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Alex R. Blackwell

Nice blog, Oliver. In the first paragraph, however, did you mean to write "Strauss reports that ESA denies categorically that PFS has detected [ammonia]..."?

As Bruce Moomaw can attest, he and I have bandied this issue about elsewhere. Personally, I did not find any ambiguity, especially with Formisano's use of the word "possibly," in the passage:

"The high spectral resolution allows us also to identify a number of small signatures which possibly will bring us to the identification of minor compounds (at the moment a good candidate is ammonia)."

In my opinion, Formisano never states, or even hints, that the PFS had found ammonia. That said, however, I guess different people can interpret the same statement differently. And I'll concede that "good candidate" might lead a reader of the abstract to be overly optimistic and assume a certain conclusion even though the interval between abstract submission and conference presentation is on the order of months.

As the old saying goes, though, "Betwixt the cup and the lip lie many a slip." One should keep in mind that these are *science* abstracts, not political press releases. Usually, a scientist(s) states, or at least tries to state, clearly what he or she is claiming. Indeed, the waffling or hedging generally happens *because* of peer review, not before ;-)

While conference abstracts are easily accessible to the public, I've always cautioned about relying too much on them, especially the brief submissions that are typical of COSPAR and EGU meetings. One should also bear in mind that conference abstracts are almost never subject to peer review, are usually submitted months ahead of time, and are typically speculative and often present very preliminary views that are then subjected to the filter of peer review. Of course, rumors aren't peer-reviewed, either. And combining both of these sources, especially in the apparent absence of any solicited comment from the PI of the instrument, to generate a "scoop" can instead leave one scooping egg off of one's face.

Bruce Moomaw

I fully agree that the COSPAR and EGU abstracts -- in particular -- are so insanely short that any reporter in his right mind would ask the author for further clarification before writing ANYTHING based on them. (At a minimum, this abstract's phrasing was so ambiguous that it was impossible to understand clearly just what it was really saying.)

In any case, before making an announcement as spectacular as this, Whitehouse had an elementary responsibility to phone Formisano for more details before writing that piece, even if the original abstract had been far more detailed (like those for, say, the LPSC).

Bruce Moomaw

I should add that what struck me as ambiguous about that COSPAR abstract was the use of "allows us to identify" rather than "will allow us to identify" -- which allows it to be interpreted as saying that the PFS team has ALREADY identified "a number of small signatures" that may indicate the existence of trace compounds, that further analysis may allow these compounds to be specifically identified, and that it already appears that ammonia is one of them. Certainly, however, the ambiguity is such that Whitehouse had an obvious duty to double-check.

Philippe Labrot

I have read your interesting story from the cyberspace inside the COSPAR building in Paris, and I have decided to ask directly Mr V. Formisano about the ammonia detection. He told me that BBC was simply wrong, and that he never mentions ammonia. I have followed almost all conference concerning the martian atmosphere, and the ammonia was indeed never mentioned. However, it is also clear that the PFS team is looking not only to methane, but also to others biomarkers. And it is not surprising. If you have a powerful instrument able to detect traces amount of gases, especially biomarkers, in the martian atmosphere, why ignore them ?
ESA is maybe to careful with data interpretation, but the significance of methane detection (and others biomarkers like NH3) is also amazing. To be honest, after talking about methane with some scientists, I have the feeling that something big is under preparation ... ;-)
By the way, your book is awesome Oliver !

Rick L. Sterling

Linda M. Howe has published another article on Mars Ammonia on her website EarthFiles.Com. The URL for the article is http://www.earthfiles.com/news/news.cfm?ID=749&category=Science

Kent Betts

I read Formisano's pdf file for COSPAR with great interest until I got to the word idratation. Did he mean irradiation or what?

Michael Khan

As a reply to Kent Betts' query, I surmise from
the context that the term "idratation" is supposed to mean "hydration" i.e., exposed to or containing a certain amount of water - effectively the opposite of "dehydration". Misspellings of this nature (roughing Italian and English orthography) are not uncommon in English texts written by Italians. I don't know why - surely a spellchecker would elimiate these bloopers.

David Mimoun

Hello all,

I was also in COSPAR last week and at the panel of friday evening, the PI of MEx , A. Chicarro told the audience that an article about all this was submitted [to Nature?] and under review. He also told that it was something about methane and "other components". From various sources (including DLR people close to Formisano) this paper should include a map of the methane repartition which "should" show something around Tharsis. To be confirmed wednesday ?


