Note: This story exploded after I posted this, often in strange ways. Several updates are at bottom.
A new paper has claimed signs of alien microbial life in a meteorite, setting the science press abuzz and leading some in the blogosphere and the twittersphere to wonder if this going to be like taking arsenic all over again. (See Phil Plait, at Bad Astronomy, for a judicious quick first look.) Even before the science itself has played out, I think I can safely say No on the Arsenic Redux question. The publication of this assertion already sharply differs from that of the notorious Arsenic Lives paper. And it differs because the journal publishing it — the Journal of Cosmology — is different. Which puts it mildly.
The Journal of Cosmology is in fact so different from any other journal, so otherworldly, that I don’t know quite know what to make of the thing. But in a way, I like it, even as it’s dying. The J of C drew my attention with the peer-reviewed paper, Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space, which was part of a special issue on Mars published last fall. Here’s the abstract’s first sentence:
Humans are sexual beings and it can be predicted that male and female astronauts will engage in sexual relations during a mission to Mars, leading to conflicts and pregnancies and the first baby born on the Red Planet.
Fair enough. Here’s the first paragraph of the article proper. (Forgive the comma; perhaps it was inserted to create a pause at the moment of maximum anticipation.)
Performance of the sex act during a journey to Mars, may require potentially complex sexual gymnastics. On the other hand, any difficulties associated with sexual intercourse in space may turn out to be an easily solved problem of docking and entry as human are notorious for inventing ways of having sex despite all manner of logistical impediments (Joseph 2000a). However, what impact will sexual activity have on team dynamics and morale? And what if an astronaut became pregnant during the journey? Would the fetus be viable? How would this impact the crew?
Okay so right away we know this isn’t the usual deal. The rest of the issue, frankly, I didn’t get through, but not because it was bad or good (I didn’t read enough to judge), but because it concerned space exploration, and I don’t write about space or rockets and had my own work to do. Yet this brief brush with the J of C — I read the masthead, did a bit of Googling — made it obvious it was an unusual publication. It wasn’t run by one of the big science publishers, like Nature or Elsevier, nor a university. It has a funky, 90s-feel website. It had voice, which alone distinguishes it from most journals.
And it seems to be driven mainly by its editor-in-chief, Rudolf Schild (rhymes with killed, not wild) a professor of cosmology at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Schild, who has published just shy of 300 papers, had assembled a seemingly stellar line-up of guest editors and advisors, so that looked fairly Establishment. But the journal, peer-reviewed, was published open access (free online, expensive in print), and ran a wild assortment of articles — origins of life, aline life, panspermia, cosmology of ancient cultures.
This was not a shy journal. The press release announcing the Mars issue argued, essentially, that since NASA is incompetent, the rest of the space community needs to just do Mars itself. I could be wrong, but this looks to be very much Rudy Schild’s baby. And even a short trip down the Rudy Schild rabbithole on Google a) starts to explain the eccentricity and b) made me wonder why no one had written a long juicy profile of this guy. (Ferris Jabr, here is your next assignment.) If I had time and proximity I’d drive to Cambridge and do it myself. Schild looks interesting as hell. Google him, you get interviews about aliens, UFOs, and traveling on sound; his university and Wikipedia pages; and — what drew me in — his own page about his 1960 Morgan. (Back in November I found a bunch of other pages about his cars, and regret that now I can’t find them.) This is a hell of a car.
He used to bring his Christmas tree home in it:
Interesting guy. He likes to think about out loud, on Paranormal TV, about what it would be like if we had contact with aliens. He thinks big.
Quite frankly I don’t what to make of this. Last night, as I was tucking in my 9-year-old, he asked me, “Do you believe there’s other life in the universe?” (This wasn’t about the J of C paper. He’d been reading Muse, and he often thinks such things.) I told him I didn’t know what to believe, I didn’t know one way or another, but that I gussed there could be, because the universe is big.
Schild is less shy. He seems to believe we’ve got company. This colors his ideas about space exploration and, I imagine, his attitude toward papers submitted by NASA scientists claiming signs of finding such life. And why wouldn’t it?
Which leads us to the very sensible standard response to the signs-of-alien-life paper he just published: As Andy Revkin noted in his post about the paper, Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence. Or, as Henry Bryant Bigelow put it, “Interesting if true.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet if you’re Rudy Schild and take it as a high probable that alien life exists, then how extraordinary is a claim that you’ve found signs of it? He may not hold the bar as high as we do. Yet — and here’s the big difference so far between this and the arsenic fiasco — Schild seems to recognize that he must adjust his bar to ours if he wants to convince us. The J of C has promised to do something rather extraordinary in the week ahead: Publish
100 review comments from scientists to whom they sent the paper the responses from 100 requests the journal says it sent out for peer comment.
Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover’s paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented.
We’ll see soon enough if Hooper supports this extraodinary claim with extraordinary evidence. But already this seems an extraodinary publishing event. And you can hold your breath for more. The journal’s May edition, slated to be its last (this typically spirited goodbye note explains why) will be devoted to astrobiology, astrochemistry, and the pioneering work of Fred Hoyle (who coined the term “the big bang”) and his colleague (and JOC editor) Chandra Wickramasinghe who along with Hoyle, coined the term: “Astrobiology.”
Mar 3, 5:05pm GMT
Rosie Redfield, who lodged the first strong peer correction of the arsenic paper, has posted a review of this one. Her executive summary: “Move along folks, there’s nothing to see here.” Slightly longer v, as I understand it: The resemblances Hooper identifies (between fibrous materials in this meteor and known bacteria) are less chemical than physical and structural, and there are so many known bacteria that such similarities don’t mean that much.
Mar 3, 5:19pm: PZ Myers has weighed in as well, with his usual spirit. His executive summary:
No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.
