (NASA) has to say? It took two days to generate this? Dimitar Sasselov's Kepler statement puts the blame on other people (media are people too) misunderstanding him - not on what he clearly said. He clearly said "The Galaxy is rich in small, Earth-like planets" and "the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there". These are rather bold statements for mere "candidate" planets. Moreover these words clearly evoke specific concepts in one's mind i.e. worlds - like - Earth.

If Dimitar Sasselov is going to formally represent the mission to the public then he needs vastly improve his speaking skills beyond what he currently possesses. Moreover, he needs to be reminded that this is a project funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. His audience is not some little club of elites but rather everyone, everywhere. Lastly, he needs to understand that 99.9% of humanity is not versed in the nuances, subtleties, and jargon that he and his fellow science majors use every day. He used the phrase "Earth-like" and he needs to admit that he made the error. For his audience to get the impression that they got is perfectly understandable given the words that he used.

This should be an object lesson to the Kepler team - and to NASA - as to how NOT to take a tantalizing topic and present it to the public. Sasselov bungled the delivery such that the world could not clearly understand what is - and is not proven as fact - yet.

Keith's 27 Jul 8:58 pm EDT update: there is now a lengthier post by Sasselov here. I only learned about it from an alert reader. NASA PAO has not bothered to tell the media and no mention is made on any Kepler website. So I guess you have to stumble across it or just happen to see it flash by on Twitter. The essense of my complaint is the same - Sasselov claims that this was all a misunderstanding by the media - not poor choice of words and lack of through explanation on his part such that non-astronomers (i.e. virtually everyone) can understand. Fess up Dimitar, you said what you said.

Keith's 28 Jul 10:54 am EDT update: It is rather odd that NASA Kepler and NASA PAO are shy about alerting the media to the presence Sasselov's comments (both short and long versions). No media advisory, press release, or email update have been issued. This is especially odd given the effect that his initial comments had and how the media portrayed them. Its almost as if the Kepler folks do not care to correct the record - thus letting stand the original interpretation by the media. Once again - remedial PR training for the Kepler team is long over due.

- Kepler Team Needs To Take PR 101, earlier post
- Kepler Co-Investigator Spills The Beans: Lots of Earth-like Planets, earlier post

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 28, 2010 10:54 AM.

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