Have we made “first contact” with fossilized alien microbes? A recent study by astrobiologist Richard B. Hoover of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center says “yes”. Pretty much everyone else says, “no,” or at the very least, “I’m skeptical.” If the claim is indeed verified, it will be a turning point in human history; If not, just another item in the list of unresolved questions surrounding the search for life beyond Earth.
Study claims Ivuna & Orgueil meteorites contain fossilized alien microbes
In a paper published in this month’s edition of Journal of Cosmology, author and highly respected NASA scientist Richard B. Hoover concludes that observations of the chemistry and morphology of microscopic filamentous structures embedded in type CI1 carbonaceous meteorites Ivuna and Orgueil indicate the presence of fossilized, extra-terrestrial bacteria. The paper makes various mentions of chemical markers that may or may not be indicative of a biological origin for these micro-worms, but Hoover’s main line of evidence surrounds comparisons between the shape and size of the alleged ETs and their would-be earthling counterparts.
Picture showing could-be ET fossils
Comparison of structures seen in the meteorites (left) and a living terrestrial bacteria (right)
This sounds oddly familiar…
This is not the first time claims have been made of the finding of fossilized bacteria in meteorites. Far from it. You may recall the famous Allan Hills ALH-84001 meteorite debate in 1996. The meteorite was found in Antarctica on in 1984 by a team of U.S. meteorite hunters from the ANSMET project. Thought to be from Mars, ALH-84001 also had little squiggly things in it that resembled known terrestrial bacteria. Upon the announcement that these squiggles may have at one time been alive, the expected media frenzy ensued. Soon, after hundreds of other scientists in the field had reviewed the matter, it was generally agreed upon that the "worms" inside ALH-84001 were not bacteria and never were.
This isn’t the first time we’re hearing this very argument from Hoover himself, either. In a 2006 paper published in SPIE, Hoover makes the exact same claims as in his new paper, saying:
"… studies of freshly fractured interior surfaces of the Orgueil meteorite have resulted in the detection of the fossilized remains of a large and diverse population of filamentous prokaryotic microorganisms."
In addition, Hoover has given several talks on this very subject. Why this new study is being picked up by the press when the others were not I cannot say.
Alleged fossilized microbes from ALH-84001
Experts advise skepticism
Because of the intrinsic controversial nature of Hoover’s paper, the Journal of Cosmology has invited 100 experts and has issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. The Journal will publish the expert reviews along side Hoover’s paper this Monday.
Many scientists (experts and non-experts alike) are already commenting on their own blogs and to the press about their thoughts on Hoover’s claim:
"This may turn out to be another one of those cases where it’s controversial but remains unproven."
Shostak said Hoover’s findings would be "important, if true." But he noted that the research paper relied on a highly technical interpretation of electron microscope images and chemical analyses. "Is it true? I’m not qualified to say that."
— Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute
(as reported by MSNBC)
"Many scientists have examined thousands of meteorites in detail over the past 50 years without finding any evidence of fossil life. Further, we know a great deal about the conditions on the parent objects of the meteorites, which (not counting the few meteorites from the moon and Mars) were rather small, not at all like planets.
I would therefore invoke Carl Sagan’s famous advice that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. At a bare minimum this would require publication in a prestigious peer-refereed scientific journal — which this is not. Cyanobacteria on a small airless world sounds like a joke. Perhaps the publication came out too soon; more appropriate would have been on April 1"
— David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames Research Center
(as reported by MSNBC)
"Clearly, Hoover thinks terrestrial contamination is unlikely. However, contamination, no matter how unlikely, is a more mundane explanation than extraterrestrial life, and Occam’s Razor will always shave very closely here. We have to be very, very clear that contamination was impossible before seriously entertaining the idea that these structures are space-borne life.
I’ll be honest: my own reaction is one of extreme skepticism. As it should be! All things being equal, I would take news like this with a very large grain of salt, and want a whole lot of outside expert analysis."
— Phil Plait (aka Bad Astronomer)
(from the Bad Astronomy blog)
The bottom line
Have we found definitive proof of alien life embedded in a meteorite? No. The Journal of Cosmology (a journal known for publishing "pseudo science", which is coincidentally going out of business) has published one error-laden* article by a scientist who has been making this very claim for quite some time now. While it’s fun to believe (and trust me, I’d love to think that we really had found life!) that Hoover’s claims are true, the evidence is already stacking against him. I do not claim to be an expert in this field by any means, but as an objective reader I have to say I’m not convinced. I am anxious to see what the 100 experts called upon by JOC have to say on Monday.
*Not only is the article full of grammatical errors, but it makes scientific justifications that are simply untrue. As Bad Astronomer notes: "Not once, but twice, the article states that WISE data exist which support the idea of a planet in the outer solar system ("…This model coupled with data from WISE, indicates the presence of a gas planet…" for example). That is simply wrong; the actual truth is that no WISE observations analyzed so far show any sign of such a planet."
What would Data Say?
What this debate really needs is some scanning for life forms by a real expert.