Thursday, 17 March 2011

Is there life on Mars?

Famed NASA astrobiologist, Richard Hoover, has been hunting meteorites and extremeophiles in the frigid Antarctic for over 10 years. To the amazement of all, what this treasure hunt has uncovered is alien life: Fossils of ancient bacteria which hailed from colonies which thrived on comets, moons, and other planets.
Finally, definitive proof of life on other planets. I've been waiting for this since, well, the last time scientists discovered definitive proof of life on other planets.

In case you didn't notice, I was being sarcastic. The Journal of Cosmology, on the other hand, is almost certainly not being sarcastic with their press release:
In a world-wide exclusive, this startling, paradigm busting research, and the pictures to back up these claims, has been published in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.
Dr. Carl Gibson of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at Scripps Institute and the University of California at San Diego had this to say: "Dr. Hover has provided the world with extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims. This discovery completely changes our perspective of the nature of life and our place in the Universe, The world will never be the same."
Extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims? Truthfully, I have no idea about the extraordinariness of this evidence. I am not an astrobiologist and I have no experience with "the most advanced micro-scanning technology in the world". I know a little more than most about cyanobacteria, but as far as I am aware, they evolved on Earth around three billion years ago, and that is where it ends, or should I say, begins.

Also, I haven't read the paper.

The Journal of Cosmology, for all of their grandstanding, is not a real scientific journal. It might have allusions of grandeur, but these are not backed up by any real facts. For one, look at the journal's response to the criticism that they have received over this paper. The first official post-publication statement from this "prestigious academic journal" included the sub-heading
Have the Terrorists Won?
You can read the whole thing on their spectacular website* (scroll down, have a giggle, and then scroll down some more). The first two sentences are not even sentences.
The Journal of Cosmology is free, online, open access. Free means = No money.
It then goes into great detail explaining how prestigious they are, but also how they are different to other journals because they "do not reject great papers because we disagree with them as is the habit of other periodicals". This is the classic conspiracy theory favoured by fringe - and by fringe I mean shit - scientists. It is not true. If this research truly showed the first conclusive evidence for extraterrestrial life, then it would be published in Nature or Science, but probably Nature. I have no doubt about this. They would be all over it.

The Journal of Cosmology must have realised that this first statement was a bit over the top, so they toned it down for the second statement.
Open Letter to the Editors of Science & Nature
The Journal of Cosmology Proposes a Scientific Commission,
Established Co-Jointly with Science and Nature,
To Investigate & Confirm the Validity of the Hoover Paper
It starts out with a variation of the Galileo Gambit. This is a particularly lame argument.
In 1584, Giordano Bruno published "Of Infinity, the Universe, and the World" and wrote: "There are innumerable suns and an infinite number of planets which circle around their suns as our seven planets circle around our Sun." According to Bruno, we are unable to see these planets and suns "because of their great distance or small mass." On February 19, 1600 Bruno was tortured and burned at the stake by the Inquisition for publishing these claims which contradicted established "scientific" dogma.
The next paragraph contains some mild hyperbole
The publication of Richard Hoover's paradigm shattering discovery of microfossils within carbonaceous meteorites, unleashed an ugly storm of violent, histrionic invective not seen since the Middle Ages when they burned scientists for making discoveries that threatened the established order.
It goes on like that for quite some time. It's quite entertaining, but the entire premise of the letter is wrong. A scientific commission to investigate and confirm the validity of a paper? Sorry Dr Schild, but that's not how science works. It might be how "science" works, but it is not how science works. The validity of the paper is being checked, right now, by hundreds of highly qualified experts. Some of them will repeat the experiments, or look at the same samples in different ways. As with all scientific findings, these findings will be validated or rejected by people doing science, and writing their own papers. Peer review doesn't stop at the time of publication.

Science and Nature are the two most prestigious journals in the world, by a fair margin. To think that they would be convinced to climb into bed with a previously little known journal with a possibly crazy editor seems to me a little ambitious, on par with thinking that some interesting patterns in a rock are proof of extraterrestrial life. Having said that, both journals are also total media-craving sluts, so who knows? Either way, I look forward to more of Dr Schild's musings.

Eric Idle provides the perfect summation
So pray that there's intelligent life, somewhere out in space, because there's bugger all down here on Earth.

I'm pretty sure that this whole episode is an elaborate prank, two years in the making, and somewhere, someone is pissing themselves that we all fell for it.

The Crapologist is free, online, open-access. And remember "Free means = No money".

*Check out the hit counter, which is blank because it only has room for ten million hits, and they had had over 14 million just in the first couple of weeks of March. The counter now looks like a prison cell with good taste and functionality chained up behind those bars.

No comments: