free debate

March 7, 2011

Aliens Exist: Proof Pending

Last week I mentioned how I wanted to do some posts talking about the possibility of life in the solar system. Well, apparently that is going to be a waste of time, since this Saturday Yahoo News released an article reading in its first line "Aliens exist, and we have proof." Fox News was no better with their first line "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." How much did we think we have in common with alien life forms before? Anyway, both articles discuss a paper done by NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover who claim that he has found evidence for fossil alien bacteria in a meteorite. With a news story like this spreading across the Internet, I couldn't help but do some digging.

First, I went looking around my usual astronomy news sites. As of Sunday evening, I couldn't find a thing mentioning it. This is really peculiar and made me that much more skeptical. The one article I could find was on Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait. It is a good review of the paper and makes several of the same points that came to mind for me. Still, the vast under-reporting of this breakthrough in the specialized media is a point I think is worth mentioning. If you ever see something in the mainstream media, look to see what the people who deal with that subject on a regular basis have to say. While not always true, I have found that breakthroughs tend to go from the specialized media to the mainstream; nonsense tends to flow the opposite way.

With no luck in the space news, it was time to go to the paper itself. The largest problem this paper faces is in that pesky relationship between claim and evidence. If you are going to claim extraterrestrial life, you need a mountain of evidence to back you up. Dr. Hoover works hard in the paper to rule out any earth-based contamination. He is quoted in the journal press release with the following.
"What is both exciting and extraordinary is although many of the bacteria resemble and can be associated with generic species on Earth, there are others which are completely alien. Neither I nor other experts who have seen the evidence have any idea what these creatures might be."

It could be true that no one who has studied the rock has been able to identify the bacteria inside. This does not mean however, that they are necessarily alien. In the paper itself, he tries to use the specific chemistry to the meteorite and the "fossils" to rule out abiotic causes and earthly contamination. I do not have the technical knowledge to delve into these details, so it will be interesting to see what the editors of paper said when those are released.

In the end, I think this paper falls short. I want to see how the scientific community responds over the next few days and what, if anything, comes of this. That is part of what makes science so interesting. Now the paper is published and the real critique can start. For now I remain unconvinced but eagerly await to hear what story will come from this.