Life from space? Sadly, no

On September 24, 2013

comet2

Last Thursday, news broke across the UK that scientists based at the University of Sheffield had found evidence of life beyond the Earth. As one of a number of astrobiologists in the UK, my phone and email started to be bombarded with requests to comment on this discovery and the potential for alien life to be raining down on us from space. Sadly I, like nearly all of my colleagues, politely declined to comment.

This is not, however, how we like to do business. As scientists it is our job to speak to the public about our work, share the wondrous discoveries we make, and make science understandable and accessible. Instead, I found myself asking journalists not to run with the story, trying to explain that it wasn’t real science and telling them that there was no story. Despite our refusal to comment the story was splashed across the internet and the papers by dinner time. So what happened to make even the most media-friendly scientists stop answering their phones?

Here is the research that has caused all this academic uproar. On July 31, a balloon loaded with sampling equipment was launched from Chester into the atmosphere, reaching a maximum of 27 km above the Earth’s surface, piercing the stratosphere. Its aim was to capture evidence of particles floating within the atmosphere onto highly sticky electron microscope stubs. The stubs had a grand total of 17 minutes to catch something before the apparatus was returned to Earth by parachute, landing just south of Wakefield. When the stubs were examined, the authors of this research found a single diatom frustule, or cell wall, had been caught. They go on to state a range of reasons as to why this tiny fossil could not have been transported into the atmosphere from the Earth, so it must obviously therefore have come from space, maybe dropped into the atmosphere during July’s Perseid meteor shower. I wonder how many of you are reading this already reacting the way I did, simply thinking… “is that it? You floated a balloon in the atmosphere for less than 20 minutes and one diatom fossil later you are screaming aliens?!”

Let me clear one thing up straight away: what on Earth is a diatom? A diatom is one of the most common types of water-based organisms in the world. They are effectively hard-shelled algae. They are found globally as fossils and make up ‘diatomaceous earth’ – a soft, silica-rich rock that crumbles very easily and is similar to volcanic pumice. This powdered rock is very light due to its high porosity, and as such has been previously observed to be floating around in Earths lower atmosphere. Diatoms only appear in the fossil record on Earth about 185 million years ago (the oldest evidence of the most basic life on Earth currently stands at ~3.8 billion years ago) which means they are highly evolved organisms and nothing like the basic single-celled bacterial life we expect to find in space or on another planetary body.

As an astrobiologist, I am an eternal optimist. I have to have a pretty open mind to be looking for signs of life elsewhere in the Solar System. Optimism aside, however, I simply cannot believe the claims made by the authors of this paper. There are so many ways a diatom fragment could end up in our atmosphere and all of them more likely than delivery on a comet. We are still just beginning to learn about how life might be transported across, and possibly live above, the Earth’s surface. Many of us want to understand how and what types of life could survive the extreme conditions of our atmosphere as it might help us look for signs of life within extraterrestrial atmospheres on other planets and moons. The idea that life is widespread throughout the universe and has been transported between many worlds by objects such as comets – a notion known as “panspermia” – is credible, at least over relatively short cosmic distances, although we have no proof of that ever having happened so far, and this research does not change that.

The other glaring problem with this press release was the reporting of the work. The paper was published in the Journal of Cosmology, an online freely available resource that is no stranger to controversial scientific claims. Its peer-review process has been called into question, and to be honest it has virtually no credibility within academia. The other red flag was that the research was conducted on July 31 2013, but the article was accepted for publication on August 9 2013. No scientist or journal in the world can pull off a turnaround time of 10 days, which raises eyebrows instantly as to the quality and accuracy of their findings.

For me the most interesting observation that came out of this farce was not the science, or lack of it, but the reaction of the scientific community. We believe we have a moral obligation as scientists to advise the public about good and bad science. We do not want to criticise our colleagues, least of all publically, and I am by no means going to do that here. But this false claim tarnishes our field, the reputation of British science, and makes any future legitimate claims harder to make. The greater the number of false alarms coming from reputable institutions the less likely the public is to believe us if or when we actually find evidence of non-terrestrial life. It pushes astrobiology, one of today’s most engaging sciences, into the realms of the National Enquirer and alien conspiracies. When so much world-changing, and scientifically accurate, research is being conducted, why are we giving air time to science such as this?

