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News of the NASA internship awarded to an Indian girl? Fake!

Leading news organizations failed to check the facts while reporting that NASA had selected an Indian girl for a programme at a centre that doesn’t even exist. An Indian student in the Netherlands investigates.
BY Aritra Ghosh |   10-03-2016

As a physics graduate student, I am extremely pained to have to write this note. But did you read a news article doing the rounds, about an 18-year-old student from West Bengal, Sataparna Mukherjee, becoming the youngest Indian to be selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the prestigious internship program at its Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)? Well, that is NOT true.

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New YorkCity
The Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York city
(photo by NASA/Robert B. Schmunk, used under CC license)

A few days ago, top news organizations in India ran the story, and it was quickly picked up by social media outlets such as The Logical Indian. Even a diplomat tweeted his well-intentioned congratulations to the teenager, but the tweet was later deleted.

As someone who also happens to be interested in astrophysics and from the same state, I felt proud that someone so young had done something remarkable. I learned the mathematics involved in black holes just last semester. Sataparna had apparently mastered it, and I thought she could be India’s next great theoretical physicist. I decided to read some of her work on the weekend. Little did I know I would not get that chance.

Next morning, I was astonished to see that one of my English teachers had shared a note by Ayoti Patra, an IIT Kanpur alumna who is doing her PhD in physics at the University of Maryland. Besides grammatical and typographical errors in the supposed acceptance letters, Ayoti highlighted the fact that NASA does not easily accept non-US students for long-term projects, and that its “London Astrobiological Center”, mentioned in the stories, does not exist.

Astrobiology lab at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland
(photo by NASA/Robert B. Schmunk, used under CC license)

I was utterly confused. I watched Sataparna’s appearance on a popular TV show called Didi na Dada. When asked about her “theory”, she said “In physics, a black hole is a black body, and in astrophysics it is a hole through which we can enter the universe. And my theory unites physics and astrophysics.” She also said she was offered a course in aeronautical engineering. These were the red flags I had been praying I wouldn’t see!

Black holes have nothing to do with aeronautical engineering, unless, of course, NASA is trying to send an interstellar-style “drive-through” mission skimming the event horizon of the black hole :P Besides, someone who had developed a theory on black holes would never describe a black hole as “a hole through which we can enter the universe” or a “black body”. Even then, I sincerely hoped that by “black body” she meant Hawking radiation, and her work somehow related to it.

I dug deeper, but could find no evidence of any research attributed to her in any popular journal. Her story of how she got selected seemed weird. I couldn’t even find the so-called “Goddard Internship Program”. Finally, I emailed Leslie McCarthy, the communications officer at NASA GISS. And I got the reply I had hoped I would not get.

I don’t understand why big media outlets can’t do a simple fact-check that even students like me and Ayoti could do! ABP Ananda went one step ahead and tried to emotionally charge the story by mentioning that Sataparna was the daughter of a teacher who had protested in the wake of the 2013 Kamduni gang-rape. In the race to be the first to publish the news, top news organizations have lost the desire to get the facts right. Even a junior journalist could have seen the red flags. Why didn’t that happen? I think if we could somehow resurrect Einstein, even he would fail to answer that question.

I hope this is a big misunderstanding, that NASA really has selected Sataparna for some program because of her research, and that media outlets misreported it all. But the chances of that being true look non-existent. I hope the media houses make further enquiries and, if necessary, retract the story.

My intention is to point out that the media are making a mockery of journalism. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Sataparna. Even if she did this intentionally, there could be many reasons for it, and the last thing she needs is people bashing her online.

 

Aritra Ghosh is a graduate student at the University of Groningen. A version of this note first appeared on Facebook on March 2, 2016. Adapted here with the author’s permission.

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