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Evidence of ET Life found in a(nother) meteorite… or not…

Sigh…

Here we go again.

Another meteorite sliced open… another scientist peering at its exposed innards down the tube of an electron microscope… another eye-widening view of exotic, bizarre, alien-looking nano structures that, adding two and two to get fifty MUST be planet-hopping alien bacteria, surely..?

What am I on about? Well, if you haven’t heard the news yet, a US scientist, Richard B Hoover, has been ferreting around inside a meteorite called Orgueil – which fell in southern France in May 1864 – and he has seen, using a powerful electron microscope, threads, filaments, strings and bulbs that he is convinced are the remains of bacteria, thus proving that life is not only widespread “Out there” it’s happily flitting this way and that, hitching rides through and across the solar system on and inside meteorites, like extraterrestrial tourists on some weird coach trip.

…and the ghost of ALH84001 drifts across the stage, dragging its chains behind it, moaning mournfully “Told you so… told you so…”

This news wasn’t released by NASA. It wasn’t uncovered or leaked by some science hacker or investigative journalist. It was given, exclusively, to the US Fox News network, which is, shall we say, not exactly the most dedicated when it comes to accurately reporting, following or understanding science news.

Today the story is now spreading across the internet, like an oil spill creeping up a beach, and soon it will be hitting the paper pres too, then the media spotlight will turn once again to the “existence of aliens” and a feeding frenzy will commence.

Now, no-one wants life to be found “Out there” more than I do. It’s one of the things I’m desperate, absolutely desperate to happen before I die, right up there with a manned mission to Mars, the detection of an alien radio signal, and a soaked to the skin Ann Hathaway turning up on my door one rainy night, asking if she can crash at my place because her car has broken down. Not holding my breath for any of them, to be honest, but hey, you never know…

But seriously, I can’t get worked up about this. Not just because it’s yet another “signs of life found in a meteorite” story, not just because it’s yet another “hmm, looks like x so it must be x” join-the-dots puzzle, but because it all seems too low key for this to be the real thing.

What do I mean by that? Well, the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life will be the Biggest Story Ever. Not just biggest science story ever, but biggest story ever, full stop. It’s the news we, as a species, have been waiting to hear for centuries, millennia even. It will change the way we view the universe, and the way we view our own position in it. If we find one extraterrestrial bacteria – in a meteorite, or in a rock on Mars, or being shot off Enceladus in an spray of ice from a Tiger Stripe geyser – it will transform the universe in an instant. We will go from living in a universe where it could possibly have been inhabited by one, lucky, born-by-fluke lifeform – us – to living in a universe that’s probably teaming with life. And although many commentators claim, sniffily, that our day to day lives wouldn’t be changed much by such a discovery, that it will be too abstract, too distant, I absolutely disagree. I think that once word gets out that scientists (they’ll probably be called “boffins” in the media!) have uncovered proof, or even just evidence, of extraterrestrial life, even the man, woman, child and dog in the street will be excited and energised by the news, or at the very, very least interested to hear it, and then we’ll see changes. Not religious revolutions or dissent, not riots in the streets, but more subtle, more discrete changes – a new interest in science, especially astronomy, for one thing.

But that’s my point, you see? When that news comes, it will be Big News, news that will have to be broken to the world carefully, professionally, and with the consequences in mind. I’m pretty sure it won’t just be handed over to a TV news network famous for treating scientific stories with less respect than they do for the latest news about Britney Spears’ latest haircut.

No, there are only two ways this discovery will be made public. Either formally, and carefully, by the team of scientists that made it, probably via a NASA press conference attended by the US President (think of that scene from “Contact”), or informally, and without any care at all, by a computer hacker or journalist who uncovers the story and breaks it before NASA has had a chance to go public. In all likelyhood it’ll be a mixture of the two – a hacker or journalist will get wind of the story, through a source or a NASA insider, and they’ll break the bare bones of the story online, forcing NASA to hastily arrange a formal media event to give the whole story.

So I really can’t get too worked up about this Orgueil story when it’s being “broken” by the TV network that has Bill O’Reilly – who recently made a big deal out of insisting, quite proudly, that there was no “scientific explanation” for how the ocean’s tides occur – among its senior broadcasters. When the n news comes, it will either be via a fully-fledged NASA event, with the then US President there to bask in the glory, or it will be on a website, out of the blue, which will then light the fuse for a scientific Big Bang.