Alex R. Blackwell

The search for life on Mars
Mark Peplow
Published online: 27 July 2004; | doi:10.1038/news040726-3

Bruce Moomaw

Here's something else on the subject, printed in the London Times back on July 18 -- this time a follow-up on Michael Mumma's ground-based investigations: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1182551,00.html

It really appears that the Martian methane finding, at an rate, definitely is NOT a hoax, although whether its source is biological or geological remains uncertain. (The fact that Mumma has found a concentration over Meridiani by no means rules out the possibility that it's due to volcanic venting there -- and if there's also a concentration over the Tharsis volcanoes, that would seem to increase the odds of that.)

By the way, for the curious: yes, Mumma IS the original spelling of Moomaw. The Mummas were Huguenot Frenchmen who sensibly got the hell out of there following the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and a lot them headed up to the Netherlands (which insisted on re-spelling their names) and thence to the US.


Here's the original PFS spectra with the tentative identification of ammonia:


Borek Lupomesky

So what the state of things? In the article "ESA denies categorically that PFS has detected ammonia", yet there's ESA web page with annotated PFS spectrum with ammonia clearly indicated.


As to the state of things, your guess is as good as mine. It seems to me that ESA is simply frightened that a finding that needs so much more confirmation will be taken as fact by the media and ESA will be left with the proverbial egg over their faces if independent experts dispute it. Strange that they should publish the data on their website though. Competing factions in ESA?

Oliver Morton

Very interesting. Not entirely to my surprise, the ESA page with the spectrum on it is now (Tuesday 3rd, 17:00UT) unavailable.

Many thanks to you all for the excellent comments, BTW -- your resolute seeking out of new data puts the management of this establishment to shame...

Oliver Morton

The weirdly-formatted data is still available at the Google cache for those who want it.


When I Click on the the URL "smerral" provided for the PFS Mars Ammonia spectra, I'm still able to access the web page. I don't think they have removed the web page!


The spectrum linked to was produced almost six monthes ago - the esa site conveniently numbers articles chronologically and the article id places it in mid-Feb (as does the 'last updated' field on the index page that links into the article and also the source HTML of the page lists Feb 2004 as the source date - although I never trust either of these sources!)

So we seem to have a tentative id of ammonia in Mid-Feb followed by the April earthfiles interview. And then frantic public retractions in June/July coupled with rumours of a *big* paper coming up in Nature soon. Mmmm


I was under the impression that Mars was volcanically inactive.

Rick Sterling

Here's a new Enterprise Mission article about Mars Ammonia. Comments? http://www.enterprisemission.com/amonia.htm An interesting question is this. Given the fact that ESA posted the Mars ammonia data on their website in Feb, 2004, why is Nature now saying they never found it? This is absolutely ridiculous. How can ESA post the PFS technical data for their Mars Ammonia discovery & there not be ammonia on Mars?

Alex R. Blackwell

Do you have any idea how Science works? Any discovery by PFS must pass peer review. So far, that has not happened. And given the intense effort needed to validate spectral datasets, this in no surprise.

And, by the way, are you seriously referencing an "article" by Hoagland? I sure hope that Oliver's blog does not morph into a series of links to kooks.

Rick Sterling

Dear Alex, Thanks for your comments. I just don't understand why ESA put the Mars Ammonia data on their website in the first place. If they don't believe there is any evidence for ammonia on Mars, I think they should say so on their website. Regarding Hoagland, although I don't agree with some comments RCH has made , I don't think he's a kook. It was Hoagland who first discussed the possible existence of life on Jupiter's moon Europa. Even if you accept the idea he wasn't the very first individual to discuss the possibility of European life, he certainly was one of the first. His Jan.,1980 article in Star & Sky magazine was an excellent & detailed discussion of the possibility of European life. Secondly, alien artifacts which RCH discusses in detail on his website is not an impossibility. Space scientists such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Jill Tarter,Farouk El Baz & Carl Sagan have discussed their possible existence. Even if you don't believe in the existence of of artifacts in the Cydonia region of Mars, the existence of alien artifacts in our solar system is a reasonable possibility.

David Sadler

Mr. Blackwell,

I take exception to your dismissal of the article referenced below and the reason you give for dismissing it.

I am the co-author of this piece, and I am not a kook. Neither do I co-author with kooks.

To meet your point, evidently, the PFS spectrum was published by the ESA clearly indicating NH3 prior to peer-review. Do you not find that interesting?

