Every year, the James Randi Educational Foundation picks the people or organizations who have done the most to promote antireality nonsense and get the public to believe in provably untrue silliness. This dubious honor is called the Pigasus Award after Randi’s official mascot, the flying pig, as in "XXX will be true when pigs fly" — values of XXX include homeopathy, faith healing, dowsing, etc. The awards are appropriately given out every April 1.
This year’s crop has just been announced. I was not surprised to see Richard Hoover listed there for his extremely shaky announcement of life in a meteorite. Hoover published his claims in the Journal of Cosmology, and while I was pretty clear in my posts about the extremely shaky nature of this journal, the JREF simply calls them "crackpot". Heh.
I do have a quibble with the awards this year though. Our old friend Andrew Wakefield — the defrocked, debunked, and discredited founder of the modern antivax movement — was given the "Refusal to Face Reality Award" for his ongoing (and wrong) claims that vaccines cause all sorts of health problems from gastric distress to autism. But it’s not clear he’s refusing to face reality at all. In fact, the point could be made that he may be simply cashing in on parents’ fears, in which case he is facing reality quite squarely.
But that’s merely a quibble. The important thing is that Wakefield’s ignominy is highlighted. And he’s just one of the five, so head over to the JREF site and read about the others who topped this year’s list of this year’s bottom of the barrel.
Image of flying pig is actually of a necklace pendant created by Skepchick Surly Amy, who has tons of great sciencey and skeptical accessories for sale.
On Saturday I posted about the claims of Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist who says he has found evidence of fossilized microbes in a meteorite. As soon as I saw the story (thanks to a tweet from my friend Sheril) I knew the ‘net would explode with the news, so I wrote a quick post about it. My intent was to be as scrupulously fair as I could be while still trying to rein in the usual speculation that follows sexy news like this.
I’ve had a day to mull all this over, and I wanted to write some more thoughts about it. My initial thought was, of course, extreme skepticism — we’ve seen claims like this before which haven’t panned out, and this one has a lot more, um, hyperbole than most before it — but not being an expert in biology I didn’t want to make any firm conclusions until the experts weighed in.
Well, now they’re weighing in.
You can skip down to my conclusions — let’s just say here it doesn’t look good for the microaliens — but what follows is a more in-depth analysis.
My friend Penny Boston is an astrobiologist at New Mexico Tech (if her name is familiar, she was a guest scientist on episode 2 of "Bad Universe", when we went into Spider Cave to look at extremophiles). She sent me a note about Hoover’s claims, saying:
Rocks, even the most high density materials, are prone to microfractures. Microorganisms are notoriously splendid at working their way into incredibly minute microfractures…
Showing that the bug that you have actually is NOT a contaminant organism that made its way into a meteorite is a practically unsolvable problem. If you turn up an organism whose chemistry, way of coding information, or something else (besides morphology) indicates that it is significantly (and I MEAN significantly) different from anything that has ever been seen on Earth, THEN you might have a chance of proving this. Pictures of tube shaped structures don’t do it.
I wondered about this as well. As I said in my first post, the major problem here is contamination. Even if we assume the things Hoover is seeing are fossilized life forms — and that’s not established! — can he show beyond a reasonable doubt that they are not from Earth? The meteorite in question is not a hard, dense rock, but actually very soft and friable (crumbly). Contamination in such a specimen is very likely. Hoover does not and really can not make a strong case that contamination is ruled out.
Another concern of mine was that he is basing a lot of this on the shape of the structures he sees… but looking like a microbe doesn’t make them a microbe! And Hoover goes farther than that. In an earlier work, he states flatly that these objects are fossils, and that they have bacterial structures inside them:
Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) and 2D maps indicate that these filaments in Orgueil are permineralized with magnesium sulfate, encased within carbon-rich sheaths and depleted in Nitrogen. Many of the large and complex forms are polarized filaments that exhibit highly differentiated and specialized cells for nitrogen fixation (heterocysts) and reproduction (hormogonia, akinetes and baeocytes).
Look at the phrasing there: he is stating these things have structures that perform biological processes. There’s no "maybe", or "perhaps" in his claims. He is saying quite simply these things were once alive.
I have a serious problem with that. So does Dr. Boston:
[UPDATE (March 7, 2011): I’ve posted a followup on this news with a much more detailed analysis, and not too surprisingly the scientific consensus coming in is that the claims of alien fossils are way wrong.]
Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, thinks he may have found bacteria in a meteorite.
Yes, you read that right. The question is, is he right?
I don’t know. Dr. Hoover has published his findings in the online Journal of Cosmology (see below for more about this journal), and it was reported today by Fox News (thanks to Sheril at The Intersection for the tip).
Basically, Hoover found structures inside a rare type of meteorite — the Orgueil meteorite which fell in France in 1864 — that look very much like microbes of some sort. Here’s an example from the paper:
Those are odd and intriguing formations, to be sure. If I were scanning through a meteorite and saw those, I’d be pretty surprised too.
But appearances can be deceiving. Are these actually fossilized microscopic life forms?
Hoover makes several claims to show that a non-biotic origin for these structures is very unlikely. I am not an expert and won’t cast my vote either way here. This is not the first time Hoover has made such claims; he gave a similar presentation in 2007. There have also been many similar claims in the past. In fact, in the second episode of "Bad Universe" I interviewed NASA astrobiologist Dave McKay, who has also found very interesting features in a Mars meteorite that look a lot like bacteria. However, definitive proof is another matter. McKay’s opinion is that what he found was once alive, but he also was clear that scientifically he could not be sure (I found his skepticism to be well-grounded and at the right level, to be honest).
Probably the biggest bump in the road for showing these things are life-forms is to show they are not the result of Earthly bacteria getting inside the meteorite after it hit. This is very tough to do, though Hoover says this in his paper: