SciVoxPops: Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?

To kick off the SciVoxPop experiment, I wanted to pose a question that was close to my heart, and so I asked:

Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?.

Part of my research focuses on this subject, addressing how and where we might look to find and verify extraterrestrial life.  Overwhelmingly I find that when I tell people this, I am bombarded with questions along the lines of: So have we found life? Where is life most likely to be? What will aliens look like?  It is a great talking point and something I never get bored of talking about, so I wanted to find out what the general perception was, among those who haven’t just bought me a drink.

The response, while not overwhelming in number, was overall more positive that I would have imagined.  Out of the 19 people that sent me their responses (I’ve had a busy week and haven’t had much time to trudge the streets, but watch this space!), all but three were positive about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  I would love to get some more responses so see if this trend is maintained, so may revisit the question in the future.

Interestingly, among those who were confident that there was life out there the reasoning was pretty vague, relying mostly on optimistic logic over the cold hard facts.  I suppose as a scientist, groundless optimism is drilled out of you early, but I was delighted to see it was alive and well and still dominant among the many.  Optimistic curiosity is, after all, what drives some of our best science.  Here are the two main arguments I was presented with.

The universe is so large, we can’t possibly be alone…

This line of thinking harks back to the earliest thoughts on astrobiology – those of Frank Drake and Enrico Fermi – who tried to quantify the amount of intelligent life in the universe at any one time.  While the Drake Equation predicted any number of communicating civilisations between one (our own) and 10,000, Fermi was concerned with the overwhelming silence of the stars.  If there is life out there, then why can’t we detect it?

Many ideas have been proposed as a solution to the Fermi Paradox, including the vast distances representing an insurmountable barrier to communication, or the concept that we are being watched but that our watchers purposefully hide themselves from us.  Whichever the ultimate solution, it would seem that the cool logic of the reasoning public errs on the optimistic side and personally, I can’t say I blame them.

We’ve just found a planet just like earth…

On 5th December 2011, NASA announced that for the first time a planet had been found orbiting well within the habitable zone of a star just like our own sun.  They painted a picture of Kepler 22b as a veritable Eden, an ocean planet with an atmosphere maintaining the world at a very pleasant 22 degrees Celsius.  While considerably larger than our own Earth (suggested ot be around the size of Nepture), it is the closest analogy to Earth that we have yet found outside our solar system.  And it is this recent finding, on top of the host of other extra-solar planets that Kepler has identified this year, which seems to be spurring on the general optimism.

Of course, merely the fact that there is another Earth-ish planet doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more likely to find life.  As a conscious species we are inherently biased toward those environments that we find comfortable.  In this case it is an equable temperature range, and oxygen-rich atmosphere, and a 24-hour day.  But there are whole host of other organisms, even on Earth, for whom our heaven would be the worst kind of hell.  Extremophilic organisms have a very different idea about what is an equable climate for life, and there is just as much chance that any potential aliens will similarly find the predominant conditions on an Earth-like planet pretty unpleasant.  That we are finding other planets around other suns is exciting, but we should be a bit broader in our ideas of what is ‘habitable’.

Alien autopsies and UFOs…

I was surprised how few people claimed to be won over by the countless videos of live ‘aliens’ and ‘UFOs’ that can be found on the internet.  Only one anonymous respondent claimed their belief of extraterrestrial life came from these dubious sources.  In all, it was encouraging for the propagation of real scientific thinking on the subject.

In terms of the negative responses, the reasoning was once again varied:

It’s bleak but true…

An attitude such as this plays into one of the more troubling solutions to the Fermi Paradox – that the reason we haven’t identified life is because we are, in fact, alone. Ultimately this is based on pure, unoptimistic facts.  We have found places where there is the potential for life, but no indication of life there yet.  Time will tell, but if we remove optimism and deal only with the evidence we have, we would seem to be alone.

