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Mars hype teaches science lessons

NBC's Brian Williams reports on the Curiosity mission's latest findings from Mars.

Was this week's news from the Mars Curiosity mission overhyped? Or did it illustrate what happens when the scientific process collides with today's revved-up media maelstrom? "We're doing science at the speed of science ... in a world that's sort of at the pace of Instagrams," the mission's chief scientist, John Grotzinger, told reporters.

Paul Doherty, the senior staff scientist at San Francisco's Exploratorium, instantly got what Grotzinger was talking about when he referred to the speed of science.

"I know as a scientist what that means," Doherty said. "That means slow."

Doherty and I will be discussing this week's reports from the Red Planet at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT / SLT) today on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on BlogTalkRadio as well as in the Second Life virtual world. You can listen in live, or you can hear the archived version as a podcast via BlogTalkRadio or iTunes.

Doherty was in the audience on Monday when Grotzinger and his colleagues did the big reveal at the American Geophysical Union's meeting in San Francisco: Curiosity's most capable scientific lab detected the presence of some intriguing chemicals, including a highly reactive substance known as perchlorate and three types of chloromethane. But scientists couldn't yet confirm whether the methane compounds came from Mars, or whether they were cooked up using earthly carbon molecules that were left over inside Curiosity.

Modesto Tamez

Paul Doherty is senior staff scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

That's a far cry from the earthshaking news that folks were hoping for, based on the excited comments that Grotzinger made to NPR just a couple of weeks earlier. At that time, Grotzinger said the data set he was seeing would be "one for the history books," leading some to expect that the science team was on the verge of reporting signs of life on Mars.

Again, Doherty knows where Grotzinger was coming from. The Curiosity team had just confirmed that its readings were yielding consistent results in multiple tests. "That's what got Grotzinger so excited," Doherty said. That enthusiasm over the fact that the instruments were actually working, and would eventually produce findings worth putting in the history books, was misread as a sign that big news was imminent.

It will take weeks or months to confirm where the chloromethane compounds were coming from. "Give scientists time, that's the big lesson," Doherty said.

Grotzinger said they could be the result of earthly contamination, or chemical processes on Mars, or the delivery of organics from outer space by meteorites or other cosmic stuff falling onto the Red Planet. Doherty leans toward the third option.

"I suspect that there were some organics in the soil, maybe meteoritic in origin," Doherty said. "I'm thinking not biological, not contamination. But what do I know?"

It turns out that Doherty, who received his Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1974, does know a thing or two about this subject. He told me he worked on the Mars Viking mission in 1976, "looking for ice crystal halos around the sun, which we never found." But his forte is the ability to explain science to the general public, and he's up for doing a lot of that tonight.

In addition to the latest from Mars, he's ready to talk about other findings reported at the AGU — the new gravity map of the moon, for example, or today's "Black Marble" images of Earth at night. Here's hoping you'll be able to join us for tonight's "Virtually Speaking Science" session, on BlogTalkRadio or in Second Life.

More from 'Virtually Speaking Science':

Virtually Speaking Science" is hosted in Second Life by the Exploratorium. Ig Nobel founder Marc Abrahams will be my guest on Jan. 2 for a lighthearted look back at the weird science of 2012, including the Maya apocalypse ... assuming we all survive.

 Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.