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Alien Life in Chondritic Meteorites (Not)

I received word of yet another NASA-funded claim of “alien lifeforms”: one more case of shadowy squiggles in a meteorite, it appeared in the Journal of Cosmology (JoC). Rosie Redfield and PZ Myers dissect this in detail, but essentially we have a recap of the “arsenic bacterium” debacle minus (thankfully) the NASA-directed media blitz. Briefly:

1. The author, Richard B. Hoover, has been presenting the same evidence without change since 1997.
2. The only CV I can find for Richard Hoover does not list a PhD in anything (it does say “he authored four species of bacteria” which gives new meaning to the term “conjuring”). [Update: NASA confirms that Hoover has a BSc, not in biology.]
3. The evidence itself is so weak, stale, shoehorned and artifact-prone as to be non-existent. The presentation is also misleading: it juxtaposes suggestive pictures at different scales. It doesn’t meet the criteria for publication in a reputable journal, let alone the justifiably high bar for such claims — which may explain why the author approached Fox News instead.
4. The editors of JoC say that the paper will be peer-reviewed post-publication (file this under “unclear on the concept”).
5. The executive editor of JoC for Astrobiology is Chandra Wickramasinghe of the Hoyle and Wickramasinghe “viruses from space” panspermia theories – enough said.

Memo to NASA: hire bona-fide biologists who can conduct solid research or shut down the Astrobiology division.

Update: NASA has stated that the Hoover paper was published without the required internal NASA critique and approval; it also failed external peer review three years ago.

27 Responses to “Alien Life in Chondritic Meteorites (Not)”

  1. Caliban says:

    Even aside from Wickramasinghe, I don’t hold J of Cosmology in high regard. They tend to spam physicists and astronomers, asking for papers to publish. And the list of articles published–which they send me unasked–all tend to look like fringe work.

  2. Athena says:

    I looked at their TOC and the connections of some of their “peer-reviewed” authors — appalling.

  3. asakiyume says:

    I’m giggling at the thought of peer reviewing something *after* it’s been published. I think we call that “reception by the public.”

  4. andy says:

    I believe the Journal of Cosmology’s “highlight” is this article which appears to be about the author’s issues with women – actually no, make that “female primates” – disguised (poorly) an article about going to Mars.

  5. Athena says:

    Francesca, JoC is proudly saying they asked “100 scientists to critique the paper” — an obvious crank move.

    Andy, I spot-checked the JoC articles. Besides the one you mention, there’s one that “debunks” the Big Bang. The sure sign of charlatanism is that the authors of JoC articles invariably write about things outside their area of expertise.

  6. Walden2 says:

    So now we have a group pushing the idea that planets formed first with life, THEN stars came along:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/03/i_am_getting_a_very_poor_impre.php

    Are people getting dumber/crazier, or does it just seem this way due to the openness of the Internet?

  7. Athena says:

    This is the same group that’s operating the “respectable peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology in which Hoover published his “data”. Astrobiology, being new and interdisciplinary, has attracted a disproportionate number of fringers and cranks.

  8. Walden2 says:

    Most annoying is that I have seen several places where supporters of these current ideas are putting down anyone who is skeptical of them, calling them everything from close-minded to waking up on the wrong side of the bed.

    This has more than a whiff of a religious attitude to me. Regardless, real science and its practitioners cannot back down no matter how fruitless such actions may seem against the intractably ignorant, otherwise it will be a new Dark Age.

  9. Athena says:

    The JoC people also published a response to the Hoover criticism invoking Galileo (“Another persecuted genius, just like us!”) and saying that science is being persecuted and oppressed in the US, especially if it’s “daring”. Science is under attack but they’re part of the problem, not the solution. Theirs is a very standard crank defense, just more strident than usual.

  10. andy says:

    What’s really frustrating to me about all this is that astrobiology should be a valid scientific discipline, but it is currently overrun by both hyperbole from institutional press releases and by the fringe elements. I guess that can only discourage scientists who want to keep their reputations from getting involved with the whole thing, which is not a good thing in the long run.

  11. Athena says:

    Andy, I could not agree more on all the aspects you mentioned. There are real biologists toiling quietly and rigorously in this domain. But they don’t get the press conferences from NASA itself, nor requests for opinions from the media.

