March 6, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Alien Life in Meteorites Claimed

After scrutinizing rare meteorites for over a decade, a NASA astrobiologist decided to go with his announcement: he may have found alien life.  Fox News began his story, “We are not alone in the universe – and alien life forms may have a lot more in common with life on Earth than we had previously thought.  That’s the stunning conclusion one NASA scientist has come to, releasing his groundbreaking revelations in a new study in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.”
    There are only about nine CI-1 carbonaceous chondrites known.  In the ones Dr. Richard B. Hoover has cracked open and studied, he has found “fossilized remains of micro-organisms not so different from ordinary ones found underfoot – here on earth, that is.”  That’s one of the strange things about this story.  If these are organisms that originated independently of earth, why would some of them be recognizable as “generic species here on earth”?  Another problem is that the samples contain no nitrogen, an essential ingredient in life as we know it.  All amino acids and DNA contain nitrogen.
    Hoover tried to be extremely careful with his samples, and expected a hotbed of controversy.  He has invited scrutiny of his work by 100 experts, and wants thousands of scientists around the world to weigh in on its validity.  Some, like David Marais, another NASA astrobiologist, are taking a wait-and-see attitude: “These kinds of claims have been made before, he noted – and found to be false.”  Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute doesn’t rule out the possibility but recognizes the controversial claim will have far-reaching implications.  He speculated that this might support panspermia of some sort: “It would suggest, well, life didn’t really begin on the Earth, it began as the solar system was forming.”  That raises other questions of how and where environments in the early solar system could have been more conducive to life than planet earth.
    Rob Sheldon, a colleague of Hoover’s and an advocate of intelligent design, mentioned Hoover last December in his blog response on The Procrustean responding to the arsenic-life claim (12/02/2010).  He indicated that Hoover probably would have expected alien life to be very different biochemically from earth life.
    On a different but related story, New Scientist and the BBC News speculated that “Meteorites ‘could have carried nitrogen to Earth’” in the form of ammonia carried on chondrites, chips of asteroids.  Aside from questions left begging about whether these “missing ingredients for life” had anything to do with the origin of life, that story appears contradictory to Hoover’s, who found no nitrogen in his samples.  “If someone can explain,” Hoover said, “how it is possible to have a biological remain that has no nitrogen, or nitrogen below the detect ability limits that I have, in a time period as short as 150 years, then I would be very interested in hearing that.

Is this another claim in the tradition of the Martian meteorite ALH 84001?  Is NASA trying to get more funding (01/07/2005) for astrobiology?  Possibly.  They’ve probably learned how to be more careful by now and give the appearance of honest skeptical inquiry.  In the early stages of controversial announcements, the Marais wait-and-see response is wise.  The best advice is to look carefully at the raw data, check assumptions, and ask the right questions.  The first question is to verify if this really is fossilized living material.  The second is to rule out contamination.  The third is to avoid jumping to conclusions and to consider all the possibilities.
    With the Martian meteorite, the similarities to cells were superficial and never widely accepted as anything more than coincidental shapes.  Years after the huge flurry of media hype, after scientists found other ways the shapes could have been generated chemically, the hubbub died down.  Now only a few scientists believe it (12/14/2000, 11/20/2001, 03/18/2002, 05/15/2002, 01/30/2004, 03/23/2006, 09/01/2009).
    Maybe this time things will be different.  Hoover seems more cautious than McKay.  What if the majority confirms that this was living material?  Does it mean life evolved in outer space?  No; it could have been created somewhere else, or it may be earth life that got here by a round trip.  Creation scientist Walt Brown has a theory that asteroids and comets were ejected from earth at the time of the Flood, when hyper-pressurized water shot into space from the fountains of the great deep, carrying rocky material from the continental margins with it.  It’s a speculative idea, but it’s one possibility to have life get out to space and back.  As for the Fox News lead-in that “We are not alone in the universe,” good grief; this is about the solar system, not the universe (see extrapolation).
    Materialists will undoubtedly hype evolution, but the details revealed so far should be as puzzling to them as to their critics.  No nitrogen, but similar to earth life?  Astrobiologists have long tried to argue that life found elsewhere is bound to be very different from ours, but from the photos, these structures look remarkably similar to known bacteria.  Nothing in creation science or intelligent design requires life only to be found on earth anyway (see initial thoughts by ID advocate Denyse O’Leary on Uncommon Descent).  And why are these structures found only in a very rare class of meteorites, instead of all of them?
    Further speculation is unwise till the claim goes through the scrutiny of skeptical scientists.  This commentary should only caution readers that healthy skepticism of spectacular claims is always in order, and to beware of being led down the primrose path by the media to answers without first asking the questions.
    Already Fox News’s exclusive story is echoing around the world on other news sources and blogs.  Undoubtedly there will be more to say later about this claim.  Have your Baloney Detector tuned and ready.
Update 03/07/2011: Criticisms of the claim are starting to come in from the scientific community and from evolutionists (see Space.com, PhysOrg, and Fox News follow-up story), so don’t get too excited about alien bacteria just yet.  Space.com also posted a gallery of past alleged proofs of alien life.
Update 03/08/2011: New Scientist said there is “monster mud-slinging” going on among scientists about this claim.  Jeffrey Bada pointed out that minerals can show “many non-biological artefacts” to confuse the observer.  Alison Olcott Marshall [U of Kansas] said, “Morphology alone isn’t enough; geological context isn’t enough – you need all the pieces.  You need multiple lines of evidence: morphology that is highly reminiscent of biology, a geological context that makes sense and strong chemical evidence.”  New Scientist also hinted that the paper might have been a last gasp for the Journal of Cosmology, a journal deemed dubious by other astrobiologists.  It may go out of business in a few months.  This story is looking like a bright meteor – in and out of public attention in record time.

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