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Meteorite mysteries go viral

R. Hoover / Journal of Cosmology

An image created using a field-emission scanning electron microscope shows a coiled filament that was found within a carbonaceous meteorite. The scale bar indicates a length of 20 microns.

Last updated 7 p.m. ET March 8:

A NASA researcher's claim that organisms from outer space have been found within a rare class of meteorites certainly sparked a lot of comments over the weekend, from experts on astrobiology and microbiology as well as from the public at large. Some of the commentators have been pretty scathing. David Morrison, senior scientist for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, told me in an e-mail that the paper really should have been published on April Fool's Day. Pharyngula's P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, said "this work is garbage" and voiced surprise that anyone was taking it seriously.

Now the Journal of Cosmology, which published the much-debated paper by NASA biologist Richard Hoover, has added a batch of commentaries from a variety of researchers and others. Here are some of the folks in the journal's lineup:

  • Cody Youngbull of the University of Arizona's Biodesign Institute notes that Hoover's claims have "gone viral, with major media news sources and Internet blogs all carrying reports of this story. And so too the experts, for whom this information is not new, who have been monitoring the accounts of fossils in these same meteorites since 1961, have something to get excited about. ... This is because, while the elemental and mineral composition data remains identical to prior accepted reports, the morphological data far exceeds anything yet shown on the subject."
  • Harrison Schmitt, the Apollo 17 scientist-astronaut who went from walking on the moon to serving in the U.S. Senate and who is now a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says he can't pass judgment on the research itself. Instead, he wonders "why many do not seem to want life to have originated independently on Earth. ... We just have to figure out how it all happened."
  • Patrick Godon, an astrophysicist at Villanova University, says Hoover "presents firm evidence" that fossil microbes are embedded within the meteorites, but he says it's "debatable" whether the microbes came from Earth or from somewhere else in outer space.
  • Elena Pikuta, a microbiologist from the University of Alabama at Huntsville who has collaborated with Hoover, says the study "represents a sensational discovery which will have the potential to change our understanding on the origin of biosphere." The findings from the meteorites were "analyzed and interpreted according to the current standards in science using highly sensitive laboratory techniques," she says.
  • Tulane University physicist Frank Tipler, author of the controversial book "The Physics of Immortality," says that "although Hoover has done as much as is possible with his small sample, we cannot yet conclude that he has indeed seen fossil cyanobacteria."

The journal may have decided against immediately publishing some of the responses it received, based on the missing numbers in the order of the commentaries. As of late today, No. 15 out of 21 was still missing  — and No. 11, attributed to Cardiff University astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe and carrying the subtitle "A Vindication of Panspermia," wasn't yet displayed on the page.

Generally speaking, the journal's commentaries don't provide the kind of hard-hitting criticism that some of the better-known outside experts on microbiology have been voicing in other forums. But they do suggest that Hoover's claims will continue to be debated rather than going immediately into the trash can.

Update for 11 a.m. ET: In a statement distributed by the SpaceRef website, one of NASA's top scientists says the space agency does not support Hoover's findings. Here's the word from Paul Hertz, chief scientist of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington:

"NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper."

Meanwhile, Universe Today's Nancy Atkinson got in touch with Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center. Here's a sampling from McKay's comments:

"The implication of these results is that the meteorite hosted a liquid water environment in contact with sunlight and high oxygen. ... Richard Hoover is a careful and accomplished microscopist so there is every reason to believe that the structures he sees are present and are not due to contamination. If these structures had been reported from sediments from a lake bottom there would be no question that they were classified correctly as biological remains."

McKay also acknowledged, however, that the structures could turn out to be "chance shapes" that just happen to look like pieces of an organism. That kind of interpretation was put forward to explain the "nanofossils" seen in a meteorite from Mars back in 1996. Moreover, if the structures do turn out to be cyanobacteria, and they're not contaminants, it'd be hard to explain in biological terms how they could survive on a meteorite in space.

Update for 11:30 a.m. ET: One of the questions that has come up is, "If they really did find alien life, why isn't this research being published by one of the big scientific journals, such as Science or Nature, rather than some little online publication that's on the brink of going out of business?" Lana Tao, managing editor for the Journal of Cosmology, addressed that question in an e-mailed statement:

"The Journal of Cosmology has received e-mails asking why Dr. Hoover's paper was not published in Science or Nature. We are aware that individuals who may or may not be associated with these publications are posting ad hominem attacks, which essentially wish the public to believe that if Dr. Hoover's article was really important it would have been published by these other journals. These are tantamount to schoolyard taunts by jealous children.

"1) First, Dr. Hoover's article was an original contribution and had not been submitted to these two periodicals.

"2) Secondly, both Science and Nature have a nasty history of rejecting extremely important papers, some of which later earned the author's a Noble Prize [sic]. Use Google keywords search for a wealth of info.  Nature magazine admits to this, though they put a positive spin on these rejections.


"3) Editors at Science have been accused of using the Bible to make editorial decisions by scientists such as Dr. Gil Levin (who devised the famous NASA Viking Mars Experiments). 

"4) It is a matter of public record that the organization which publishes science magazine have engaged in illegal anti-competitive practices designed to harm the Journal of Cosmology. The continuing success of JOC poses a competitive threat to their business model. We should not be surprised their 'hand puppets' are complaining that JOC published this article, and not them.

"5) Science and Nature are in the business of making money. The Journal of Cosmology is free, open access, and is in the business of promoting science.

"6) Science and Nature protect the status quo, and have a history of rejecting great papers.

