Saturn debate is a clash of the Titans

Saturn debate is a clash of the Titans

Space fans looked on fascinated this week as two leading planetary scientists conducted a gentle but very public spat on Twitter. The clash, for the want of a better word, erupted over the publication of a news story by the California Institute of Technology announcing a new computer model to explain the lakes and storms on Saturn’s biggest moon Titan.

A photo of Titan from the Cassini probe
A photo of Titan from the Cassini probe. Credit: NASA

The CalTech press release concerned the work of a group that included Professor Mike Brown, most famous for his research into Kuiper Belt objects that helped see Pluto lose its status as a planet. He rejoices in the Twitter handle of @plutokiller.

But some of its claims clearly hit a nerve with space scientist Carolyn Porco, a leading member of NASA’s Cassini team who are currently exploring Saturn and its family of satellites with the highly successful probe. She swiftly complained that the discovery of rain on Titan was discovered by Cassini’s Imaging Science System (ISS) – not to be confused with the International Space Station – which has been described as “the eyes of Cassini”.

Carolyn Porco (@carolynporco) told Twitter: “What’s in this news release from @caltech is WRONG! Cassini, not Caltech, scientists found polar concentrations of lakes in 2007 & rain-producing storm clouds in eq/mid-latitude regions of Titan. Let’s be fair!”

Mike Brown (@plutokiller) replied: “Cassini’s OK but can’t do everything. We indeed discovered those clouds from telescope on Earth.” He provided a link to support his claim.

Porco hit back: “That those clouds were rain-producing was an ISS result, my Titan folks tell me. Other claims are incorrect: dist(ribution) of lakes etc.” Brown replied: “Well, no Cassini missed those clouds entirely. There really is non-Cassini science out there.”

Later Porco wrote: “Oh, I didn’t realize. You disagree that Cassini first noted the distribution of lakes in polar regions? Really?” Brown said: “Only talking about rain and clouds. The poles are a little too tough to see from here else we’d have found them 1st, too :)”

Porco came back with: “Well, my team members dispute this. What evidence for rain was there before the ISS paper?” Brown: “You’ll have to read the paper I pointed you to yesterday. Not bad for a bunch of people stuck on Earth, really.”

As the debate continued, Porco offered: “Even if you’re right abt rain evidence, the claim abt distribution of lakes was not. We knew that v early on.” Brown replied: “I’ve no stake in lakes but to me ‘We knew’ counts little next to ‘Someone published.’ Prbly explains our differences here.”

Porco answered: “Since everyone sees our data (and not yours, right?), we have to put such things in press releases. So, that counts for us.”

The row continued as Brown wrote: “To be fair, though, the lake distribution was radar, not ISS, given the dark north pole. Radar is not seen publicly.” Porco responded: “Lake dist’n? We called south pole region ‘Land of Lakes’ in 2005, mentioned radar results in 2007.”

Brown replied: “I’m fairly sure your radar colleagues would dispute that ISS discovered THAT. Seeing in the dark is hard.” He went on: “I think most people overestimate their own contributions and underestimate others. Sounds like you & I are no different. I’ve got nothing to do with the radar lake stuff, but seems to me someone should defend their results here.”

After a couple of days of the lively debate, Porco suggested: “…let’s drop this. Just be careful in the future abt what you guys put in press releases, pls.” Brown replied: “Dropped. I note your disagreements, but still think the press release is not wrong. I assume you still disagree. Which is OK.”

With hostilities seemingly at an end, Brown came back with: “I’m still sad that no one remembers that I **predicted** polar lakes back in 2001 (later corrected by Brown to 2005). Sigh. No love. But it’s OK.” Porco replied: “Is there a paper? I’d like to see it. But I think (Carl) Sagan first predicted polar lakes WAY back on tidal dissipation grounds.”

Later Porco quipped: “I think we gave everyone quite a show!” What Brown and Porco did give the rest of us was a fascinating insight into the lives and passion of rival scientists at the cutting edge of space exploration. It was surely a clash of the, er, Titans.

Note: We earlier attributed the final quote to Brown instead of Porco. Apologies and thanks to Carolyn Porco for pointing out the error.

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