Scientists dismiss alien life report
2011-03-08 0:00

By Thomas H. Maugh II |

A report claiming to find remnants of alien life in meteorites has been broadly dismissed by scientists after its publication Friday in an eccentric online journal.

The report was written by Richard Hoover, an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He had sliced open a couple of small meteorites, looked at them under a microscope and seen what he thought were the fossils of tiny bacteria called cyanobacteria.

Hoover wrote his report, concluding that life is common throughout the universe. He submitted a paper to the Journal of Astrobiology, which rejected it.

Hoover then sent his paper to the online Journal of Cosmology, which promotes the idea that life on Earth came from outer space. A report by Fox News on the paper triggered a meteor storm of publicity over the weekend, followed quickly by derision from mainstream scientists.

NASA has distanced itself from Hoover’s work. In an unusual step Monday, Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s science mission directorate, issued a statement saying, among other things, that "NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts.... NASA was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication."

The Journal of Cosmology is a 2-year-old publication developed by Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that has unabashedly promoted the thesis that life exists throughout the universe and was brought to Earth from elsewhere. The journal has published just 13 issues and, in a news release Monday, said it would cease publication in May, "killed by thieves and crooks" at the journal Science and other subscription-based periodicals, whom it has accused of stifling its ability to distribute news.

The Journal of Cosmology claims to be peer-reviewed. In this case, the journal’s editors said it had sent a copy of Hoover’s article to 100 prominent scientists for critiques and would publish them as they come in. In normal scientific publishing, peer review is conducted before a paper is published to ensure accuracy.

The assessment of scientists, for the main part, has been harsh. "I’m surprised anyone is granting it any credibility at all," wrote blogger and biologist Paul Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota.

"Move along folks. There’s nothing to see here," wrote Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, saying that it is easy to find structures in nature that appear similar to bacteria.

"This appears to be science by wishful thinking," Redfield said in a telephone interview.

Hoover has not responded to media requests for interviews.

Others said that even if the traces Hoover spotted in the meteorite should prove to be bacteria, it would be difficult to rule out contamination.

This is not the first time that researchers have claimed to find fossils in a meteorite. In 1996, a NASA researcher — this time with the agency’s imprimatur — said he had found fossil bacteria in a meteorite that had been blasted off the surface of Mars. The report, which was published in the journal Science, was featured on the cover of Time magazine and was trumpeted by the White House.

Eventually, however, most scientists concluded that what researchers had seen were merely rock formations that looked like fossils.

Last year, NASA-sponsored researchers said they had discovered that certain bacteria in Mono Lake in California could incorporate arsenic into their DNA in place of phosphorus, arguing that the finding indicated the possibility of unusual life forms in space. That conclusion also was derided by other scientists.

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