Image: Comet Hartley 2. Credit: NASA. Claims have been made that comets or meteors are the source of living cells detected in the Earth’s atmosphere, but this is unlikely.

About Louisa Preston

Louisa Preston is an astrobiologist and TED Fellow based at The Open University. She works with microbes that live in the most extreme places on Earth as analogues for life we might find on other planets. She studies how life gets trapped inside rocks and minerals, how it can be identified, and how and where we should be looking for life on Mars. She received her PhD in Astrobiology from Imperial College London and spent time at Western University in Canada working on analogue space missions before moving to The Open University. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @LouisaJPreston.

4 Responses to Life from space? Sadly, no

  1. Why are we giving air time to science such as this? Because it attracts attention and sells copy. There’s a whole spectrum of this kind of thing out there, be it quantum mysticism, Boltzmann brains popping into existence, or the holographic multiverse. Some of it is obvious, some isn’t. But peer review is no barrier to it.

  2. Louisa Preston,
    Actually, from only your brief description, the first thing that came to my mind was whether the diatom fossil could possibly have been acquired upon landing.

    Then I recalled seeing reports that sandstorms in China deposit tons of material on the Americas, for example..

  3. Thank you for a sensible reply.

    My entire life I have been reading “scientific” stories that are simply the wishes of the people writing them.

    “Miller-Urey create life in the lab!” – um, no, not even close.

    “Scientists discover the ‘missing day’ from the book of Joshua.” completely apocryphal.

    “meteor contains amino acids, therefore life came from outer space.” Amino acids are just molecules, and they were not the ones we need for life as we know it anyway.

    Outrageous claims are made all the time because:
    1. People are incredibly biased toward the positions/beliefs they hold
    2. they sell newspapers, magazines, and get people to listen/watch to Tv/Radio
    3. People like us take time to talk about them.

  4. A reality check is needed.

    A space balloon collecting samples 27 kilometers (16.77 miles) above earth has not even left Earth’s atmosphere, which is about 300 miles (480 kilometers) thick, even though most of it is within 10 miles (16 km) of the surface.
    http://www.space.com/17683-earth-atmosphere.html

    Explosive eruption plumes from volcanoes can go as high as 45 km (27.9617 miles) above earth.
    http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/how-high-can-explosive-eruptions-go-and-how-far-can-debris-and-ash-be-spread

    Who knows for sure what tiny particles from earth could be floating in the atmosphere 17 miles above earth?

    It is not clear what the Astrobiologists from the University of Sheffield were trying to prove by sending a weather balloon 27 km above earth.

    Couldn’t they afford to pay for space samples from the ISS – International Space Station?

    Surely scientists at the ISS for the last 8 years would have found evidence of life from other planets floating in space 230 miles above earth.

    But, as a group, Astrobiologists reject tangible proof that life on other planets does not exist; so, they must speculate ad nauseum.

    Here is a great article about Astrobiologists’

    “Astrobiology: Science or Boondoggle?”

    “In certain circles, astrobiology has become a resounding but meaningless catchword in the competition for grant money.” — Nature, August 9. – See more at:

    In the absence of unambiguous proof for its existence, almost nothing can be said about extraterrestrial life about which the opposite is not also true. The scarcity of evidence gives considerable latitude, and, in certain circles, astrobiology has become a resounding but meaningless catchword in the competition for grant money. – See more at:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/astrobiology_sc_1063371.html#sthash.ao68W0S4.dpuf

    These people, collectively worldwide, are wasting billions of dollars in the search for extraterrestrial life, just like SETI – Search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the “Wow” signal.

    35 Years Later, the ‘Wow!’ Signal Still Tantalizes
    http://www.universetoday.com/93754/35-years-later-the-wow-signal-still-tantalizes/

    Many of the huge Radio Telescopes cost $billions to build and hundreds of millions to maintain annually. They have proven nothing over the last 35 years; and, they never will. Just a waste of money.

    There are too many science fiction junkies that lose sight of reality. These folks let science fiction bias interfere with what should be objective scientific methodology.

    Science Fiction books and movies, especially movies, have created generations of science fiction junkies, many of whom are Astrobiologists. There are many people who actually believe the lines from Star Trek:

    “Space: The final frontier
    These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise
    Its 5 year mission
    To explore strange new worlds
    To seek out new life and new civilizations
    To boldly go where no man has gone before”

    All these science fiction junkies need a reality check!