Of course, I may be wrong, and the review by 100 scientists that is now going to follow might prove Hoover is right, in which case I’ll gladly eat my words and join in the celebrations, but my gut is telling me this isn’t it. We’ll see. What is certain that once this story goes mainstream it’ll be “ALH84001” all over again, and there’ll be many thousands of column inches, and iPad pixels, given over to yet another “boffins find life in space rock!” story which I’ll then have to try to get people to be cautious about, and that’s hard work.

But, you know, that’s not why this story has me so frustrated and so angry. What really, and I mean really, hacks me off about this is that WE SHOULD KNOW BY NOW!!!!! This is a question, one of the most fundemantal questions in science, that we absolutely, absolutely should have answered by 2011. We’ve been exploring the solar system for decades now. We’ve had probes on Mars since the 1970s, since Charlies Angels were running after criminals in high heels (the Angels, not the criminals, though I’m sure that happened in at least one episode set in San Francisco) and it was The Law that NASA scientists had to have sideburns, wear flared trousers and look like Graham Garden from “The Goodies”.

Can someone tell me why the hell we haven’t just solved this puzzle by now? It’s 2011 for pity’s sake! We have rovers exploring Mars, orbiters flying through the geysers of Enceladus, a probe almost at frikking Pluto, and yet we haven’t answered the one single question every thinking person on Earth has asked at some point in their lives as they stared up at a clear night sky: “Are we alone?”

There are very few greater and more loyal supporters of NASA than I. I’ve been called a “fan boy”, biased and even “blind” I’ve been so vocal in my support for NASA. Which is fine, I don’t care. I’m proud to be a NASA supporter, and proud to speak up for them, and promote their work and discoveries, in my Outreach talks and here on this blog. But why, for the love of all that exists in the universe, hasn’t NASA just got its act together and decided to embark on a program focussed on and committed to solving the question of the existence of alien life once and for all? It baffles me, it really does.

Many of you reading this will, like me, appreciate the beauty of the martian landscape as seen by Spirit or Opportunity. Like me you’ll see a CASSINI image of Saturn’s rings in silhouette, or one of its many moons shrinking to a crescent, and be inspired and moved by it. But the truth is, out there, in the non space enthusiast world, people really don’t give a **** about the geology of Mars, the composition of Saturn’s rings or the evolition of stars. They’re just words and numbers, blah blah blah. What they DO care about, or are at least interested in, is the existence of aliens “out there”. We can scoff at that, and dismiss them for it, but it’s the truth, just as it’s the truth that we all want to know if there’s life out there too.

So, why, for frak’s sake, WHY, do we still not know that?

It’s time we sorted this out once and for all. It’s time someone stood up and said “Right! Enough with the rocks! The atmospheres! The radiation belts! Let’s get out there and see if there’s life out there!!!”

It’s time we sent missions to Mars, to Europa, Titan and Enceladus specifically to look for evidence of life, past or present.

NASA hasn’t got the money? Fine. Others do. Companies, businessmen, entrepeneurs. God, how I’d love to get James Cameron, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page all in the same room and talk to them about this! Imagine what they could do? Imagine if they all decided to join forces and, together, look for life out there? Imagine if they all burst into a NASA HQ meeting and told the people in the room that it was time to stop messing about and think bigger, bolder. Imagine that.

Of course, it’s not going to happen, but it’s fun to fantasise.

It’s 2011. What the **** are we doing up there? The solar system may be swarming with spaceprobes, all doing fantastic things, doing great science, taking beautiful images and making genuine discoveries, but there’s no Moonbase, no Mars outpost. Hell, there are no footprints on Mars at all. And, amazingly, ridiculously, stupidly, we still don’t know if there’s life, even primitive life, elsewhere in our solar system. That’s not just a shame, it’s something to be ashamed of. It’s a disgrace. And we need to do something about it.

Because unless we do, these “life in a rock” stories are going to crop up again and again and agen, and each time one does it will raise false expectations and eventually disappoint and frustrate as the story becomes murkier and murkier and the actual science is drowned in uninformed and inaccurate media speculation, and drowned out by the cries and shouts of the conspiracy theorists and UFO lunatics.

Let’s stop messing about, people, and go look for life!

