Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The aliens haven't landed

If you’ve been hearing rumours that alien life forms have been found, here’s the story, as I reported for Nature News. It’s a strange universe out there (I'm talking about NASA).

As shown by its latest claim of 'alien bugs', the Journal of Cosmology has at least been an entertaining diversion. But don’t mistake it for real science.

The discovery of alien life forms might reasonably be expected to create headline news. But the media response to the announcement of such a ‘discovery’ in the Journal of Cosmology [1] has been muted, and mostly dismissive. “Bugs from space? Forget it”, said Science reporter Richard Kerr, while the Los Angeles Times quoted microbiologist Rosie Redfield as saying “Move along folks. There’s nothing to see here.”

These are somewhat more presentable than the comments received by Nature, of which ‘utter nonsense’ is a polite paraphrase. But the real story is stranger than Richard Hoover’s claim to have found fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. Who is Hoover and what is the Journal of Cosmology and why has NASA been moved to officially distance itself from the affair?

That Hoover can rightly claim to be a NASA scientist may sound impressive to the media, but most scientists know that the space agency is a morass of odd ideas squirming below its gleaming surface. This of course goes with the territory: folks who dedicate their lives to the exploration of space tend to be bold, even extravagant thinkers, many of them today the children of the science-fiction fantasies of the 1950s and 60s, and the kind of imagination that can put people on Mars is bound to put a lot of other weird stuff out there too.

Hoover is himself an engineer and astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, and he has been pushing this claim for years. “Personally, I have a completely open mind”, says meteoriticist Ian Wright of the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “The problem for Hoover is that no matter how many papers he writes on this subject, people will only begin to accept the findings when they are replicated by others.”

Hoover’s paper reports curious microscopic filamentary structures seen inside a number of carbon-rich meteorites, including the classic Orgeuil meteorite that fell in France in 1864 and was examined by Louis Pasteur among others. These filaments have a carbon-rich coat filled with minerals, and Hoover points out that they look remarkably similar to structures formed by living and fossil cyanobacteria.

This may be so, but it doesn’t prove that the bacterial forms – if they are that – are extraterrestrial. Hoover says that because the structures are buried deep inside the meteorites, it is unlikely that they represent contamination by microorganisms on Earth. Experts don’t buy this. “Contaminants can easily get inside carbonaceous meteorites as they are relatively porous”, says Iain Gilmour of the Open University, who points to direct evidence of this for at least one other carbon-rich meteorite.

Meteoriticist Harry McSween of the University of Tennessee agrees. “All of us who have studied meteorites, especially CI chondrites [the class studied by Hoover], are aware that they have been terrestrially contaminated”, he says.

In fact, claims very similar to Hoover’s were made in the 1960s by the chemist Bartholomew Nagy, leading to a high-profile debate which left a consensus that Nagy’s ‘life-like’ structures were the result of contamination by pollen grains. Similar assertions of bacteria-like fossil forms in a Martian meteorite, made by NASA scientists in 1996 [2], have also been judged inconclusive.

If Hoover’s report is so unconvincing, why was it published? The Journal of Cosmology asserts that all its papers are peer-reviewed, but also states that “Given the controversial nature of [Hoover’s] discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis… No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis.” This is a decidedly unorthodox publication strategy, not least because many of the ‘commentaries’ published so far by the journal seem more like the kind of thing one would find on fringe blogs.

Doubtless this is why NASA has been embarrassed into releasing a disclaimer about the work. “NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts”, it says. “NASA was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication.”

But the Journal of Cosmology is no ordinary journal. It has been running for just two years under the leadership of astrophysicist Rudolf Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and is a torch-bearer for the hypothesis of panspermia, according to which life on Earth was seeded by organisms brought here from other worlds. This was a favourite theory of the maverick astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and his colleague N. C. Wickramasinghe (an executive editor of the journal), who have argued that alien viruses could explain flu epidemics. Other highlights of the journal include an article titled ‘Sex on Mars’, which asks the burning question: have astronauts ever had sex, and is it safe?

A press release from the journal has now announced that it will cease publication in May, claiming to have been “killed by thieves and crooks”. The journal’s success “posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals”, says senior execute managing director Lana Tao. “JOC was targeted by Science magazine and others who engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books.”

If JOC is no more, this is arguably a shame, since there ought to be space for such entertaining and eccentric voices. It’s true that apparently authentic journals like this might muddy the public’s distinction between real science and half-baked speculation; but judging from the latest episode, the world (apart from Fox News) is not as gullible as all that. 


1. Hoover, R. B. J. Cosmol. 13 [no pages] (2011).
2. McKay, D. S. et al., Science 273, 924-930 (1996).

1 comment:

@CLANicholson said...

Someone should start a journal titled Fringe Science. I'd read it...