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Life in meteorites? Not so fast…..

by Donald Prothero, Jan 23 2013
The published image of the

The published image of the “meteorite”, showing a specimen that looks exactly like a modern freshwater diatom from earth but interpreted as evidence of extraterrestrial life

A few weeks ago, the blogosphere was all abuzz with a report that life had been found in a meteorite. The Huffington Post ran a blurb promoting the claim with no peer review or cross-checking, and there were numerous posts in all the science blog sites giving credence to the claim and pretty much repeating the authors’ arguments without any caveats. But Bad Astronomer Phil Plait immediately ran a post debunking the claim, as did P.Z. Myers from a different perspective. And once you look closer, the evidence falls completely apart.

This isn’t the first time such a claim has been made. Back in 1996, reputable scientists from NASA and Caltech presented arguments about a meteorite derived from Mars and eventually found in Antarctica, the Allan Hills meteorite. It had these tiny microscopic “cell” like objects, some of which were strung along like filamentous beads. The controversy over this discovery was very intense, with some biologists and micropaleontologists arguing that these structures were too small even for a single cell, while others pointing to unique features (such as shape of the oriented magnetic crystals within them that only matched biogenic magnetite) that supported the claim. Although most scientists let the debate drop unconvinced, it was a legitimate scientific claim made through peer-review in top-ranked journals, and every effort was made to be open and careful in the analysis and testing of this idea that was at least plausible. After all, we know Mars had liquid water on it during the past, and maybe some day soon our rovers will find clear evidence of microbial life there.

But this latest claim was something completely different. The first warning sign comes from the biologic evidence: the alleged “extraterrestrial life” looks exactly like a very advanced modern species of diatom found here on earth. As Phil Plait found out when he took the image to a diatom expert (and I remember from my own experience teaching micropaleontology), the specimens shown are classic frustules of freshwater pennate diatoms, which are extremely abundant on the earth’s surface. They are also extremely tiny (only a few microns across), and are well known as capable of blowing with the dust in the wind all over the earth, so they are a common contaminant in many samples that are not supposed to be from fresh water. Yet the authors apparently never consulted with a diatom expert before they published their study, or they would have found this out; nor is there any other evidence in the paper that they considered how easily the specimen could be a contaminant. (Normally, real scientists will cut thin slices through the meteorite in a dust-free “clean room” and only study the interior of the rock that cannot be contaminated).  Now if the authors had claimed that they had tiny microbes like the earliest known terrestrial life forms (and like the Allan Hills meteorite specimens), it might be remotely plausible. But this specimen is a highly advanced species of marine alga, requiring us to believe that it evolved independently somewhere else in the universe and managed to exactly mimic what terrestrial freshwater diatoms look like. In his comments to the Huffington Post, the senior author admits that the specimen is a terrestrial diatom in almost so many words (along with his mention of many unidentified specimens).

The alleged "meteorite", which bears no resemblance to actual meteorites from well-documented falls

The alleged “meteorite”, which bears no resemblance to actual meteorites from well-documented falls

The second thing that was suspicious was the rock itself. Again, Phil Plait noticed that the specimen does not have anything like the normal texture of a carbonaceous chondrite, the most primitive known meteorites from the primordial solar system (which have been shown to contain amino acids, but not life). In fact, it doesn’t resemble the known texture of any meteorite (which are nearly always rounded and streamlined, with an outer crust from heating and melting as they fall to earth), but instead has the shape of a typical earth rock. The compositional evidence given by the authors is inconclusive: they found carbon, but the olivine in the rock is inconsistent with a carbonaceous chondrite or a stony iron meteorite, but more like a peridotite or some other earth rock with a mantle source. To top it off, the authors claim it was from a meteorite fall that was observed over India, but gave no evidence of who found the specimen, how it was found, or where it was found. Actual meteorites from observed meteorite falls are well documented, and even if they break up, they don’t have the appearance of this specimen. Yet in the Huffington Post article, the senior author admits that the Indian geologists who found the specimen did not think it was a meteorite at all. Only he (not a meteorite expert) made that determination.

So no matter who is making the claim, it raises all sorts of red flags and sets off alarm bells by its very nature, and by the poor level of analysis and documentation. So it comes as no surprise when I reveal that the senior author in none other that N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. For those who are familiar with fringe scientists, this name should sound familiar. Wickramasinghe was the sole trained scientist who testified on behalf of the “scientific creationists” back in the 1981 Arkansas creationism trial that ended efforts to push “scientific creationism” in the schools. But when he was placed on the stand to testify for creationism, he laughed at their efforts to do “science” and admitted that creationism was complete bunk. He and maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle combined to make many crackpot claims, from denying the “Big Bang”, to pushing the idea of panspermia (life originated in space and then fell to earth), to making statements favorable to creationists, to challenging the authenticity of the London Archaeopteryx specimen. The only thing that can be said for these efforts is that they have been consistently proven wrong again and again. Wickramasinghe is further known for relentlessly promoting all sorts of extreme panspermia, from arguing that the flu and SARS come from space, to the claim that living cells blown in to the stratosphere are actually from deep space, to claiming that a weird “red rain” over India was derived from space. In short, he has a strong confirmation bias to see extraterrestrial sources for nearly anything, and has been debunked over and over again. So this claim is yet another in a long line of incompetent poorly documented claims by a known crackpot fringe “scientist.”

