Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?


No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.


Fox News broke the story, which ought to make one immediately suspicious — it's not an organization noted for scientific acumen. But even worse, the paper claiming the discovery of bacteria fossils in carbonaceous chondrites was published in … the Journal of Cosmology. I've mentioned Cosmology before — 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 of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. 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. For a while, it seemed to be entirely the domain of a crackpot named Rhawn Joseph who called himself the emeritus professor of something mysteriously called the Brain Research Laboratory, based in the general neighborhood of Northern California (seriously, that was the address: "Northern California"), and self-published all of his pseudo-scientific "publications" on this web site.

It is not an auspicious beginning. Finding credible evidence of extraterrestrial microbes is the kind of thing you'd expect to see published in Science or Nature, but the fact that it found a home on a fringe website that pretends to be a legitimate science journal ought to set off alarms right there.

But could it be that by some clumsy accident of the author, a fabulously insightful, meticulously researched paper could have fallen into the hands of single-minded lunatics who rushed it into 'print'? Sure. And David Icke might someday publish the working plans for a perpetual motion machine in his lizardoid-infested newsletter. We've actually got to look at the claims and not dismiss them because of their location.

So let's look at the paper, Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites:
Implications to Life on Comets, Europa, and Enceladus
. I think that link will work; I'm not certain, because the "Journal of Cosmology" seems to randomly redirect links to its site to whatever article the editors think is hot right now, and while the article title is given a link on the page, it's to an Amazon page that's flogging a $94 book by the author. Who needs a DOI when you've got a book to sell?

Reading the text, my impression is one of excessive padding. It's a dump of miscellaneous facts about carbonaceous chondrites, not well-honed arguments edited to promote concision or cogency. The figures are annoying; when you skim through them, several will jump out at you as very provocative and looking an awful lot like real bacteria, but then without exception they all turn out to be photos of terrestrial organisms thrown in for reference. The extraterrestrial 'bacteria' all look like random mineral squiggles and bumps on a field full of random squiggles and bumps, and apparently, the authors thought some particular squiggle looked sort of like some photo of a bug. This isn't science, it's pareidolia. They might as well be analyzing Martian satellite photos for pictures that sorta kinda look like artifacts.

The data consists almost entirely of SEM photos of odd globules and filaments on the complex surfaces of crumbled up meteorites, with interspersed SEMs of miscellaneous real bacteria taken from various sources — they seem to be proud of having analyzed flakes of mummy skin and hair from frozen mammoths, but I couldn't see the point at all — do they have cause to think the substrate of a chondrite might have some correspondence to a Siberian Pleistocene mammoth guard hair? I'd be more impressed if they'd surveyed the population of weird little lumps in their rocks and found the kind of consistent morphology in a subset that you'd find in a population of bacteria. Instead, it's a wild collection of one-offs.

There is one other kind of datum in the article: they also analyzed the mineral content of the 'bacteria', and report detailed breakdowns of the constitution of the blobs: there's lots of carbon, magnesium, silicon, and sulfur in there, and virtually no nitrogen. The profiles don't look anything like what you'd expect from organic life on Earth, but then, these are supposedly fossilized specimens from chondrites that congealed out of the gases of the solar nebula billions of years ago. Why would you expect any kind of correspondence?

The extraterrestrial 'bacteria' photos are a pain to browse through, as well, because they are published at a range of different magnifications, and even when they are directly comparing an SEM of one to an SEM of a real bacterium, they can't be bothered to put them at the same scale. Peering at them and mentally tweaking the size, though, one surprising result is that all of their boojums are relatively huge — these would be big critters, more similar in size to eukaryotic cells than E. coli. And all of them preserved so well, not crushed into a smear of carbon, not ruptured and evaporated away, all just sitting there, posing, like a few billion years in a vacuum was a day in the park. Who knew that milling about in a comet for the lifetime of a solar system was such a great preservative?

I'm looking forward to the publication next year of the discovery of an extraterrestrial rabbit in a meteor. While they're at it, they might as well throw in a bigfoot print on the surface and chupacabra coprolite from space. All will be about as convincing as this story.

While they're at it, maybe they should try publishing it in a journal with some reputation for rigorous peer review and expectation that the data will meet certain minimal standards of evidence and professionalism.

Otherwise, this work is garbage. I'm surprised anyone is granting it any credibility at all.

Want more dismissive reviews? Read David Dobbs and Rosie Redfield. We have concensus!


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