Monday, March 7, 2011

Sperm from Space?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe interwebs are exploding right now with buzz about a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology authored by a NASA scientist - Richard B. Hoover. The title of the controversial paper published online late last Friday is Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites.

Hoover claims to have found evidence of extra terrestrial life.  

This isn't a new claim.  This evidence comes by microscopic observation of a freshly fractured meteorite that landed on earth in 1864.  If it is life it's been dead for awhile. 
A torrent of criticism has quickly spewed from the scientific community.   When a journal drops names like NASA, Harvard, and Smithsonian it is not something to brush aside without consideration.  But I have spent some time looking into this "Journal of Cosmology" and come up disappointed.

The fact that my University does not have any record of this journal's existence and I can not get to recognize any of the digital object identifiers (DOIs) attached to Dr. Hoover's paper are both red flags that this is a bunch of bollocks.  

I'm all for online open access journals but when peer review means you get a bunch of astrophysicists to weigh in on matters of microbial biology, Huston, we have a problem. 

The one figure from the paper that looks  interesting to me is figure 5. Seems as though someone got a bit over-excited to crack open that rock.  

I tend to agree with PZ Meyers after looking at this paper myself.
"I think many confuse their wish to see evidence of extraterrestrial life with the evidence for extraterrestrial life. Personally, I'd love to see the discovery of life that originated elsewhere other than our world — that would provide a radically different insight into evolution. I know there has been evidence of organic molecules in space, and I suspect that life does exist on other planets (possibly even other planets in our solar system), but I'm not going to accept a claim of discovery without adequate evidence.
And I'm sorry, but Hoover's paper is poorly written, sloppy work that uses a non-biologist's impressions of complex textures in a mineral to imply morphological evidence for fossilized bacteria. You'd think NASA would know better: we had a similar phenomenon a few years ago, in which people claimed to see a "face on Mars," a claim that NASA effectively debunked. This is the same thing. It's a shame that NASA isn't being as quick to dismiss bad science this time around.
It is disheartening to see this kind of article be presented as "peer-reviewed" because it chips away the integrity of what peer-review actually means.  On the other hand the journal in question is willing to publish negative critiques of these claims in parallel to the paper.   So let's see what the scientists that actually study microorganisms have to say about these complex textures. 
Hoover, Richard B (2011). fossils of cyanobacteria in C11 carbonaceous meteorites Journal of Cosmology, 13
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