Don't get too excited about those organisms that supposedly came from space. An expert's already saying not so fast.
Just a few hours ago we told you about a new study by a team of British scientists claiming that they found tiny organisms that originated from space on a balloon they'd sent up into the stratosphere. The scientists claim that there is no way for similar organisms from Earth to find their way into the stratosphere, so they must have come from space. Specifically, they must have come from a comet, given their particular characteristics, and they could even be evidence that all life on Earth really did originate in the stars.
It's an exciting find, if you believe it, but other scientists are already poking holes into findings, and among them is astronomer (and Blastr contributor) Phil Plait. After reading through the paper on the findings published in the Journal of Cosmology, Plait outlined his concerns about the research, and found a number of things that point to it being unconvincing.
First, Plait notes, one member of the research team, Chandra Wickramasinghe, has claimed numerous times that he's discovered diatoms (a type of phytoplankton) in meteorites, and this particular paper also includes similar diatom findings. Wickramsinghe also, according to Plait, has a long history of making dubious claims about extraterrestrial life, using less-than-thorough research.
"However, his previous claims have been less than convincing: The methodology was sloppy, the conclusions were not at all supported by the evidence, and heck, he hadn’t even established that the rocks they found were in fact meteorites! He also has a history of seeing life from space everywhere based on pretty thin evidence," Plait wrote.
Plait also notes that the Journal of Cosmology, where the paper was published, has a less-than-spotless reputation, which you can read about here. But what about the actual findings outlined in the paper? How wrong could they really be?
First, Plait delves into the claim that the team found part of a diatom (pictured above) on the balloon, and notes that the paper includes the words "we assume" next to the diatom information, implying that the scientists didn't bother to double-check that what they'd found was indeed a diatom fragment. Then there's the problem of how prevalent diatoms are on Earth. The paper claims precautions were taken to prevent already-earthbound diatoms from contaminating the sample, but even if they did, what if this really is just an earthly diatom that made its way into the stratosphere? The researchers said there was no way a volcano could have propelled these organisms into the stratosphere, because it's been too long since the last volcanic eruption. Plait disputes this, noting that the researchers didn't seem to take into account things like turbulence in the stratosphere that could have kept objects previously hurled up there by volcanoes floating around for quite some time. He's also not convinced that the team worked hard enough to rule out any possible way such an organism could get that high.
"And just because they can’t think of a way to get it up there doesn’t mean there isn’t one," he wrote. "Given the alternative is alien life, for which we have zero other evidence (despite their linking to Wickramasinghe’s previous claims about diatoms in meteorites, which I am satisfied are wrong), they should try a lot harder to look for more mundane ways this beastie made it up there. They dismiss other pathways, just stating they won’t work, but I’m unconvinced."
Then there's the claim that evidence points that the organisms came from a comet. The researchers say the diatom they found "is remarkably clean and free of soil or other solid material," which Plait thinks is exactly what something that came from a comet wouldn't look like.
"Why wasn’t it embedded in some bit of rock? That point works against them more than it supports their claims."
And finally, there's the theory the researchers developed that these organisms are evidence that life actually began somewhere in space, then came to Earth. While Plait is perfectly happy to investigate that possibility, he argues that this team didn't go about it the right way.
"Panspermia is worth investigating, but it’s worth investigating correctly. Outrageous claims on thin evidence with huge conclusion-jumping don’t comprise the best way to do it. Stories like this one are sexy and sure bait for an unskeptical media, of course. But at the very least they don’t help the public understand science and the scientific process, and I know some scientists take an even dimmer view of it."
So, if you were hoping to celebrate a groundbreaking alien life discovery today, we're sorry to rain on your parade. It's fun to imagine such a find being genuine, but when other scientists are already jumping up and disputing so many aspects of these findings, it's hard to ignore.