Naphthalene?

When I saw a news article stating, rather brashly, that astronomers had detected naphthalene in space, I had to do a double take. Naphthalene? Seriously? Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my, admittedly brief, time as an astrochemist, it’s that conclusively detecting anything is an exceedingly challenging task. Let alone detecting aromatic hydrocarbons!

But there it was. Curious. The team in question is based at the Instituto Astrofísica de Canarias, led by Susana Iglesias-Groth (proposer of the ingenious, if not entirely plausible, fullerene model of the diffuse interstellar bands). Intrigued, I decided to have a glance at the abstract for the paper

Now, as I write this I haven’t actually read the paper yet, so these are just first impressions — but something about this catches my eye, leading me to believe that the reporter of that article had an over-enthusiastic interpretation of the work. Simply, it would be more appropriate to say that they might have detected naphthalene. For a start, the paper’s title is “Evidence for the Naphthalene Cation”. Evidence for. If you’d conclusively found something, you’d entitle it “Detection of” or “Discovery of”, surely.

In fairness, they state it as a ‘tentative detection’ of naphthalene, based on the detection of two spectral lines which are a very close match for two of the lines of the naphthalene cation.

That said, the line in the news article, of:

“Our results show that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene are responsible for the diffuse bands and should be present throughout the interstellar medium”, says Iglesias Groth.

Erm… I’m sorry, what now? You’re saying you’ve solved a 100 year old problem in astronomy with a single detection? Surely your results, if proven correct, suggest (not show) that PAHs are responsible for the DIBs. Or at least they could be. Saying that it lends strength to the idea that DIBs arise from PAHs would be more accurate.

Sadly, this is nothing we don’t already know! Frankly, I’m a little disappointed…

Seemingly this is a fairly blatant case of chinese whispers, with news reports latching on to a slightly different story to the one reported by the scientists. Apparently though, said scientists might have encouraged it a little…

For now, I’m going to take this as a warning to heed — choose your wording very carefully when writing your paper’s title and abstract. And then choose your wording even more carefully when speaking to the press!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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