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.