This spectrum has been totally ignored by all 'science' journals and science writers until now. Do you not find that interesting?

Finally, if you have read the article, perhaps you can clarify the obvious internal conflict between the three simple points we make.

We are attempting to correct a date in error. We applied the wrong date to the ESA PFS posting. The actual date of last revision of that post is 10 Feb 2004. We concede our error, and we are correcting it. However, this earlier posting date of the PFS spectrum only makes our article more pertinent, not less so.

Best regards,
David Sadler

• Formisano's Twilight Zone: Part 1:
'Ammonia by Any Other Name'
by Richard C. Hoagland and David Sadler

Alex R. Blackwell

David Sadler wrote:
I am the co-author of this piece, and I am not a kook. Neither do I co-author with kooks.

Alex Blackwell writes:
I'll take your word that you're not a kook; however, I can only assume you are not familiar with the overwhemlming majority of material on The Enterprise Mission website, which is either delusional (i.e., kooky) or purposely fraudulent. Either alternative is equally disturbing. A far better description of Hoagland's crap can be found at


David Sandler writes:
To meet your point, evidently, the PFS spectrum was published by the ESA clearly indicating NH3 prior to peer-review. Do you not find that interesting?

Alex Blackwell writes:
No, what I find interesting is your apparent confusion (or unfamiliarity) with the peer review process. The PFS has collected a large spectral dataset to date. Analyses of interesting features in these spectra are ongoing, which is being followed by submission of a formal paper(s) for peer review and publication in a journal(s). That said, just applying the atmospheric correction and radiative transfer algorithms is a Herculean task. Indeed, the MGS TES analyses for a global dataset on carbonates alone took a few *years*. And the types of assertions you and Hoagland make in your "article" with regard to preliminary spectra posted a couple of months after Mars Express went into orbit is naive at best, laughable at worst. I don't know what your criteria are, but for me, I'll take Formisano's word on this issue over anyone else's.

Rick Sterling

If ESA believes it only has a limited amount of evidence supporting Mars Ammonia & needs further analysis of the PFS data to determine if ammonia is actually in the Martian atmosphere, why doesn't it say that on its website. A direct statement that it has not concluded its analysis of the PFS data would be very helpful.

David Sadler

Mr. Blackwell,

Formisano's word on ammonia prior to COSPAR was that ammonia is a 'good candidate.' See the ref in the article.

Formisano's Twilight Zone: Part 1:
'Ammonia by Any Other Name'

--- on Hoagland ---

I don't know a single person I agree with totally.

Certainly, Hoagland is on the edge on many issues, but I am reminded that before one can consider and embrace a paradigm shift, one must be willing to consider things that are offensive to one's current world-view.

I would also simply point to Hoagland's, 19.5 degree predictions of energy upwelling on revolving spheres, and ask you if observation does not bear that out?

I would also point to his Mars Tidal Model and ask you where are the rovers discovering these ancient salty sea beds on Mars?

So if you wish to avoid the current question by changing the subject and attacking the man, that is your prerogative, but the subject at hand is the potential 'ammonia' on Mars that is posted on an ESA website and which is included in a COSPAR abstract by V. Formisano as a 'good candidate.'

You did not address the internal conflict in those points. You merely attempted to brush it away without meeting the logic that is self-evident in the events and statements pointed out.

It reminds me of Gil Levin's experience with his Viking LR experiment.

"It's hard to imagine why such bullet-proof evidence was denied for such a long time, and why those so vigorously denying it never did so by meeting the science, but merely by brushing it away. Of course, now that it must be acknowledged by all that there is liquid water on the surface of Mars, this starts those denying the validity of the Mars LR data down the slippery slope leading to life."
-- Dr. Gil Levin, Chief Project Scientist on the Viking Labeled Release Experiment --

--- the PFS Spectrum ---

Your attempt to sidestep, by appealing to peer-review, the ESA's posting of the PFS spectrum clearly indicating NH3, fails to answer this question.

Why would the ESA do such a thing --- publish a JUDGMENT of the results without publishing the raw data? Why publish it at all, prior to peer-review?

Secondly, why would Formisano call ammonia a 'good candidate' in his COSPAR abstract IF it had not been detected OR have been 'strongly' thought to have been detected or detectable, and then 'appear' to contradict both his own abstract and the ESA PFS spectrum posting?

David Sadler

P.S. If you can connect me with the person or team lead who submitted the job to the ESA web team to post the ESA PFS Spectrum results, I would be most appreciative. I need a name and an email.

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