In 1781, the Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an astonishing addition to the known universe. He became Sir William, and global renown followed. In 1846, Neptune was discovered by astronomers in Berlin. This time there was a lot less trans-European happiness, with angry debates in Parliament about the incompetence of British astronomers in missing out.
In 1930, little controversy attended the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in Arizona. But there was a good media frenzy. The New York Times led on the story and said that Pluto was at least as big as the Earth, with even wilder suggestions (as big as Jupiter?) on the inside pages.
We now know that Pluto is only one of many tiny objects beyond Neptune, and that none of them is anything like as big as the Earth. So the idea that there is a planet out there (Planet 9 in the jargon) with about 10 Earth masses is a big suggestion. To be clear, nobody has “discovered” such an object by seeing it, as Herschel did Uranus. But they have inferred its existence from the orbital patterns of other, smaller objects. If it exists, it is about as massive as Uranus, but a lot farther away.
Given current interest in these matters (piqued by the recent New Horizons flyby of Pluto), it should be obvious to anyone that even this non-discovery has big news value. So how would Caltech, the top university where the scientists concerned are based, announce it? And what about the Institute of Physics, which publishes the venerable Astronomical Journal (founded 1849) which had the paper?
Not too well, really. They took a decision to issue the story on an embargoed basis to a dozen favoured journalists, mainly from US publications, and leave the rest of the media to work it out for themselves when the paper got published. This is plainly unfair to hundreds of professional, hard-working journalists and their millions of readers, viewers and listeners, but it raises other issues too.
The embargo system is intended to help readers (viewers, listeners….) by allowing reporters to talk to their contacts and get the story right. So if you only tell a select group, you are inviting the others to get it wrong. In fact, one of the 12 broke the embargo anyway, so even the elite dozen did not get the inside track they must have hoped for, let alone everyone else who was left scrambling for the story.
What’s the lesson? First, even big, prestigious organisations in publishing and research can get media relations horribly wrong. Next, exclusivity is a risky strategy. There might be very specialist stories which it is right to issue to a friendly scribbler with an established interest, but this was sure not one of them. Finally, astronomy is the most global of subjects. The 12 were mainly from US media, although UK-based Nature was on the list. So the whole endeavour ended up looking jingoistic as well as ill-considered, and this with a story that was reported around the world.
Although the putative Planet 9 is a lot more distant than Uranus, telescopes have got better in the past 235 years, and it is possible to develop strategies for finding it. Caltech will almost certainly be involved. When it happens, let’s hope they choose to tell the world’s media about it on a more level playing field.