‘Alien Life’ Claim Hampered by Journal’s Dubious Reputation

A controversial, game-changing claim published in a journal with a reputation some consider sketchy has the scientific community both praising and damning the reported discovery: fossils of bacteria embedded in meteorites from outer space.

Image of permineralized remains in the one of the meteorites studied by Richard Hoover. (Credit: Journal of Cosmology)

“Scanning Electron Microscopy investigations of the internal surfaces of carbonaceous meteorites have yielded images of large complex filaments that exhibit features diagnostic of cyanobacteria and other prokaryotes,” or simple cellular life forms, claims Richard Hoover, Ph.D.

A NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center scientist, Hoover published his discovery in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology, an online publication edited by Rudolf Schild, Ph.D., who directs the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics telescope program.

The journal boasts a prestigious editorial staff that includes Sir Roger Penrose, an Oxford University astrophysicist and one of the world’s leading cosmological experts. Nonetheless, it’s being attacked as little more than a junk science repository by other scientists, including University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers.

“It isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea … that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth,” Myers writes on his science blog. “It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint.”

Catalyzed Conversion

Ancient and durable, cyanobacteria — the name derives from their characteristic blue coloring — produce energy much the same way plants do: via photosynthesis, the sunlight-catalyzed conversion of carbon dioxide into nutritious sugars.

Electron microscopic images of meteorite fragments showed tiny filaments Hoover claims “exhibit structures consistent with the specialized cells and structures used by cyanobacteria” for such basic life functions as reproduction and motility.

The filaments aren’t alive anymore, but are merely fossil remnants that — if indeed they did come from outer space — “would be a really, really cool discovery,” said Kelly Smith, Ph.D., an associate professor of philosophy at Clemson University who serves on a NASA panel assembled to consider the religious, social and ethical implications of discovering life in outer space.

“If Hoover is correct, these bacterial filaments would suggest that life evolved elsewhere — perhaps on Mars,” Smith told TechNewsWorld. “The discovery would take all the origins of life research and turn it upside down.”

Earth, Mars, and our solar system have been around for billions of years — long enough for a life to have evolved on another planet and then — as climatic or planetary conditions gradually became hostile — move to planet Earth, where perhaps conditions started out poor, but got better over time.

The life could have been humanoid, animal — or bacterial, Smith said. It would just have needed a way off the planet, and a family of rugged bacteria backpacking aboard an outbound meteorite might have survived the trip.

“These claims could also suggest independent origins of life,” Smith explained. “Life could have evolved independently here — and somewhere else, too. In that case, the whole creationism/evolution debate could get really complex, because such a scenario would suggest that life can arise more easily than we have long thought.”

Cosmology Controversy

Had NASA’s Hoover published his findings in a top-tier academic journal, some of the controversy might have immediately vanished. The Journal of Cosmology, however, “is a ‘junk journal’ to quote a person in cosmology and astrobiology whose views I respect” said Time magazine science journalist Michael Lemonick, who wrote about Hoover’s discovery and checked on the journal’s reputation.

“Some of Journal of Cosmology’s articles seem downright flaky,” Lemonick told TechNewsWorld. “Very few serious scientists take it even a little bit seriously.”

That’s most likely because “scientists know which journals are top-tier, mid-level, and fringe,” Clemson’s Smith explained. “The information they publish, therefore, doesn’t affect scientists much. But it can affect the public’s perception of science and damage the integrity of science.”

Although Smith doesn’t advocate publishing prohibitions that would toss junk science into the trash, he does “worry about these things, because I deal with controversial philosophical issues like intelligent design and creationism. I just urge that people be a bit more skeptical and discerning about what they hear and read.”

As for Hoover’s claims, they have yet to be verified by other scientists. Until then, skepticism will likely reign.

“There’s always the chance, of course, that an apparently flaky view will turn out to be correct,” Time’s Lemonick said. “But then again, it might just be completely flaky.”


  • I AM shocked by PZ Myers’ comments, as they are simply an ad homonym attack, i.e. childish name calling, to wit, ""It isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea … that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth," Myers writes on his science blog. "It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint."

    What does the fact that it does not exist in print have to do with the claim? NOTHING. NONE of his comments address the substance of Hoover’s claim.