We haven’t managed to make it ex nihilo…

The fact that we haven’t yet found the way life got started is indeed good evidence that our understanding of the earliest biological processes is incomplete.  And surely, if we don’t understand how, when and where life started on earth, we can’t hope to know how or where it happened elsewhere.  But does this mean there is nothing else out there?  Perhaps, if you take the current holes in our knowledge to imply a force stronger and stranger than our natural laws, with the need for unique Earthly Creator.  But perhaps it just means we don’t have all the answers yet.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, and our knowledge is increasing daily.

So it would seem that optimism rules the way in my small sample. For most people, we are probably not alone, and we scientists must bear the responsibility, not only of finding the objective truth, but also to live up the hopes of thousands (represented by 20). Better get to it then…

Thanks to everyone who responded to the first SciVoxPop. Watch this space for next week’s question.  It’s a topical one!

Moons: Small Gods in the Darkness

Moons are Small Gods in the Darkness

There are over three hundred of them in our solar system.  Some are bigger than planets, and no two are the same.  Moons are the constant companions of our planets, and without these strange and wonderful worlds, our solar system would be a very different, chaotic, and inhospitable place.  Our moons are a host of guardian angels watching over us.  They are our small gods.

Last night, the moon rose over the UK under lunar eclipse.  Between around 9pm and 10:30pm it slowly emerged from behind the Earth’s shadow, and we (at least those who weren’t completely shrouded in cloud) were treated to one of the finest astronomical spectacles in a decade.  But far from being just a beauty in the night sky, our moon, and the moons of other planets, are fundamental features of our solar system, and without them, we would be in a lot of trouble.

Moons are guardian angels

Moons orbiting around their planets act to stabilise the orbits and rotations of those host planets.  Large moons (those with a small planet-to-moon ratio) can stop the axis of a planet’s rotation from changing too much.  Earth’s large moon limits the variation of tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis- its obliquity, to within 2 degrees.  Mars’s moon Phobos is too small to have this effect, so Mars’s obliquity varies by up to 50 degrees over thousands of years, making the planet hostile to life due to extreme seasonal changes.  If we lost our own moon, then over a long period of time, our obliquity may oscillate by the same amount or more than Mars, over geologic time.  Such changes would mean that our seasonal biomes would be seriously disrupted or destroyed, and at certain time, the combined rotation and orbit around the sun may make the Earth completely inhospitable to life.

The gravitational pull between moons and their host planets creates tides on those planets, and on themselves.  Such interactions can be seem in water (as seen on Earth due to our own moon) and in the flexible rock itself.  This flexing of the rock can create heat within the body of the moon and planet.  In the icy far reaches of space, this heat can be enough to drive volcanism (as on Io around Jupiter) or cryovolcanism (As on Enceladus around Saturn) or to melt ice to create subsurface oceans of water which may be habitable for alien life (as on Europa around Jupiter).  Without tides on Earth, fertile plains relied on by humans, and by a whole range of organisms, would not exist.  Many plants and creatures that have developed to live in a periodically wet and dry environment, would never have appeared, and species diversity would be measurably poorer.

Moons are the answers to our prayers*

            *by prayers I mean scientific questions

Study of the moons around us can offer valuable and often unexpected answers to questions of the formation of our solar system, and of the processes still operating on a planetary scale.

Looking at the sheer variety of moons has given us a number of ways to explain how all the bits of our solar system came together.  The classic model for the assembly of planets also holds for some moons.  This ‘accretion model’ predicts that after the sun formed, the remaining giant cloud of gas and dust clumped together due to gravity into grains, rocks, boulders and, eventually planets that orbited the sun.  At the same time, if smaller bodies fell into orbit around a planet, instead of the sun, they became moons.  We can see examples of this kind of moon formation in the landscapes of the Jovian moons Ganymede and Callisto.  Ganymede formed very close to Jupiter from a lot of debris, in a quick and very energy-rich process.  This energy led to the rapid segregation of ice and rock, which can be seen on its disrupted surface.  In contrast, Callisto formed much more slowly, further away from Jupiter, and there was less energy involved in its formation.  As a result, the rock and ice didn’t differentiate and its surface is smooth.  Thus, both the amount and type of material contributing to the accretion process, as well as the energy of formation, is critical in creating the variety of many of our moons.

