In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched it as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
There was an astonishing press release on April 11 entitled "Could 'Advanced' Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?" The first paragraph proclaimed "advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe." (The full text of the press release can be read here.)
So there seems like there's a lot to like here for lay audiences. Not just dinosaurs, but intelligent alien dinosaurs! In addition, the press release was based on a paper ran in the very well-respected Journal of the American Chemical Society, so there's a prestigious journal backing this up.
Now, if you're guessing I stayed away from this as if it was the plague, you'd have guessed right. Tellingly, the American Chemical Society has yanked the press release from its site, and the paper as well — yikes.
So what was the paper actually on? The very simple phenomenon of chirality. Just as human hands come in left and right varieties, so do many molecules. This handedness property is known as chirality, which is derived from the Greek word for hand. I've written about chirality before (forgive the odd typo at the beginning of the fourth paragraph — it's not in my original draft), and there are very interesting scientific questions as to why, say, all terrestrial life uses only right-handed sugars (so-called D-sugars) and left-handed amino acids (so-called L-amino acids).
From what I can tell, the paper was relatively sedate. However, it then veers sharply into left field at the very end:
"An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them."
I can only assume this was meant to be received tongue-in-cheek. In any case, there's not really any new science here to write a story on.
What did happen was journalistic focus on how bizarre the entire flight of fancy was. One roundup of stories is here at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a good place to keep abreast of science journalism in general. Others who wrote about the hullabaloo included Brian Switek at Smithsonian.com and Eoin O'Carroll at the Christian Science Monitor.
Of course, the Daily Mail in the UK apparently bought this argument hook, line and sinker. That should tell you quite a bit about the Daily Mail, if you didn't know it already.
You can email me regarding Worth Pitching? at email@example.com.