He does elaborate, vigorously.
Mar 06, 2011, 7:18:
I just received this release below from Rudy Schild, editor of the Journal of Cosmology. He now reports that he of the 100 invites he sent to peers for comments, he received 12, and will be publishing those. His full release below.
Obviously his statements below don’t take into account the responses noted above from Rosie Redfield and PZ Myers.
Emphases below are mine.
NASA Scientist Aliens–Status Report Commentaries
The Journal of Cosmology had issued a personal invitation to 100 scientists, and a general invitation to over 5,000 members of the scientific community, inviting critical commentary on Dr. Hoover’s landmark, paradigm shattering paper. All were given access to a PDF containing a preprint of Dr. Hoover’s article.
Within hours of making it available, it was downloaded over 1,400 times.
After issuing an open invitation for scientists to search for flaws and to report them in a scientific forum, as of March 6, the Journal of Cosmology has received 12 commentaries.
Five detail what could best be described as minor quibbles. One offers an alternative explanation as to the origin of these fossils but does not dispute the evidence. We will publish all commentaries so far received, this evening.
It is natural to have doubt. Skepticism is the nature of science. Debate is healthy and is good for science. We are frankly amazed that we have not received an avalanche of critical commentaries.
Perhaps the reaction could be described as “stunned silence”?
As to those who post insults on various websites, this is not to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, Dr. Hoover’s article, and the lack of scholarly, critical dispute, may be an indication of a paradigm shift; similar to the realization that Earth was not flat nor the center of the Universe. What I mean is: most scientists and perhaps most of the public realize life must be everywhere throughout the cosmos and not just confined to Earth, and Dr. Hoover’s paper simply confirms what most already suspect. This may also account for why the over 150 news articles and blogs so far published (with the exception of MSNBC), the response has been generally favorable or positive in nature.
The inability, so far, of the scientific community to find and present any major flaws in a scientific forum and to submit and publish them in a scientific Journal which has invited critical commentary, speaks for itself.
However, the jury is still out. Our deadline for receipt of scientific commentaries is Monday, the 7th. We will extend that deadline.
The Journal of Cosmology will publish critical commentary. We encourage it. We ask the media to encourage the scientific community to send us critical commentary.
However, so far, the verdict appears to be: We are not alone.
Rudy Schild, Ph.D.
Center for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian
Journal of Cosmology
Permission is granted to quote from this open letter.
PPS, Mar 6, 2011, 10:12pm GMT: The J of C has a few words for its critics.
I really don’t know what to expect next.
March 7, 2011, 7:58 GMT
Phil Plait, at Bad Astronomy, files his second, more studied take on the paper itself. He doesn’t buy it. It’s a particularly well-considered, fair-minded post.
Also, Rosie Redfield posts a note from another NASA scientist that lends some context. Take-homes: NASA is a many-headed beast; Hoover (the meteor-bug paper’s author) is an engineer, not a biologist.
And the mainstream coverage is starting to reflect the science blogosphere’s skepticism. This wasn’t the case 24 hours ago. For example:
Scientists skeptical of meteorite alien life claim – Yahoo! News
March 7, 2011, 8:24pm GMT
SpaceRef reports that NASA released a statement explicitly distancing itself from the Hoover paper and stating that it had previously failed peer review at the Journalj of Astrobiology. Worth noting that many papers get turned down at one place before being accepted at another. NASA’s statement is significant less for that news about prior rejection than for taking the trouble to distance itself from the paper publicly. Here’s the statement as reproduced by SpaceRef:
“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.” – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
March 8, 2011, 6:46 am GMT
Two developments overnight:
- The Journal of Cosmology published 21 commentaries it has received from scientists it solicited comments from on the Hoover paper about signs of alien life in meteorites. I’ve not yet read the commentaries. I’d like it more if they linked to the evaluations registered so far by qualified people elsewhere on the net, such as Rosie Redfield and Phil Plait. If you know of other evaluations from qualified people online, please note them in the comments. If I have time amid the other two deadlines I’m working on, I’ll publish a list.
- The Journal issued another press release defending its peer review. It makes some sensible points. Unfortunately, it ends with trash talk: “The choice is simple: Scientific discourse vs psychosis. Hysteria and lies do not constitute scientific doubt. They are calls for medication.”
I get the feeling that somewhere, somehow, somebody at the Journal of Cosmology is trying to do something right. They just seem to be going about it all wrong.
Wed, Mar 9:
I missed this yesterday: Ferris Jabr offered a concise take on the whole schmeer for New Scientist, adding some interesting context I hadn’t seen before:
The often confounding prevalence of minerals that look an awful lot like living things is exactly what geologist Alison Olcott Marshall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence confronted in a Nature paper published last month.
Olcott Marshall and her colleagues revealed that what we thought were the oldest known bacterial fossils on Earth are only deceptive patterns formed in the rock by geological processes. The researchers sliced the 3.5-billion-year old Apex Chert rock containing the alleged fossils into 30-micrometre sections, thinner than any previously studied slices, and shone a powerful laser at them to get a good look under the microscope.
The new analysis confirmed that the fibrous structures researchers had originally identified as fossilised cyanobacteria were in fact fractures in the rock filled with inorganic haematite and quartz.
“One lesson we learn over and over again is that morphology is very common between minerals and life,” says Olcott Marshall, who is also unconvinced by Hoover’s new paper. “Finding circles and wiggles is not necessarily evidence of life.”
Is That Arsenic-Loving Bug — Formerly an Alien — a Dog?
The Wrong Stuff: NASA Dismisses Arsenic Critique Because Critical Priest Not Standing on Altar
Arsenic and Primordial Ooze: A History Lesson