Mar
10
2011

NASA researcher discovers life in meteorites...or does he?

It seems that there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about this paper in the Journal of CosmoCyanobacteria: Could cells like these have been found in space rocks?
Cyanobacteria: Could cells like these have been found in space rocks?Courtesy Microbial Diversity, Rolf Schauder and David Graham, © 1997
logy, an online-only publication apparently known for publishing controversial points of view endorsing, among other things, the hypothesis that life began outside of the Earth. The paper in question, by NASA researcher Richard Hoover, discusses structures found in three meteorites that visually and chemically resemble bacteria. If these meteorites really contain bacteria whose origins are extraterrestrial (rather than plain old Earth bacteria that contaminated the meteorite samples), it's clear that Hoover has made the kind of discovery that will represent a revolution in scientific thinking.

But that's an awfully big "if". Critics suggest that contamination is vastly more likely (see a nice collection of comments here), and generally criticize the research, the publication, and various other facets of this story.

This whole affair can be read a number of ways: as an illustration of the rule of thumb that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"; as an example of the politics that sometimes surround scientific research and publication; or even as evidence that people have a way of seeing what they want to see given ambiguous evidence.

But despite all the criticism, I confess that anything suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial life sets my little heart a-flutterin'. Very few ideas have the same power to catch the imagination as that of alien life: that something so impossible might actually be possible, that science fiction might have some truth, that our understanding of the universe might still be completely and profoundly overturned by something so simple as a few cells inside a space rock. Remember when NASA teased this story about a revolution in astrobiological thinking? I was on pins and needles for days, hoping that they were going to announce definitive evidence of alien life. And, admit it, when you saw this story's headline you were secretly hoping for the same thing...

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