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Monday, June 13, 2011

Rocks and Buggys

The best direct evidence we have to date of extraterrestrial life is in the form of microscopic inclusions in a small number of carbonaceous meteorites, which have the appearance of being fossilized prokaryotes. By far the best known of these is ALH 84001, the martian meteorite found in Allan Hills Antarctica in 1984.

Earlier this year NASAjavascript:void(0)/Huntsville scientist Richard Hoover announced that a number of non-martian meteorites also contain possible fossil prokaryotes. Below is both his abstract and a link to the entire paper in Journal of Cosmology.

Okay. So, I happen to like JoC. It's one of the many links from this blog, and I really like their philosophy of ensuring that all of the papers they publish are available to anyone free of charge. Most similar outlets only publish the abstracts free of charge. So, good on them for this. And good on them for maintaining some semblance of a peer-review process.

The bad news with JoC is that they have a very openly anti-scientific agenda, which tends to lead to the occasional publication of some really, really shoddy research. Regarding Hoover's work, they state that "Hoover's paper is further evidence that life is pervasive in this galaxy and exists on astral bodies other than Earth. The alternative view is life exists only on Earth, and originated on Earth, as described in the Jewish and Christian Bible and which is the official position at NASA. We believe the choice is simple: Religion vs Science. The Journal of Cosmology is devoted to promoting science."

This philosophy steers many of the papers published in JoC. Up to and including denying the Big Bang, not on the basis of any solid evidence but rather on the basis that it looks a little bit like Genesis and that Georges Lemaître happened to be a Catholic priest. Really. Presumably gene theory is also not "science" as JoC imagines that, because Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian monk.

JoC is in no way unique in this. Capital "S" Science, like capital "A" Atheism, is simply another fundamentalist religion, with its own canon world-views and orthodoxies and hence necessary heresies. It has adopted the old fundamentalist Christian mantra of "don't open your mind, your brains might leak out"; I consider "Science" to be one of the greatest threats to rational critical thought, and legitimate science, in our culture today.

Just because the Bible says something doesn't mean that it's categorically true. Just because the Bible says something also doesn't mean that it's categorically untrue. It's just a freaking book.

I'm not sure why Richard Hoover, a respected NASA scientist, did not publish his research through NASA, and instead published through the Journal of Cosmology. It doesn't exactly help his credibility. For the record, I think he's mostly right, and that NASA would have published his work, so I can only assume that his decision not to was political rather than scientific.

In any event, here is his paper. The entire thing is linked at the bottom.


Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites:
Implications to Life on Comets, Europa, and Enceladus

Richard B. Hoover,
Space Science Office, Mail Code 62, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL 35812

Environmental (ESEM) and Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FESEM) investigations of the internal surfaces of the CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites have yielded images of large complex filaments. The filaments have been observed to be embedded in freshly fractured internal surfaces of the stones. They exhibit features (e.g., the size and size ranges of the internal cells and their location and arrangement within sheaths) that are diagnostic of known genera and species of trichomic cyanobacteria and other trichomic prokaryotes such as the filamentous sulfur bacteria. ESEM and FESEM studies of living and fossil cyanobacteria show similar features in uniseriate and multiseriate, branched or unbranched, isodiametric or tapered, polarized or unpolarized filaments with trichomes encased within thin or thick external sheaths. Filaments found in the CI1 meteorites have also been detected that exhibit structures consistent with the specialized cells and structures used by cyanobacteria for reproduction (baeocytes, akinetes and hormogonia), nitrogen fixation (basal, intercalary or apical heterocysts) and attachment or motility (fimbriae). Energy dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) studies indicate that the meteorite filaments are typically carbon rich sheaths infilled with magnesium sulfate and other minerals characteristic of the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. The size, structure, detailed morphological characteristics and chemical compositions of the meteorite filaments are not consistent with known species of minerals. The nitrogen content of the meteorite filaments are almost always below the detection limit of the EDS detector. EDS analysis of terrestrial minerals and biological materials (e.g., fibrous epsomite, filamentous cyanobacteria; mummy and mammoth hair/tissues, and fossils of cyanobacteria, trilobites, insects in amber) indicate that nitrogen remains detectable in biological materials for thousands of years but is undetectable in the ancient fossils. These studies have led to the conclusion that the filaments found in the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites are indigenous fossils rather than modern terrestrial biological contaminants that entered the meteorites after arrival on Earth. The δ13C and D/H content of amino acids and other organics found in these stones are shown to be consistent with the interpretation that comets represent the parent bodies of the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. The implications of the detection of fossils of cyanobacteria in the CI1 meteorites to the possibility of life on comets, Europa and Enceladus are discussed. Keywords: Origins of life, CI1 meteorites, Orgueil, Alais Ivuna, microfossils, cyanobacteria, comets, Europa, Enceladus


  1. You'll notice that none of the NASA people who post here ever use their legal names on your blog. I have one account that I use just for Strait of Magellan, I don't use it for anything else. Because you often step outside of the canonical party line on your blog. And in this current budgetary bloodbath, no-one is going to make many waves in a public forum.

    Your assessment of "capital S Science" is unfortunately right on the money. It isn't actually as true within NASA, but it's very true in the immediate perimeter. Richard's work is excellent, but you just aren't going to see Charlie Bolden's name on it. We're just too vulnerable.

    This is why we need bloggers like yourself. There are a lot of incredibly interesting things happening, but we can't actually say a lot of it outright. So we just publish the raw data in as bland a fashion as possible, and pray that someone like yourself is actually reading and deciphering our publications, recognizing the significance of them and rewording them for the general public. Your bit on the Tiger Stripes on Enceladus was in this vein. NASA can't say "this really looks like extra-terrestrial technology". But you can. And did, almost.

    The "Science" thing really is turning into a bit of a witch-hunt. It's a shame. I'm almost embarrassed in some company to admit that I'm a scientist, because people assume more and more that I must be an intolerant bigot to other ideas and paradigms than the one my professors fed me. It scares me. Fundamentalist ideologues of any stripe with access to state of the art military technology is never a good combination.

  2. Incidentally, you rarely if ever step outside of the NASA consensus-reality. The things you see, we typically see as well. We just don't always talk about them.