    Every paradigm shifting discovery has faced such idiocy, yet to hear it from the likes of Myers in this day and age is sad. (One might be tempted to level the same claims against Myers’ Blog: no editorial review, just some sad individual who is trapped at a 50th-tier quasi-college, blah blah blah… and that would be just as vapid). GIVE SPECIFIC, QUANTIFIABLE, FALSIFIABLE REASONS TO DISBELIEVE OR SHUT YOUR PIE HOLE AND GO DO SCIENCE.

    Kagehi mixed in some valid criticisms. Gotta give props there. He/she needs to stop with the personal attacks as well: even if Hoover was not a PhD (he is) it would be irrelevant. Many great discoveries are made by non-lettered individuals.

  • Man have you missed the point. Its hampered by these things:

    1. Prior attempt to admit it without peer review to a legit one. Rejected.

    2. The fool has all the image scales wrong. I.e., the formations seen would make the "microbes" the size of small insects, not bacterium, but he intentionally compares images of one scale to that of another, which doesn’t work. We are talking about ranges in size (between most similar sized images) between 0.002cm to 0.0005 cm, a jump in size of 4 times "larger" than the organisms are supposed to be. Basically, they are all over the place, with no attempt to compare the "same" sizes.

    3. This is just another, "We found stuff in a Mars rock which we where real excited about!", fiasco.

    4. The article itself is very badly written, and by someone that NASA apparently couldn’t find any sign of an actual science degree for, since they refer to him not as "Dr.", but, "Mr.", when refuting his claim (online diploma mill maybe?).

    5. The site he finally got posted on isn’t just dubious, its yet more proof that you can have a job in something dealing with science, yet, outside your own field, be a complete and total quack. In fact, the more deeply you are *into* that field, the more likely you are to have completely insane ideas about everything else. Case in point was the physicist a while back that suddenly realized that cells generate light (guess what, everything that expends energy does this!), and picked the biggest, and actually worst at it, psychic fraud to *test* his theory that psychics read minds by unconsciously picking up light from the bodies of their subjects.

    My advice to people like the guy running "Journal of Cosmology": stick with telescopes, you don’t have a clue, based on astronomy, how to judge what makes sense in other fields. No one would go to an expert on targeting systems to fix a problem with a nuclear reactor on the same ship, or vice versa. They don’t know jack about each others specialties, and the result of both attempts would be disaster. Yet, give some fool a Ph.D., real or otherwise, and suddenly they imagine their expertise in telescopes gives them the ability to understand everything from biology, to targeting systems, or, probably, nuclear reactors. It doesn’t. It makes you a, possibly very good, specialist on telescopes, and quite possibly an idiot on every other subject.

    Worse, it makes the public misunderstand how specialized science is, and leads them to ending up with all sorts of unfounded "facts" in their heads about what is going on, ranging from those that actually think, "Ph.D." means, "They know everything", to those that think, "Ph.D.s are not worth shit, since the physicist I consulted last week was completely wrong about my cancer treatments!", while the AM ount of actual understanding about how science works, or what it say, is drowned in a sea of complete chaos. We don’t need people with no understanding of a subject jumping in and making claims about things they have no skill at. Its makes it damn confusing telling the quacks, incompetents, or fakes, from the ones who just decided to pontificate, without consulting an expert, on some subject they know *nothing* about themselves, never mind figure out who is expressing opinion, based on actual knowledge of the field. Mind, the media often doesn’t help. How many times does "Depok Chopra" get consulted on stuff he knows nothing **at all** about? Probably 2-3 times a week, and I AM not too sure he even knows anything mainstream, fact based, or not contradictory to neuroscience, even in his *own* field. But, need an expert, the media runs off to consult him, doesn’t matter if the subject is sun spots or psychology… Gah!!

    As for NASA’s recent response, they are a giant bureaucracy, so it was sort of expected. One is almost prone to asking, however, "If the face on Mars thing had been ‘peer reviewed’, would they have not bothered to debunk it?", for all the effort they bothered to put into saying something about this previously, non-internet, actual science journal, rejected article.

    All in all, this should be considered a text book case of *everything* that is wrong with the public understanding of science, media’s (especially one media) even greater cluelessness about it, and the uphill battle being fought, often *in science* to keep up with what is said by people that actually know something about, in this case, fossilized biology, and people (usually with no skill, education, or understanding of the subject in question) hunting for the extra-terrestrial meteor version of Bigfoot.

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