Plastic on Titan?

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  • Published: Oct 2, 2013
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base / Atomic / Raman / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Proteomics / Infrared Spectroscopy / Chemometrics & Informatics / Base Peak / X-ray Spectrometry

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Reports this week that plastic had been found on Saturn's moon, Titan, show the extent to which headline writers choose to bend the truth. In fact, plastic had not been found, which is not surprising. Instead, one ingredient of earthbound plastic, propylene, had been discovered in the atmosphere of Titan, as reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Not all news media made this unfortunate error, with some correctly reporting the observation of a plastic ingredient in the atmosphere, rather than plastic on the moon itself. Others were not so accurate in their headlines, even though they were more correct in the actual reports.

The source of the misunderstanding was NASA itself, who are involved in the Cassini mission around Titan and spotted propylene using the onboard composite infrared spectrometer. The press release and subsequent publicity refer to the "plastic ingredient" but some writers have taken it upon themselves to be more sensationalistic.

In some ways, I applaud the NASA publicity machine for getting this news out there so efficiently. However, I wonder how many times I am going to have to explain to people who remember the headlines and not the content that there is no plastic on Titan.

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