Its been an exciting 48 hours for the scientific community. It began when a team of British scientists floated a balloon up into the stratosphere, more than 25 km (16 miles) up, and when it came down they found it was carrying tiny organisms. The scientists claimed that there is no way that such organisms could have come from Earth and found their way into the stratosphere, so they must have come from space.
Specifically, they must have come from a comet, given their particular characteristics, and they could even be evidence that all life on Earth really did originate in the stars. This theory is known as Exogenesis (or Panspermia), and contends that this is how organisms are spread throughout the universe – spawning in certain environments, but flourishing on worlds where they are deposited and conditions are just right.
According to Professor Milton Wainwright of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, they are “about 95 percent convinced” of that fact, though he admits that it’s hard to be absolutely certainty. But apart from the height of the organisms, which would make it hard to imagine them being from Earth, Wainwright and his team also noted that they bear no physical signs of ever being earthbound.
As Wainwright said in the course of announcing the team’s findings:
There is no known mechanism by which these life forms can achieve that height. As far as we can tell from known physics, they must be incoming. The particles are very clean. They don’t have any dust attached to them, which again suggests they’re not coming to earth. Similarly, cosmic dust isn’t stuck to them, so we think they came from an aquatic environment, and the most obvious aquatic environment in space is a comet.
In addition, the science team ruled out the possibility that the particles were originally from Earth and were blasted into the stratosphere by a volcano, noting that it’s been too long since the last volcanic eruption on Earth for the particles to have maintained such a height. So the tentative conclusion remains, that the organisms were placed in orbit by a passing comet.
What’s even more exciting is the prospect that the organisms, though they are all likely dead at this point, are likely to contain alien DNA. If this proves to be true, it could further the idea that life on Earth may have had its beginnings in cosmos. Next month, the team plans to try the balloon test again to see if they can both confirm their results and find new organisms in upcoming meteor shower tied to Halley’s Comet.
Exciting prospects indeed. But almost immediately after the announcement been made, dissenting voices began to come forward to poke holes in the team’s theory. One such person is Phil Plait, an astronomer who upon reading the findings in the Journal of Cosmology, raised a number of concerns and criticisms about the team’s research.
First, Plait notes, one member of the research team, Chandra Wickramasinghe, has claimed numerous times that he’s discovered diatoms – a type of phytoplankton found in meteorites – and this particular paper also includes similar diatom findings. Wickramsinghe also, according to Plait, has a long history of making dubious claims about extraterrestrial life, using less-than-thorough research.
Plait also noted that the Journal of Cosmology, where the paper was published, has a less-than-spotless reputation. In the past, the quality of peer review at the journal has been questioned, and they have also been accused of promoting fringe and speculative viewpoints on astrobiology, astrophysics, and quantum physics. Of particular concern is the journal’s apparent bias that the theory of Panspermia is established fact, which remains a theory.
But as to the scientific findings themselves, there’s the question of whether the diatom really came from space or became attached to the balloon as it transited from the surface into orbit. While the team claims that precautions were taken and the sample was too clean, extended testing may prove this conclusion to be wrong, and possibly premature.
Second, Plait disputes the conclusion that the diatom could not have been put up in the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption. Specifically, he noted that the researchers didn’t seem to take into account things like turbulence in the stratosphere that could have kept objects previously hurled up there by volcanoes floating around for quite some time.
Then there’s the claim that evidence points that the organisms came from a comet. The fact that it was “remarkably clean and free of soil or other solid material,” works against this conclusion, according to Plait. If indeed it came embedded in rock, there would surely be samples of soil, dust, ice or minerals attached to it, as these are things commonly found in a comet.
And finally, there’s the theory the researchers developed that these organisms are evidence that life actually began somewhere in space, then came to Earth. While Panspermia is a good theory, Plait claims that the scientists are going about arguing it in a way that is not strictly scientific:
Panspermia is worth investigating, but it’s worth investigating correctly. Outrageous claims on thin evidence with huge conclusion-jumping don’t comprise the best way to do it. Stories like this one are sexy and sure bait for an unskeptical media, of course. But at the very least they don’t help the public understand science and the scientific process, and I know some scientists take an even dimmer view of it.
But of course, the announcement was just made and there’s still plenty of checking to do. In the meantime, we can all certainly speculate, and I would like to hear from the people out there. What do you think? Does this discovery constitute a scientific breakthrough, or is it an elaborate hoax or a case of eager scientists jumping to conclusions?
And let’s not forget, this announcement comes not long after Professor Steven Benner’s similar announcement that new evidence connects the origin of life on Earth to life on Mars. No reason why Exogenesis and the Martian hypothesis can’t coexist now is there?