Alien fossils?

The internet has been buzzing with news of apparent microfossils found in meteorites. The story was first publicized by Fox News, but rapidly spread across blogs and major media outlets alike.

These carbonaceous chondrites, meteorites that probably once formed part of comets, were split open and examined closely. Richard B. Hoover, in a study published in the Journal of Cosmology presented micrographs of squiggly structures that appeared very similar to terrestrial cyanobacteria (“Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites: Implications to Life on Comets, Europa, and Enceladus“, March 2011). The chemical profiles of these artifacts differed from those of the surrounding meteorite matrix. Evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system!

Not so fast. This is a tremendous claim: is it justified? My assessment of this research includes three components: the journal, the author, and the science itself. Is the journal credible, does the author possess the relevant skills and experience to evaluate such a claim, does the evidence support the conclusions and are alternate explanations adequately considered?

The journal

The Journal of Cosmology was founded in 2009. It is a web-only publication (not necessarily a detriment for a scientific journal), but the editorial board appear to have a definite agenda, and publish primarily papers that support the editor’s belief in life in outer space. It is also ending in May 2011. JoC charges for publication, not unusual among science journals (especially open access journals), though their $150 for publication is actually very low. I’ve never seen a journal charge a submission fee, though; JoC requires $35 to even review a manuscript. It isn’t indexed in Scopus, Web of Science, or any of the other major literature databases.

The main page of the JoC website seems mostly to be trying to sell books. The editors also feel the need to remind us on the front page that “The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal.” (Capital letters theirs.) (And also, it appears that I am participating in “a rein (sic) of terror, a witch hunt, an inquisition designed to crush all discussion of his [Hoover's] findings” by writing this article. I’m also “a raving lunatic,” and am frightening and terrorizing the entire scientific community. Go me!)

Oh. My. As of Thursday night, as I’m writing this, the JoC website is trying to sell pre-orders for a new book by Richard Hoover and others: The Discovery of Alien ExtraTerrestrial Life, to be released in April from Cosmology Science Publishers. (I assume that’s an in-house self-publishing outfit.) “On March 5, 2011, the world was stunned to learn of the discovery of ancient extra-terrestrial life; fossils of Cyanobacteria in meteors older than Earth. That landmark paper, by Dr. Richard Hoover of NASA, is the lead chapter and is accompanied by chapters featuring critical commentary written by top scientists throughout the world, as well as speculation about the implications of life, its origins, and evolution throughout the cosmos. The amazing book features additional chapters detailing the evidence of the extraterrestrial origins of life, and how life on Earth, came from other planets.” I’m not going to include the Amazon link; you can find it yourself if you are really interested.

The author

Richard B. Hoover has a BSc from Henderson State University, Arkadelphia AR and pursued graduate study in engineering at Duke, U. AR, and U. AL. It is unclear whether he received a graduate degree. NASA websites present him as having BSc as his highest degree, although elsewhere NASA refers to him as Dr. Nobody with a PhD would be referred to as “Richard Hoover, BSc” in a professional context, so I’m guessing that the “Dr” is the mistake.

Hoover has been with NASA since 1966, and has won engineering awards for his work in optics. Despite a fascination with meteorites and extremophiles, he appears to have no formal credentials as a biologist (training or experience). He has been reporting on this research informally for many years (1997, 2007).

Given the potential importance of this study, I would have expected to see at minimum a mineralogist and a microbiologist included as collaborators and coauthors so that the necessary expertise was available.

The science

Hoover found interesting structures in a meteorite. This leads to two key questions: were these structures formed by living organisms or abiotic processes? If by living organisms, are they modern contaminants or original to the meteorite? Both of these questions must be unequivocally answered for this study to be widely accepted.

Hoover studied two meteorites, the Ivuna meteorite that fell in 1938 and the Orgueil meteorite from 1864. The meteorites were split open, and the fresh faces examined under a scanning electron microscope. These were very small chunks of material: the largest of the six pieces examined was only 0.6g. Are these big enough to maintain a sterile core? What about microfractures? Is the assumption that the interior of these meteorites were uncontaminated by terrestrial bacteria reasonable?

The main line of evidence for fossil cyanobacteria appears to be wishful thinking. These micrographs of squiggles in the meteorite look like these micrographs of cyanobacteria, so they must be the same thing. Hoover even draws parallels between superficial features of the meteorite squiggles and specific organelles on the cyanobacteria. Where are the comparison micrographs of non-meteorite minerals? Of other bacteria? Of potential contaminants? Showing two sets of pictures does not prove anything. Showing sets of all possible options might. The paper mentions examining other minerals, but no micrographs are shown, nor are any other results. Same for fossil terrestrial cyanobacteria.

The second line of evidence involves chemical composition. The squiggles have different ratios of elements than the surrounding matrix. The structures do seem to have more carbon, which would be necessary for life, but no nitrogen. The nitrogen becomes a core of Hoover’s argument against these being terrestrial contaminants. Recently-introduced bacteria would have more nitrogen. He goes so far as to track down organic materials of different ages — mammoth hair, mummy skin flakes, fossil trilobites — and compare their nitrogen content to the meteorites. The mammoth and mummy samples are high in nitrogen, while the fossil trilobites are not. Hoover claims that this means the cyanobacterial fossils must be older than the mammoth samples, since the latter have not lost all their nitrogen yet.

There’s no way for the reader to know what else these findings might be consistent with, no control data whatsoever. These structures could be typical of magnesium sulfate that’s been heated and cooled rapidly, could look exactly like 4000 other species of bacteria, could resemble all sorts of other things. We have no way to know, because only the information that supports Hoover’s assertions is presented.

A good scientist will consider all the options and methodically rule them out, not cherry-pick the data that matches the pre-selected answer.

This question of identifying squiggles in rock has come up before (and many more), and certainly will again. Ian Musgrave talks about the difficulty of distinguishing fossil bacteria, terrestrial or not, from features formed by abiotic processes. Even terrestrial “microfossils” are not immune to critique

A few other things

SpaceRef reports that NASA has distanced themselves from this paper:

NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper. – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington

Rocco Mancinelli, the editor of the International Journal of Astrobiology states that this paper was rejected after peer review.

JoC requested commentaries from 100 prominent scientists. At the time of this writing, 12 of the requested 100 were available online. These were mostly uncritical, speculating on the consequences if this study were correct, rather than critiquing the research itself. But see this one for some very good points.

Something else that interests me: if these are cyanobacteria, and that’s how life got to earth, what about the Archaea and the Eukaryota? There are three related but very different groups of life on Earth- why would only one have come from outer space?

Why all the loosely-related background in the introduction and discussion sections that the reader must wade through? If I were editing or reviewing this paper, I would have forced a great deal of shortening.

So what do I think? There’s nothing here that convinces me of anything other than that Hoover is a very enthusiastic partisan of alien life, and has assembled a collection of research results tailored to support his assumption that squiggles in meteorites are in fact cyanobacteria. His considerable expertise in engineering and optics has not saved him from basic scientific mistakes. Failing to get his work published in any reputable scientific journal, he turned to the Journal of Cosmology, a fringe online outfit itself dedicated to pushing an agenda. JoC, seeing an opportunity, is now trying to make money off its new-found popularity by adding a book by Hoover to its line of self-published books on life in outer space.

More reading

There’s a lot out there. But here are some of the highlights, if you’d like more information.

Rosie Redfield tackled the meteorites, and also obtained some information from an actual biologist at NASA.

This Wired article is good, as are Phil Plait’s initial reaction and followup.

There’s also New Scientist and MSNBC. Don’t miss PZ Myers. NPR uses this opportunity to talk about the importance of science journalists.

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