"7) In less than 2 years, the Journal of Cosmology has become one of the top online science journals, with nearly a million hits for January. Our mission is to advance science.

"8) The ad hominem attacks and complaints by those say Dr. Hoover's article should have been published in these other periodicals, and not JOC, are just sour grapes and should not be taken seriously.

"9) We have repeatedly offered to publish critical commentary. We are still waiting."

Update for noon ET: Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait says he's come to the conclusion that "Hoover's claims are wrong," based on many of the factors we've been talking about (criticism of methods from microbiologists, questions about the venue for publication, scant peer review and lack of NASA support, etc.). One of the more interesting angles comes from his e-mail exchange with Penny Boston, an astrobiologist and geologist at New Mexico Tech who is an expert on extremophiles in caves. Her view is that it's virtually impossible to rule out the possibility of earthly contamination just by looking at something in a rock sample, due to the ubiquity of life on Earth. Here's a sample quote:

"Rocks, even the most high density materials, are prone to microfractures. Microorganisms are notoriously splendid at working their way into incredibly minute microfractures. ...

"Showing that the bug that you have actually is NOT a contaminant organism that made its way into a meteorite is a practically unsolvable problem. If you turn up an organism whose chemistry, way of coding information, or something else (besides morphology) indicates that it is significantly (and I MEAN significantly) different from anything that has ever been seen on Earth, THEN you might have a chance of proving this. Pictures of tube shaped structures don’t do it."

Update for 2:40 p.m. ET: Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, told The Associated Press that the structures seen in the meteorite are most likely earthly contamination. He turned thumbs down on Hoover's claim that they were extraterrestrial organisms:

"There has been no one in the scientific community, certainly no one in the meteorite analysis community, that has supported these conclusions. The simplest explanation for Mr. Hoover's measurements is that he's measuring microbes from Earth. They're contamination."

Update for 4:45 p.m. ET: In a comment appended to Keith Cowing's posting about the study on NASA Watch, Rocco Mancinelli of the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute takes issue with the NASA statement that "the peer review process was not completed" when a paper by Hoover was submitted for publication in the International Journal of Astrobiology in 2007. "The paper was rejected, after peer review," said Mancinelli, who is listed as an associate editor of that journal. (Mancinelli also sent in critical comments that were included in my previous roundup on the "meteorite life" study.)

Update for 9:25 p.m. ET: There's been a lot of back and forth over whether Hoover has claimed to have a Ph.D. NASA Watch's Keith Cowing has put a lot of effort into this — and determined from NASA that he doesn't have a Ph.D., even though the Journal of Cosmology paper lists him as having one. Jennifer Lewter, a teacher who says she's a "big fan of Dr. Hoover's," indicates in her blog postings that he has two honorary doctorates.

Meanwhile, the journal's managing editor, Lana Tao, said in an e-mail that 21 commentaries on Hoover's paper had been received and that all were published, even though two (Nos. 11 and 15) still seemed to be missing at the end of the day. One of the late entries, from Oxford's Martin Brasier (No. 9) cast doubts on Hoover's results. "These samples have been sitting around in laboratories for between 205 and 73 years," he wrote. "It is well known that microbial contaminants can penetrate deep into such rocks, even during storage. The null hypothesis, therefore, is that many of these objects ... may be prokaryotic contaminants." (Cyanobacteria qualify as prokaryotic organisms.)

Tao also fired back once more at the journal's critics, insisting that Hoover's paper went through adequate peer review. Here's a quote from the e-mail:

"As every editor and guest editor will attest, all articles are subjected to peer review. We reject over 30 percent of invited papers and over 70 percent of those which are not invited. Every editor, and guest editor, has had their work subjected to peer review, and every editor has been required to revise their articles after peer review. Even the executive editors have been required to revise their papers after peer review.  We believe in peer review.

"Peer review provides wonderful feedback which can help make a paper better, or which can explain why the paper is hopeless and must be rejected. However, we do not reject great papers because we disagree with them as is the habit of other periodicals.

"Dr. Hoover's paper was received in November. It was subjected to repeated reviews and underwent one significant revision.

"We have published every commentary received, 21 so far. The vast majority support Dr. Hoover's findings.

"The choice is simple: Scientific discourse vs psychosis. Hysteria and lies do not constitute scientific doubt. They are calls for medication."

Update for 7 p.m. ET March 8: Now for the postmortems: Two more e-mails went out from Tao overnight. One was addressed to Paul Hertz, the NASA scientist who implied that the agency could not "stand behind or support" Hoover's claims because they had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed. In the message, which was copied to numerous others including yours truly, Tao said "we will file a formal complaint with NASA regarding your unprofessional, dishonest conduct." She said "over 30 NASA scientists have published with the Journal of Cosmology" and insisted that the articles "underwent rigorous peer review."

In another e-mail message, Tao thanked members of the media "for covering this important story and bringing attention to Richard Hoover's discoveries." She said the journal's owners accepted a buyout offer two weeks ago, before last weekend's flap. "The selling of JOC also means a new managing editor," she wrote. "Therefore with this thank you, I also get to say ... goodbye!"

Today, Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard recapped the whole saga of the microbes in the meteorite ... and the media ... in a posting to The Observatory blog.  "Anything having to do with extraterrestrials has a way of creating a media frenzy," Brainard observed. "But reporters have obviously learned from frenzies past."

I'm definitely feeling frenzied out, but Tao's earlier reference to Gil Levin's claims about the Viking experiments has reminded me to add that issue to the list of controversial astrobiology results:

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