  12. Walden2 says:

    This is why most real scientists avoid studying UFOs like the plague. Who can blame them? There are a few “legit” sober folks who investigate UFO reports, but there is also a ton of fringe elements, some of which I have encountered personally. Not a pleasant experience, though sometimes it did get amusing.

    Some in the SETI field have been suggesting that artificial alien probes could be quietly monitoring us say from the vicinity of the Planetoid Belt. They take pains to make sure this hypothesis is not caught up in the UFO phenomenon, but of course the UFO fringe is always hard to avoid. I have to wonder, though, if there have been a few real sightings of alien vessels but they have gotten lost in all the hubbub? Same with SETI.

    Here is an example of trying to separate the wheat from the chaffe when it comes to aliens in the case of fossils on Mars:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4480097/ns/technology_and_science-space/

    I wonder if any ETI also go through this period of doubt and pseudoscience when it comes to pondering and searching for life beyond their worlds? Is this yet another reason why we can’t find them?

  13. Athena says:

    I suspect that if ETI are near enough (in both senses of the word), the reasons for lack of contact may be different from that. For the rest, I agree — it’s very hard to walk the fine line between philosophy and charlatanism in this domain.

  14. Walden2 says:

    Athena, I put it out there as one of many possible reasons why we haven’t found ETI yet. My main contenders are still the vast distances involved, the huge numbers of systems, and the fact that aliens are really ALIEN from us in looks and thinking.

  15. Athena says:

    I know you have, Larry. And existential reasons are not to be ignored — witness how decisive they are in hobbling us humans.

  16. Caliban says:

    Here’s the latest:

    The “controversy” is due to the Obama White House.

    See it at http://journalofcosmology.com/ (scroll down a bit).

    Man, you can’t make this stuff up.

  17. Athena says:

    You said it! Let a thousand conspiracy theories bloom… On the plus side, Wickramasinghe was just asked to fold his tents by the university that hosted him. Perhaps the Hoover paper was the beam that broke the camel’s back.

  18. Walden2 says:

    “Lost” Miller Experiment Gives Pungent Clue to Origin of Life

    03.23.11

    GREENBELT, Md. — The origin of life may have been smelly, according to a recent, NASA-funded analysis of residue from a variant of classic experiments performed by Dr. Stanley Miller in the 1950s.

    “One of the primary differences between this experiment and others Miller performed is the use of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas to help simulate the primordial atmosphere,” said Eric Parker of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga.

    Hydrogen sulfide gas is commonly known as the awful smell released by rotten eggs. Parker is lead author of a paper on this research appearing the week of March 21 in the on-line Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Much to our surprise, the yield of amino acids from Miller’s hydrogen sulfide experiment is a lot richer than that from any other experiment he had ever conducted,” said Professor Jeffrey Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, who was a graduate student of Miller’s and is the corresponding author on the paper.

    Full article here:

    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/releases/2011/lost_exp.html

  19. Walden2 says:

    How to Create a Scientifically Plausible Alien Life Form

    Charlie Jane Anders and Gordon Jackson — With a possible two billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, the chances of extraterrestrial life are looking better and better. What will these creatures, shaped by another world, look like? It’s up to science fiction creators to imagine them.

    But how can you create an alien life form that’s really different than anything you’ll find on Earth, rather than just a slightly tweaked version of a human or other Earth creature? We talked to xenobiologists, and did extensive research, to create a step-by-step guide to creating a truly alien life form from the ground up. Don’t create life without reading this handy guide!

    Full article here:

    http://io9.com/#!5784971/how-to-create-a-scientifically-plausible-alien-life-form

  20. Athena says:

    Unfortunately, since we don’t have any new data, this is a rehashing of the same-old same-old. *frustrated sigh*

  21. Walden2 says:

    I will keep looking, I promise. Well, what I can really do is keep promoting the real search efforts and research.

    As for those two billion potential Earth-like worlds they keep mentioning as of late, what they often mean in this case is Earth *sized* exoworlds, not so much whether they are actually like our planet.

  22. Athena says:

    You and I both, Larry! You’re right, too, about the exclusively size-based definition of “Earth-like”. We need better resolution. And we need real expeditions to Mars, Europa and Titan with sophisticated test kits aboard.