But accretion is not the only way that a planet can get itself a moon. Neptune’s largest moon Triton is a bit of anomaly, as it is one of the only natural satellites that orbits its planet the wrong way.  Most moons orbit their planets in the same direction as the planet rotates, a legacy of the original rotation of the gas cloud.  But Triton is in retrograde – it travels clockwise, whileNeptunerotates anticlockwise.  This piece of information alone is enough to tell us that the moons formed separately.  Leading speculation is that it was an object ejected from the nearby Kuiper belt of asteroids, which subsequently became locked in orbit aroundNeptune.  So moons can be stolen, as well as home grown.

Our own moon, Luna, is an example of yet another way you can get a moon – planetary destruction.  Studies of the composition of lunar and terrestrial rocks has shown that they have very similar compositions, minus a bit of iron in the former.  The prevailing theory for such a similar composition is that our moon was in fact derived from Earth.  But how do you get a bit of Earth 300,000km out?  By hitting it.  Really hard.  So the theory goes that around 4 billion years ago, a planet the size of Mars collided with the proto-Earth, melting the outer layers of both, and spewing vast amounts of molten rock into space, which soon reformed into our own moon.  This is known, somewhat unsurprisingly, as the Giant Impact Hypothesis.  They even have a funky computer model.  The hypothesis has recently been thrown into doubt after new analysis of lunar rocks from Apollo 17 found significant quantities of water within them, which wouldn’t be expected if Luna formed by a high energy, rock melting, water vaporising impact.  Time will tell, and maybe we will find yet another way of getting ourselves a moon.

Observing the moons of other planets can not only tell us about how they got there, but also what they are doing now, and how they are responding to large scale forces in the solar system.  In particular, they show us the large scale effects of the tidal gravitational pull on rock, rather than water.  When rock of a moon is put under tensional and compressional stresses during an orbit around its planet, it generates heat, and if the forces are strong enough, the heat may be great enough to generate some truly magnificent volcanic and cryovolcanic features.

The surface of Io is smooth and, probe images have shown, constantly changing.  Episodic impacts of its surface would be expected to leave a mark in the form of craters, and the complete absence of these can only mean that the surface is new.  Near constant, large scale volcanism is responsible for resurfacing the entire moon on a very short timescale, and it is the heat generated by the tidal friction of Io with Jupiter and other nearby moons, that that drives the eruptions.

For moons which are composed of more ice than rock, which is the case for most Saturnian and Jovian satellites, the tidal friction heating melts the lower layers of ice in contact with the rocky core.  The heat driven expansion of this liquid causes a spectacular phenomenon of cryovolcanism, or ice volcanism.  Perhaps the finest example of this in all the solar system are the plumes of water ice spewing more than 300 km above the surface of the small Saturnian moon Enceladus.  These plumes are fed by isolated pickets of warmer water, and play a big part in feeding the rings of Saturn amidst which the moon sits.

By observing the surfaces of moons, we are also able to assess changes in the structure and motion of those moons.  Such observations are important for planetary protection.  If a moon of Mars suddenly destabilises from its orbit and comes flying towards the Earth, people will ask ‘why didn’t we know it was going to do that?’  Nothing so apocalyptic is going to happen in our lifetimes, or probably in the lifetime of the human race, but the orbits and rotations of moons do change, and it is important to keep tabs on that.  For instance, the most recent cracks in the surface of the ice of Europa are exactly what we would expect from the tidal stresses between that moon and Jupiter.  With increasing age, however, the cracks gradually change in their orientation, indicating that either the moons has changed in its orbit and rotation, or something else is going on.  Mathematical models show that something else is indeed going on, and in fact the surface of Europa is rotating slightly faster than its core, something that could only happen if they were separated.  What separates them?  Water, liquid water.  An ocean of liquid water exists beneath the icy crust of Europa, and that is one of the most exciting discoveries in our solar system in the last 10 years.