If that were not enough, consider where it was published. It was not published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal like Science or Nature (which would be the appropriate venue if this claim were truly as revolutionary as it sounds). No, it appears in a web-only venue that calls itself the “Journal of Cosmology.” If you’ve followed the debates about topics like this, that name should also ring a bell: the “Journal of Cosmology” claims to be peer-reviewed (yet in the Huffington Post article, Wickramasinghe admits the article has not yet been reviewed, nor has the key data been published yet). Instead, the “Journal of Cosmology” has a long history of publishing crackpot and poorly substantiated claims that never survive once they are examined by reputable scientists. In fact, even the garish layout and typography and design of the “Journal of Cosmology” reminds one of those crackpot blog posts written in Comic Sans type. More than once they’ve previously made claims of finding life in meteorites (never substantiated), along with claims about finding new planets (also false) and many other examples of bad astronomy. And when Phil Plait or P.Z. Myers has criticized them, they resorted to crude attacks and mockery of these skeptics (including such childish things as Photoshopping P.Z. Myers’ head on the body of an obese woman in a negligee), instead of putting forth better data to substantiate their claims.

And further evidence of the poor quality of the claim was that not only were journalists without science training taken in, but so was the notorious meteorologist and climate-change denier Anthony Watts. As Greg Laden commented:

As Phil points out, this report is by a “scientist” who has made many outrageous and incorrect claims about aliens, reported in a journal that is famous for printing bogus and incorrect science, the methods are obviously bogus and anyone who knew anything about, say, climate studies (where fresh water diatoms are used all the time as proxy indicators) would at least be suspicious, and would know how to check for veracity of the claim. Anthony Watts, the anti-science global warming denialist, was not equipped to recognize this bogus science as bogus. We are not surprised.

So once again, we have an example of science “journalism” done wrong: a reporter takes someone’s press release on faith and perpetuates the claim without fact-checking or peer review. Instead, it falls on us in the scientific community who blog on such topics to be the critics and peer-reviewers, since there are so many claims put out there that won’t stand peer review, yet get promoted through an uncritical network of science media before they have met with any real scrutiny.

11 Responses to “Life in meteorites? Not so fast…..”

  1. Peter Damian says:

    Now I know why I feel so spaced out when I get the flu.
    Excuse my ignorance of things atmospheric, but wouldn’t any surface biological material be burnt up on entry. Surely there would be deamination and damage to any surviving interior specimens as well.

    • Pete says:

      Peter Damian (@1) – meteors ablate as they enter the atmosphere, so the hot parts tend to peel away in flight, and the fragments that reach the surface are typically cool. Certainly not nearly hot enough to destroy fossil evidence, and possibly not hot enough to inconvenience an extremophile

      • Peter Damian says:

        Thanks that makes sense. It’s good to know that visiting extremophiles aren’t being inconvenienced, obviously they don’t have to go through customs and TSA checks.

  2. Bryant says:

    That meteorite sure looks like a generic piece of basalt…

    • Donald Prothero says:

      That’s what I thought too–it has olivine, so maybe it is an olivine basalt with some sort of contamination in the vugs that make it carbon-rich. But I didn’t want to write that based on a single picture…

    • MadScientist says:

      Sure – bus is the basalt terrestrial, lunar, or Martian in origin? Could it be: Diatoms are from Mars, Amoeba are fom Venus?

  3. kraut says:

    Another example of the lack of due diligence in science – talk about building a hypothesis and falsification. Any critical thinking seems to be utterly lacking and the only driving force of those so called “scientists” (I rather call them media whores) seems to be gaining popularity.

    If there was any way to take away their academic credentials, it should be done – for being utter fools.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    It’s too bad that Mr. Prothero can’t restrain himself from veering off into argument ad hominem — or in this case ad hominem by proxy. “Anthony Watts believed this and he’s wrong about this other thing therefore this must be wrong too!” Completely irrelevant. Apparently who agrees with you is more important than whether or not you’re right. Plait = GOOD, Watts = BAD.

  5. michael says:

    I do appreciate the full explanation, but the term ‘Huffington Post’ told me most everything I needed to know.