Scientific Spoilers


Alejandro Soto


February 1, 2015

A Rosetta image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

A Rosetta image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by the OSIRIS camera. ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

We live in a culture filled with spoilers. With the extensive, intricate, and redundant lines of communication that connect us to each other, any new bit of news or nugget of discovery is quickly shared. Sometimes the conclusion arrives before the beginning. This is especially true in the world of storytelling, where knowing the ending can spoil the enjoyment of the story. This problem is magnified by people who enjoy being the one to ‘share’ the news. Whether malicious or not, these spoilers, both the act and the actors, have stolen the enjoyment of many stories from many people.

In a similar way, the journey of scientific discovery can be spoiled. A scientist builds a story, beginning with data or an idea or both. From that beginning, the story progresses through challenges and obstacles until a discovery or new understanding is reached, i.e., the end of the scientific story is found. For many scientists, experiencing the complete story is what makes the job so exciting. Being given the ending as opposed to discovering the ending just spoils the joy of doing science.

The immediate sharing of scientific measurements and observations risks spoiling the scientific discovery, the storytelling of science, that a scientist may have spent years pursuing. Recently, there have been complaints about the proprietary period applied to the release of images from the Rosetta mission. The BBC article discusses the political and career reasons why these images are protected for a proprietary period. But the article glosses over the desire to avoid having the scientific journey spoiled for the scientists on the Rosetta mission. Avoiding ‘scientific’ spoilers is a strong motivation for imposing proprietary periods on the images.

The Rosetta science team has spent one to two decades on this project, from the first seeds of a mission idea to the landing on the comet. They have painstakingly pieced together a riveting story about the comet. Years of research to provide a backstory to this exploration of a comet were followed by years of struggle to acquire funding, to build the spacecraft and instruments, and to eventually fly the mission. Now that they have arrived at the comet, it is only natural that they want time to experience and enjoy the end of this story. But since the scientists continue to plan the spacecraft observations of the comet, along with maintaining their regular scientific duties (teaching, advising, proposal writing, etc.), the end of this story plays out slowly, too slowly to compete with the internet. If all of the data were immediately released, the Rosetta scientists would find this decades-long epic spoiled by their understandably eager colleagues and fans on the internet who would quickly make the discoveries that are waiting in the data.

As a planetary scientist who does not work on Rosetta, I too hunger for more images from the Rosetta mission; the images that have been released are so tantalizing, revealing dune-like features and perplexing icy interiors. But, I will gladly wait. I do not want to spoil someone else’s story. Instead, I will eagerly await the day when the Rosetta team is ready to share their incredible story about a comet, a story that they have spent decades making. No spoilers for me.