Grant Rants

Posts Tagged ‘NASA

Facts Matter: ET phone home edition

- March 7th, 2011

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

So big news over at the fine people from Fox News over the weekend huh? They ran a story about a scientist claiming to have discovered alien bacteria on a meteorite. If true this would be huge, huge news because it would be definitive proof that we are not alone in the universe. If you could find fossilized life on a meteorite it would show that, among other things, evolution is a process not limited to earth. And really, finding life that can survive in space isn’t as weird as you might think, as I wrote about back in June in the St. Catharines Standard about some interesting evidence that there may be biological processes happening on the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn:

“Life is chemistry,” University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers recently told me.
Evolution is stubborn and if you can get the chemistry going, then life is possible even in hostile environments, he says. No heat? No light? No oxygen? No problem.
Myers points to extremeophiles — creatures on Earth found in just nasty conditions. Take tardigrades, for instance. These wee creatures, which look like chubby caterpillars, can live in temperatures near absolute zero. NASA once exposed some to the vacuum of space for 10 days, and they survived! And laid eggs! (You and I would be dead in less time than it took to read that sentence.)
“Also look to the vent communities in the ocean,” says Myers. “These are worms, they are related to us. But they have no mouths, no guts or anything like that. They just absorb sulphur from these (hydrothermal) vents.”
Yummy. I loves me some sulphur. Anyway, he says something that evolved on Titan living in methane would be completely bizarre. If there is something gobbling hydrogen it won’t look like the carbon-based critters we’re used to.

Urdnot_Wrex

no Krogans were found, or harmed, during the production of this blog.

Still, that operative phrase there is “IF confirmed.” The scientist in question, one Dr. Hoover, has made this sort of claim before and those claims remained unproven. Part of the problem is the extreme difficulty in finding artifacts of living things on the complicated structure of a meteor. The other problem is the conclusions are not peer reviewed and have not been duplicated. Other scientists are already chiming on Hoover’s paper – released on the web-based and scientifically sketchy Journal of Cosmology – saying basically, “WHOA NELLY!” Even NASA, who Hoover used to work for, is distancing itself from the paper. In essence, Hoover’s conclusions to be sustained by other scientists before it will be taken seriously, which is as it should be.

I understand how exciting it would be to find alien life. If I allow my heathen-self to wish-think, it would be the single most amazing thing we’ve ever discovered. But finding alien life isn’t easy, let alone intelligent life we could talk to. Scientists are uncovering bits and pieces of the universal puzzle that is starting to show that planets, even rocky planets like ours with liquid water, might not be as uncommon as we once thought. But even so, that is a long way from finding, identifying and confirming that life exists elsewhere. As cool as it would be to find something, the best policy is always to go where the evidence goes and remember that facts matter. Jumping to conclusions is not just poor science, but as Fox showed us this weekend, poor journalism as well.