New alien life – don’t get too excited just yet

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Well here’s another claim for extra-terrestrial life, to add to our previous example.

This one was reported in The Age and refers to the work of one Richard Hoover, Ph.D. NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. Good credentials indeed.

However, to once again illustrate the workings of science, and especially the inherent skepticism, things are not as definitive as the Age article makes out.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, there has been significant doubt cast on this publication, for example, here, here and here. The last one in particular is very compelling reading, and concludes:

The Ivuna meteorite sample showed a couple of micron-scale squiggles, one of which contained about 2.5-fold more carbon than the background.  One of the five Orguil samples had at least one patch of clustered fibers; these contained more sulfur and magnesium than the background, and less silicon.  As evidence for life this is pathetic, no better than that presented by McKay’s group for the ALH84001 Martian meteorite in 1996.

Apart from knocking the actual science, less credulous commentators also noted that:

  • The Journal of Cosmology is not a ‘real’ journal, but a fairly clunky website with a limited range of authors and views.  It does not help the site’s credibility that there is a large focus on selling books published by the contributors.
  • The views on the site generally represent the ‘panspermia’ theory of the origins of life – that is, life came to earth aboard a comet or something similar. This theory is the brainchild of Fred Hoyle and his some-time collaborator and student Chandra Wickramasinghe, of whom the latter is an editor of the journal.
  • With a discovery so momentous, why not submit the paper to a journal better known for their rigour and wide acceptance, such as Nature or Science?

As usual, time will tell on this one. There are currently hundreds of scientists poring over the paper, but the early signs aren’t good.

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