Moons are life givers

What I personally find most exciting about our constant lunar companions, is that their vast diversity in composition, location and characteristics provides the best opportunity we have of finding extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

It is generally accepted that life as we know it needs a liquid in order to get started and keep going.  On Earth, that liquid is water, and liquid water is a precious commodity in the solar system.  It can only exist at the surface of a planet within narrow zone at a specific distance away from the sun – the habitable zone.  Too close, and the water boils away, too far and it is frozen solid into ice.  Outside this habitable zone, finding life as we know it has been considered extremely unlikely owing to the lack of water.  But all is not lost. The habitable zone is not the last call for our terrestrial life. There are two more ways that we can make liquid for our spa-loving beasties, and moons have it all.

Firstly, while liquid water may not exist on the surfaces of bodies in the solar system, it may be maintained beneath the surface.  The heat generated by the tidal friction between moons and their giant host planets like Jupiter and Saturn is enough to melt lower layers of ice into sub-surface ocean, as in Europa and Enceladus (see above) and possibly Ganymede.  Contact between these extensive oceans and a warm rocky core would also provide minerals and nutrients needed for the maintenance of life, and occasional cracking of the overlying ice will provide access to rare gaseous elements and oxidisers in the thin atmospheres.  Europa is usually considered the main target for our next step in the search for extraterrestrial life, and amino acids, the building blocks of life, have been detected in the icy plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

But liquid water is not the only way.  Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has a strange and intricate landscape of ice that has been shaped by weather.  Weather that is entirely methane and ethane, rather than water.  Methane clouds, methane rain, methane rivers and methane lakes.  Because of its lower freezing point, methane can exist as a liquid on the surface of Titan, and this liquid may be all that an extraterrestrial life form needs.  The metabolism of such a life form would have to be radically different to the metabolisms of Earth-based life – having to make its food from methane and nitrogen, instead of water and carbon dioxide, but scientists are still optimistic.  Titan is up there on the list for ET-hunters.

Moons are awesome, I hope this little essay has helped convince.  They are the hottest topic in solar system research, and in astrobiology at the moment, and I hope the love and passion and attention that they receive in the future will continue to contribute to the escalating bank of knowledge and marvelous discoveries.  At the very least, there will be another lunar eclipse in a couple of years.  Maybe the weather will be good this time.

Microbes on a Moonbeam: Update from the JoC

Two weeks have passed since Richard Hoover’s paper in the Journal of Cosmology, claiming evidence for cyanobacterial fossils in meteorites, broke the news.

The feedback I have received from my report at that time has been most encouraging, and from scanning the popular press, and internet blogging community, I have been warmed by the healthy logical scepticism that dominates now.  To be honest, I thought the matter was settled, and we could all put it behind us as a lesson in overexuberant interpretation and sloppy scientific publication.

But no.  It would seem that the Journal of Cosmology are still thrashing around in a borderline hysterical way, with a tone very much like that of their soon-retracted ‘The terrorists have won’ official statement.  This time, an email sent round to the JoC mailing list, also replicated on the JoC website, seems to blame the Obama administration for slandering Hoover and the Journal of Cosmology.  Republicans, much?  And we are all made to feel like horrible bullies for making poor Richard Hoover ‘terrified’.

The email is copied below.  What strikes me most is the ‘facts’ stated by the JoC, that  ‘The IJA had received a paper by Hoover, but it was never reviewed as it was determined to be too lengthy’, and ‘NASA’s Chief Scientist … brazenly lied’, for example, while being of great import to our understanding of what is going on, actually have no corroborating statements or references to back them up.  A journal, of all places, should see the absolute necessity of that.  You could argue with every point made, but why do I get the feeling you would be beating your head against a brick wall?  Anyway. Here it is, and I’l let you make up your own minds.

