Is This an Alien?

No, it is certainly not. Now, there’s a small chance that this is:

But that’s not particularly clear at the moment yet either.

I’m posting both of these because a friend emailed me a link to this Yahoo news story, which contains the top photo from above and strongly suggests that it might be a picture taken with an electron microscope of a fossilized bacterium found in a rare type of meteorite. My friend wanted to know if I thought the story was legit, and whether that might well really be “the first ever picture of an alien life form.”

Well, I can adjudicate the second question more easily, on a technicality. Even the author of the paper in question, Dr. Richard Hoover, doesn’t believe the top picture is an alien. It is a “giant bacterium Titanospirillum velox,” from right here on planet Earth, whose picture was included as a comparison. It’s rather irresponsible of Yahoo to lead with that picture and not point this out.

But of course that’s not the heart of the question. The second picture is one of several that Hoover has taken of structures found deep inside “carbonaceous” meteorites (these are just meteorites with a surprisingly high carbon content). So, even though its not as glamorous a photo, is it an alien?

It’s a little unclear at the moment. I tried to read Hoover’s paper, but since it is well outside my field I wasn’t sure how to assess the strength of its arguments. Rosie Redfield at UBC has a blog post up examining it from a microbiology perspective, and while she doesn’t find any serious “errors” in the paper, she does seem to think that the allegedly most “persuasive” pieces of evidence are either not as persuasive as Hoover seems to think or not as unambiguously present in the first place. On the whole, she seems to find the scraps of evidence far to few and far too inconsistent with each other. In her words,

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.

She’s referring to Allan Hills 840001, a meteorite found in Antarctica believed to have originated from Mars and which, upon initial study, also seemed to contain some evidence of fossilized life. Eventually several groups of scientists were able to show how the globular “structures” thought to be fossils could have arisen naturally without life forms, and for the most part, the scientific community has concluded it is not an example of an Alien. The circumstances seem suspicisiously similar here, I must say. The most obvious piece of evidence that the photo above might be the fossil of a life form is its structural similarity to the shape of common bacteria, but that’s hardly enough to prove such an extraordinary claim. Hoover knows this, of course, and performed a chemical analysis as well looking to demonstrate that the structures were different from the rock around them in a way that couldn’t have occurred naturally, but for the various reasons Redfield lists, the analysis just doesn’t seem as convincing as Hoover seems to think it is.

So that’s all I can say about the merits of the study itself. I will make one other point, though. While Hoover seems to be a well-regarded and well-credentialed scientist, his decision about where and how to publish this data was very bizarre and hard to explain. Most people with a big story to break like this would have taken it to Nature first (or a similar big-name journal read by scientists across all disciplines) and then, if it wasn’t accepted there, to the biggest journal in their field (In this case I would think maybe Astrobiology, but I don’t know for sure).  Hoover, however, seems to have bypassed both options in favor of a “journal”  called “Cosmology”. This is odd right off the bat because Cosmology is the study of the large-scale structure of the universe, not the microscopic probing of paperweight-sized meteorites. And more importantly, “Cosmology” is not a “journal” in the traditional sense, but rather, a website that publishes assortments of articles, studies, and scientific opinion pieces. PZ Meyers of U Minnesota, Meyrs has blogged about it’s sketchy origins as a place where fringe scientists pushing poorly supported theories about how life on Earth came from outer space were able to write whatever they liked because they also ran the place. Naturally, he now has a new post up in light of this new paper which is getting so much attention, and to his mind the very fact that Hoover chose to publish there discredits him. I have to say, it’s hard not to agree. If you were a scientist who had stumbled on to something you genuinely believed was credible evidence of alien life, why in heaven’s name would you choose to publish your results in a fringe journal known primarily for running hokey stories about alien life in the past?

Ultimately, however, this is a scientific dispute, and must be settled on the merits of the evidence and not on the strange place where it was announced. “Cosmology” editor Rudy Schild* has promised to release the comments and criticisms of additional scientists who were contacted and given access to the data in the paper, including Adam Frank, who blogged about it at NPR. That approach is also unorthodox, but at least it shows a commitment to transparency.

The point is, I’m highly, highly skeptical, but I really can’t responsibly say one way or the other at the moment, and we’ll have to wait until some other scientists have a chance to publish their take on the issue to get a clear consensus.

For what it’s worth, I kind of hope it is true. I’ve always believed, on purely statistical grounds, that there is life elsewhere in the universe, and I’ve always secretly hoped it might be discovered sometime in my lifetime. Even though I was only eight at the time, I can remember getting enormously excited when the news broke about the Allan Hills meteorite, and when it was eventually discredited I remember stubbornly refusing to believe it for quite some time.

I guess it’s a sign that I’ve grown up that I’m not feeling so quick to buy in this time (“I’ve been hurt before!”) but at least it means if anything, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, if you see anyone who works at Yahoo news, tell them they kind of suck at reporting stories about science.

UPDATE: The Yahoo story now contains a paragraph at the end noting that this journal is a little bit sketchy. Still no clarification about the picture, though.

 

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*Schild is just another really confusing piece of this puzzle, actually. He’s an astrophysicist at Harvard, which generally hires reputable people and not cranks. He has an impressive list of publications in perfectly respectable journals. But it’s not clear why he would be associated as “editor” of an online-only journal that mostly produces shoddy science, or indeed when he acquired that title (maybe it was after the fiascos of the early years?). Schild also seems to be a bit of a regular speaker in the pseudoscience circuit, giving talks in some strange places who push ideas that almost all scientists reject. Now, to his credit, some of the youtube footage I’ve seen of him at such talks suggests that while he encourages these “fringe scientists” to continue challenging the establishment, he is careful not to say he entirely supports their beliefs. On the other hand, his mere presence with the words “Harvard University” next to his name probably gives them that impression anyway, so it’s hard to say what to make of him. The fact of the matter is, sometimes people are simultaneously good scientists who can produce correct and valuable new results while also holding and publicizing some strange viewpoints that seem at odds with the basic principles of science, and Harvard, since its faculty is so large and spread across so many different departments and institutes, tends to employ more than it’s fair share of these types (Berkley has a similar reputation). I’m asking some of my professors for their opinion on Schild and I’ll update this post with their take if they have anything interesting  to say.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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