  23. Walden2 says:

    May 27, 2011

    NASA arsenic life study faces critics

    08:31 AMPrint Share By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

    A controversial arsenic microbe paper, one that NASA touted as offering insight into alien life, came under heavy criticism on Friday. Scanning electron micrograph of strain

    CAPTION Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

    Released by Science magazine, the eight critiques offer different blasts at a 2010 paper released by the same journal. It described a microbe which the study authors, led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, suggested was able to incorporate poisonous arsenic into its genes.

    The release comes outside Science’s regular publishing schedule, and without the usual advance notice that the journal weekly gives to reporters to allow them to run studies by independent experts for comment.

    In a statement, the journal explained its decision to release the on-line “technical comment” papers, which will be formally published in June:

    Full article here:

    http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2011/05/arsenic-life-felisa-science-critics-nasa/1

  24. Athena says:

    Why am I not surprised? Though the hedging at the end is par for the course. MS-NBC has a longer version.

  25. Walden2 says:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27215/

    Extremophiles Survive Simulated Conditions on Europa

    Astrobiologists have reproduced the conditions on the surface of Europa and found that some extremophiles survive

    kfc 10/03/2011

    A couple of weeks of ago, we looked at a study indicating that in Earth ejecta is more likely to end up in the Jovian system than on Mars, at least in some scenarios. That raised the possibility that life from Earth could have made its way to places like the Jovian moon Europa, which astronomers believe has a large salt water ocean beneath its icy crust.

    But this would only possible if terrestrial bugs can survive the intense vacuum and radiation in interplanetary space. Astrobiologists have studied the way many creatures survive in a space-like conditions. They’ve looked at bacteria, fungi, viruses and even biomolecules such as DNA. Some lucky bugs have even survived the journey to the Moon and back.

    But one branch of life has been largely ignored in these tests–archae. That’s surprising since these bacteria-like bugs often flourish in extreme conditions on Earth.

    Today, Ximena Abrevaya at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina and a few pals go some way to righting this wrong. These guys created a vacuum similar to that which exists on the surface of Europa. They then placed three organisms in it: the salt-loving archae Natrialba magadii and Haloferax volcanii and the radiation-resistant bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans.

    They then bombarded these creatures with the levels of ultraviolet radiation that might occur on the surface of Europa and waited to see what happened. None of Haloferax volcanii survived. But small amounts of both Natrialba magadii and Deinococcus radiodurans did.

    That’s interesting because Deinococcus radiodurans is well known as one of the hardiest organisms on the planet. Numerous experiments have shown that it can survive levels of radiation, vacuum, acidity, cold and dehydration that would kill almost everything else.

    For that reason, Deinococcus radiodurans has always been a candidate for seeding life elsewhere in the Solar System.

    But now it looks as if it would have a companion on such a journey in the form of Natrialba magadii, an organism only isolated from the salty waters of Lake Magadi in Kenya in 1984.

    Before getting too excited, however, it’s important to note that these experiments have a weakness: the tests lasted only for three hours.

    That’s not long compared to interplanetary journey times: Earth ejecta takes tens of thousands of years to reach other bodies. However, the journey on a spacecraft from Earth would be much shorter, just a few years.

    So if Abrevaya and co’s experiment tells us anything, it’s the importance of sterilising spacecraft before they leave here.

    It’s just possible that right now, small colonies of Deinococcus radiodurans and Natrialba magadii are flourishing in the weak sunshine and cool wind around Viking 1 and 2.

    Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.6590: Comparative Suvival Analysis Of Deinococcus Radiodurans and The Haloarchaea Natrialba Magadii And Haloferax volcanii, Exposed To Vacuum Ultraviolet Irradiation

  26. Walden2 says:

    Uh oh, here we go again….

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/15/life_in_a_meteorite_claims_by_n_c_wickramasinghe_of_diatoms_in_a_meteorite.html

    I think Phil Plait took the right tone with the news.

    You would think N. C. Wickramasinghe and friends would be embarassed about this and all his past “finds”, but apparently not.

  27. Athena says:

    Not him again (still)… He has managed to single-handedly marginalize the panspermia hypothesis, which is actually interesting.