Published online 8 March 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.147

Column: Muse

The aliens haven't landed

As shown by its latest claim of 'alien bugs', the Journal of Cosmology has at least been an entertaining diversion, argues Philip Ball.

The discovery of alien life might reasonably be expected to create headline news. But the media response to just such an announcement in the Journal of Cosmology 1 has been muted, and mostly dismissive.

"Bugs from space? Forget it", said Science 's reporter Richard Kerr. The Los Angeles Times quoted microbiologist Rosie Redfield as saying "Move along folks. There's nothing to see here."

These are more printable than the negative comments about the research received by Nature. But the real story is stranger than Richard Hoover's claim to have found fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. For who is Hoover, what is the Journal of Cosmology, and why has NASA been moved to officially distance itself from the affair?

That Hoover is a NASA scientist may sound impressive, but most scientists know that beneath the space agency's gleaming surface squirms a morass of odd ideas. This goes with the territory: folks who dedicate their lives to space exploration tend to be bold, even extravagant thinkers. The kind of imagination that can put people on Mars is bound to put a lot of other weird stuff out there too.

Hoover, an engineer and astrobiologist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has been pushing this claim for years. "Personally, I have a completely open mind", says meteoriticist Ian Wright of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. "The problem for Hoover is that no matter how many papers he writes on this subject, people will only begin to accept the findings when they are replicated by others."

Signs of life

Hoover's paper reports microscopic filamentous structures seen inside a number of carbon-rich meteorites, including the classic Orgeuil meteorite that fell in France in 1864 and was examined by Louis Pasteur among others. These filaments have a carbon-rich coat filled with minerals; Hoover points out that they look remarkably similar to structures formed by living and fossil cyanobacteria, a type of photosynthetic bacteria.

Some think filaments in the Orgeuil meteorite are fossils of extraterrestrial microorganisms. Others are not so sure.Journal of Cosmology

This may be so, but it doesn't prove that the bacterial forms – if they are indeed bacteria – are extraterrestrial. Hoover says that because the structures are buried deep inside the meteorites, it is unlikely that they represent contamination by earthling microorganisms.

Experts don't buy this. "Contaminants can easily get inside carbonaceous meteorites, as they are relatively porous", says Iain Gilmour, also of the Open University, who points to direct evidence of this for at least one other carbon-rich meteorite, the Murchison meteorite that fell over Australia in 1969.

Meteoriticist Harry McSween of the University of Tennessee in Knoxvillle agrees. "All of us who have studied meteorites, especially CI chondrites [the class studied by Hoover], are aware that they have been terrestrially contaminated", he says.

In particular, when chemist Bartholomew Nagy made claims very similar to Hoover's in the 1960s, the ensuing debate led to a consensus that Nagy's 'life-like' structures were the result of contamination by pollen grains. Similar assertions of bacteria-like fossil forms in a Martian meteorite, made by NASA scientists in 19962, have also been judged inconclusive.

NASA disclaimer

If Hoover's report is so unconvincing, why was it published? The Journal of Cosmology asserts that all its papers are peer reviewed, but also states that: "Given the controversial nature of [Hoover's] discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis… No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis."

However, some of the 'commentaries' on Hoover's article published so far by the journal seem more like the kind of thing one would find on fringe blogs.

Doubtless this is why NASA has been embarrassed into releasing a disclaimer about the work. "NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts," it said on 7 March. "NASA was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication."

But the Journal of Cosmology (JOC) is no ordinary journal. It has been running for two years under the leadership of astrophysicist Rudolph Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The journal is a torch-bearer for the hypothesis of panspermia, according to which life on Earth was seeded by organisms brought here from other worlds.

This was a favourite theory of the maverick astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who died in 2001, and his colleague N. C. Wickramasinghe (an executive editor of the JOC), who argued that alien viruses could explain flu epidemics. Other highlights of the journal included an article titled 'Sex on Mars', which asks the question: have astronauts ever had sex, and is it safe?

On 14 February, a press release from the journal's senior executive managing director Lana Tao announced that it will cease publication in May, claiming to have been "killed by thieves and crooks". The journal's success "posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals", says senior execute managing director Lana Tao, who claims that some of these periodicals "engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books".

If the JOC is moribund, this is arguably a shame, as there ought to be space for such entertaining and eccentric voices. It's true that such journals might muddy the public's distinction between real science and half-baked speculation; but judging from the latest episode, the world (apart from Fox News) is not as gullible as all that. 

  • References

    1. Hoover, R. B. J. Cosmol. 13 (2011).
    2. McKay, D. S. et al. Science 273, 924-930 (1996). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
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