This post isn’t actually about the process of peer review. It isn’t about the importance of press releases. It’s not about scientists going to conferences and hobnobbing with colleagues. Rather, it’s a tale of hope, joy, and crushing disappointment.
For very astute readers, you may have picked up bits and pieces of my current research, though I’ve never actually gone into any depth on this blog as that’s not the point of the blog. However, it forms the backdrop of this tale of woe:
My work has – for the past two years and for another year yet to come – been to create a new database of craters on Mars, statistically complete to diameters of about 1.5 kilometers. That’s about 170,000 craters larger than that size, though the database has around another 110,000 craters that are smaller in order to ensure statistical completeness. One of the goals of this database is to study a particular type of crater against the backdrop of other “less interesting” craters. The type I’m studying in particular are known as “lobed craters,” craters with “lobate debris aprons,” or “layered ejecta” craters. Everyone has their own pet term though the Mars Crater Consortium has tried to standardize nomenclature for them to be “layered ejecta.” The picture below illustrates a simple example of this type.
Single-Layered Ejecta Crater, Mars
The basic idea is that this crater’s ejecta is very cohesive and does not look like typical ejecta that we observed on the moon for years before we went elsewhere in the solar system. Layered ejecta craters exist almost exclusively on Mars, though a few have been observed on some of the outer planet satellites, namely Ganymede and Europa.
The main hypothesis for their formation is that the impactor hit a surface that had solid volatiles in it (as in ice). The volatiles melted into the surface from the impact energy and caused the ejecta to act as a cohesive “mudslide,” giving the appearance we see today.
Moving Forward – The Discovery
Now, in my research, I’ve noticed that double-layered ejecta (craters surrounded by not just one, but 2 layers of this cohesive ejecta) seem to be concentrated around volcanic terrain on Mars. While I was busy cataloging and outlining these lobes a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a marked increase of the double-layered ejecta in a certain region of the planet. But there wasn’t a volcano there, I thought.
I zoomed out on the map I was using and, lo!, I saw what appeared to be a volcano. In fact, the caldera of this thing was about 75 km by 90 km, or around 50% larger than the state of Delaware, several times larger than the caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano. This size would put it easily in the top 25% of caldera sizes on the planet Mars.
Taking a step back, another, side-project that I’m working on is creating mosaics of the large volcanos of Mars and performing crater counts within them in order to develop a timeline for the “last gasps” of volcanism. I had a list of 24 volcanos that I had obtained from the USGS last summer, since they keep lists of things like that. And I knew that this new caldera I found was not on my list.
So my next step was of course to check all the lists of known volcanos that I could find for Mars. I re-checked USGS. I even checked Wikipedia. But this feature that looked like a caldera was not on them.
Unfortunately, my advisor was in Antarctica searching for meteorites, so I could not consult with him. Rather, I talked to the post-doc next door, who looked at it and agreed with me that it appeared to be a volcano. On a day when his officemate was there, another post-doc, I asked her, and she wasn’t as certain that it was a volcano, but said it was possible. She suggested I check with some other people outside of the university, but I wanted to wait until my advisor was back to check with him … after all, I didn’t want to make myself look like a fool in front of possible future colleagues.
Spreading the Possible Word
Meanwhile, I was getting excited. I mean, who wouldn’t? I tried not to get my hopes up, but from what I could tell, this thing sure looked like a volcano, not a crater (I knew what an impact crater looked like … I’d been circling them for years). And it wasn’t on any of the lists for Mars volcanos. So I mentioned it to a few people, including a comment on The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast episode from a week ago that some of you may have listened to.
My advisor got back to this continent this past weekend and we arranged a meeting for yesterday (Monday) to go over progress on what I’d done for the past 10 weeks while he was gone. I told him the first thing I wanted to talk about was this possible volcano to see what he thought. He seemed fairly excited, too, and I think had briefly looked at it and thought it looked promising.
I went into his office at 1 for our meeting and sit down on the couch, and I said that the first thing to talk about would be this possible volcano discovery. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah …” and handed me a paper, turned to a color picture, with big arrows pointed at my volcano.
I was not happy. Duh. But, as far as I could tell, I had taken the right steps. I’d identified a feature I thought was something interesting. I’d created a high-resolution image of it. I’d checked with a few people, and I’d looked at the standard lists.
The paper that this was tucked away in didn’t have a revealing title, so it’s also not as though I had something I could easily search for. At the time of writing this, I can’t actually find the paper in question, though I did just find an abstract for a conference from 2008 where they identify it. Sigh. The abstract is entitled, “New Evidence for a Magmatic Influence on the Origin of Valles Mariners.” Their paper from last year had a similar title. As you can see, nothing in the title about “volcano.”
Final Thoughts – The Moral
The point of discussing this in my blog is to point out the importance for scientists that, once they make a discovery, they need to not just publish in the standard scientific literature. They also need to make sure that it makes its way to other publications, such as standardized lists so that
other people don’t get their hopes up on making a discovery others know of it and can easily find that information rather than doing a very exhaustive literature review. The USGS lists are meant to be used by people as a guide for this sort of thing. But, in my bitter opinion, this was a “science fail” by the authors in terms of publicizing their discovery.