Did Scientists Just Discover Life In Space? Probably Not
Is Earth the only object in the Universe that can boast biological organisms? This question burns in the minds of astrobiologists, scientists from many disciplines (astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology and many more) who investigate how life appeared on Earth, and whether other worlds possess the necessary conditions for life.
When a newspaper like the Daily Express publishes headlines such as “GHOST PARTICLE: The picture proof which shows aliens ARE out there“, you might be forgiven for getting excited, now that we know we are not alone in the Universe. But should we get excited? How does this particle prove the existence of extraterrestrial life?
What did the Researchers Say?
This is tricky to disentangle from what the media has said, as there is as yet no sign of peer-reviewed articles attached to this particular discovery. In essence, the researchers, led by Professor Milton Wainwright at the University of Sheffield, have retrieved unusual particles from the Earth’s stratosphere using balloons. They claim these particles are biological, and are not the result of terrestrial contamination (i.e. bits of organisms being thrown up from the Earth’s surface). However, without an article to read on their methods, I can’t say anything more detailed.
In fact, I’m relying mainly on articles previously published by the team, in the Journal of Cosmology. The very mention of such an infamous journal should ring alarm bells. This is the same journal that published articles about moving rocks on Mars being indications of life (the author of the article filed a lawsuit against NASA, who had previously examined the rock using their Curiosity Rover and concluded it was “clearly [just] a rock”). Much of the journal’s content is biased towards the Editorial Board’s own controversial theories of cosmogony and extraterrestrial life, and astrobiologists do not consider it a reliable source of scientific insight (Wikipedia has a good potted history of the journal here).
This research team has published many articles in the Journal of Cosmology about stratospheric particles being extraterrestrial organisms. The scientific community is very much unconvinced by their claims. Even if the material was biological, it is more likely that it is terrestrial in origin, thrown into the stratosphere by volcanic eruptions (for example). While the team disputes that particles of this size could arrive in the stratosphere through such processes, it is more logical to assume that our understanding of how biological material ends up in the upper atmosphere is incomplete, rather than that alien microfauna is raining down upon the Earth. Charles Cockell, Director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, gives an excellent summary of the case against their previous claims here.
In short, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this evidence is not extraordinary enough.
What did the Media Say?
Sadly, some of the reporting of this story has been exceptionally unquestioning and uncritical. The Daily Express’ original piece has simply been copied by many outlets, with no attempt to garner quotes from scientists not connected to the project (with the exception of Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is closely connected to the research team and the Journal of Cosmology).
Some outlets have re-published previous criticism on their work, like the Tech Times. Their quotes from scientists such as Seth Shostak and Chris McKay outline the skepticism of most astrobiologists on this result.
In fact, it seems that many of the larger outlets that covered stories like this in the past (such as the Telegraph) have largely ignored this story. Perhaps they will publish a more nuanced view, with an up-to-date commentary from other researchers. Or perhaps they have decided that this is in fact a non-story – a decision that I support.