How? I will admit, readily, I don’t know. I’m just an enthusiast, a supporter, an “armchair spaceman”, and proud of it. But there are people in NASA, and in other space agencies around the world, who WILL know, who DO know, and I am sure that more than once they’ve sat down with a pad and a pen and designed their own ideal Life Quest mission. So let’s get these people together, in a room with a Gates, or a Job, or a Cameron, and let them DO it, for real.

I know this is serious stuff, I know these things take time to design and build. I know we all have to be patient when it comes to space exploration. But you know what? I’m SICK of being patient. I’m sick of being told “the time’s not right yet”. If we go on like this the time will *never* be right. We’ll put it off and put it off, like a kid who really knows they have to tidy their bedroom but can’t face actually starting to do it.

For many years now the space station has been visible in the night sky as a bright light, moving across the heavens. It might as well be writing the words “No humans beyond this line!” because its airlocks represent the border for Mankind’s physical presence in space. As if that’s not bad enough, soon there’ll be no space shuttles flying up to it, and with nothing to replace them US astronauts will be forced to hitch rides up into orbit inside Russian capsules, while the Chinese laugh on the sidelines, quietly but steadily building up their own capabilities. 

But that’s beside the point. Ever since I was a child we’ve always been “20 years away from a Moon base”  and “30 years away from a manned mission to Mars”, and both those things are as far away as ever. The same goes for actively looking for life “Out there”. We need to stop talking, and planning, and drowning in Powerpoint presentations and reviews and ***** DO something!!!

Because, seriously, if I read one more story about bacteria being discovered in a space rock I’m going to scream.

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6 Responses

  1. Excellent work, I LOVED it! I only hope many others see it and appreciate your knowledge, clarity of thought and passion.

  2. As always, well written Stu! According to Spaceosaur (http://bit.ly/hkzw94) this particular piece of ‘news’ is not at all new but was actually published in a paper by NASA themselves back in 2007. Somehow I think if they were convinced of it’s validity we’d have heard back then…

    Keep up the great work!

  3. I should add Stu that this finding was announced in a thoroughly vetted paper in the Journal of Cosmology: http://journalofcosmology.com/Life100.html

  4. All good and fair points Dan, as always, and wasn’t casting any doubts on Hoover’s credentials. I just think that this, though interesting, isn’t ‘it’. The possibilities for terrestrial contamination in meteorites always makes me worry about panspermia-related claims. As you pointed out, it’s old news, and needs a lot of follow-up work, which I hope pans out.

  5. It should be noted that the Journal of Cosmology isn’t a respectable journal, just a website that claimed to be. I say claimed as it has now announced it is shutting down.

  6. You are being a bit too polite there, Philip. I made the mistake of following some links to the “Journal of Cosmology” a while ago and it took me a few minutes before I realised it wasn’t a satire on conspiracy/Christian fundy websites. Note particularly the spelling mistakes and obsession with Panspermia.

    There are some groovy shapes in those pictures but several things make me think they are probably mineral:

    Hoover has published 14 previous papers on the same “microfossils” since 1997.

    Hoover does not compare the alien “microfossils” with pictures of fossils of cyanobacteria but with living cyanobacteria.

    Hoover determines that the “microfossils” must be of the division Nostocales or Stigonematales because they have a blob in them. Perhaps he can tell the difference between that blob and other blobs, I don’t have that training. However, to deduce that extraterrestrial fossil cyanobacterioids have to be directly comparable to living terrestrial families to the point where they can be classified within them from visual comparison shows a lack of scientific rigour or common sense.

    You would expect minerals to be unusual when found in an extraterrestrial object. In a rare meteorite with the highest water levels and glued together by epsom salts and other water-soluble salts you might expect to see some unusual structures. The “microfossils” are made of epsom salts and other water soluble salts.

    The fact that he has co-authored a paper with Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (25 years ago) has nothing to do with his scientific impartiality, of course.

    Is wearing gloves enough to prevent contamination when you go bare-headed and maskless?

    I’ve got a flint somewhere that looks just like a button mushroom.

    He published in the “Journal of Cosmology”. Yes, I did just read it, the triumph of hope over expectation again.

    If you really want to depress yourself see how The Sun is reporting it:

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3449881/Worms-in-space-Rocks-show-alien-life.html

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