Sent: Tue, 22 March, 2011 3:46:32
Subject: Obama White House, Meteors & Microfossils–The Slander Campaign

-In 2007 NASA Approved Hoover Data For Publication: Discovery of Microfossils in Meteors
-In 2011 NASA Denounces Hoover & JOC For Publishing Data
-What Changed?
-Obama Elected President–White House Intervenes on Day 1 of Story
-NASA Threatens NASA Scientist. Orders Hoover Not to Speak to Media
-NASA Chief Scientist Lies to Media 

On March 5, 2011, the Journal of Cosmology published the data of Richard Hoover of NASA, which NASA approved for publication
in 2007: the discovery of microfossils in 3 meteors.  The Journal of Cosmology, its editorial staff, and Richard Hoover of NASA were subjected to a campaign
of slander and defamation by NASA administrators and NASA’s Chief Scientist after the Obama White House became involved.

-2007 NASA administrator Michael Griffin was ordered by White House to Lie About Climate Change.
Now they are lying about the Hoover discovery. Politics and religion have again trumped science.

The Facts

1) In 2007–NASA approved the submission of the Hoover Microfossil-Meteorite data for publication.

2) The IJA had received a paper by Hoover, but it was never reviewed as it was determined to be too lengthy.

3) Hoover wrote the paper submitted to JOC in Sept-October 2010 and submitted it in the first week of November of 2010.

4) The Hoover paper submitted to JOC, and the data it contained, had never been reviewed or rejected by any other journal, but contained the data approved by NASA in 2007 for publication.

5) The Hoover paper was reviewed, and subsequently underwent a major revision and was resubmitted in November, and again reviewed and approved. But it was not immediately published in JOC as is our normal standard procedure.

6) For the next 4 months the Hoover paper was critically examined by a Referee/Editor who went over it line by line, even enlarging the photos to pixel size to search for any evidence of tampering or fraud or anything which would make the data suspect. The data looked solid.

7) We were well aware the paper would be controversial, and were braced for slanders and defamatory attacks.

8 ) Before it was published the Hoover paper was made available to the scientific community for comment.

9) It was published in the first week of March and immediately met with an avalanche of slanderous attacks, led by a NASA administrator at Ames Research Center and a fake expert, and two media outlets with ties to NASA.

10) JOC quickly became the target of these attacks, now led by NASA’s Chief Scientist, who, to our astonishment, brazenly lied about the history of the Hoover paper and about JOC and its review policies. In so doing he maliciously disputed the legitimacy of the work of two NASA Senior Scientists Science Directorates who have published five peer reviewed articles in JOC, and over 30 NASA scientists and 4 NASA astronauts who have also published their own peer reviewed work in this same journal. JOC has in fact been guest edited by a NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate, and another senior scientist at NASA/JPL. NASA’s chief scientist was willing to discredit anyone and everyone including top scientists at NASA, in order to destroy the legitimacy of the Hoover discovery.

11) Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe spoke by phone with Richard Hoover the weekend the article was published, and reported that Hoover was clearly “terrified”. Hoover reported that NASA officials had been threatening him and “shouting” and “yelling and screaming” at him, demanding that he recant. They also ordered that he was not allowed to speak with the Press.

12) Over the following week we received 24 commentaries on the Hoover article. Most of these were sympathetic.

13) JOC is so confident of the data the editors at Science and Nature magazine were invited to cooperate in an independent review. These editors were uncooperative.

14) To date, there is no evidence the Hoover data is not accurate. The preponderance of evidence is these are microfossils of microorganisms which are extraterrestrial in origin and which colonized these structures and the parent bodies, before this planet was formed.

15) We had anticipated the results would be met with hoots of derision. We anticipated slander and defamation. We believed that much of this would be motivated by ignorance, fear, and religious beliefs. We did not anticipate that NASA’s Chief Scientist would lead a slander campaign and boldly make up easily disproved lies about the Hoover paper and JOC. We frankly wondered why he would maliciously defame the work of numerous NASA scientists who had published in JOC and why he did not fear consequences from officials higher up.

16) On Friday, March 18, 2011, Dr. Rudolf Schild, Editor-in-Chief of JOC spoke at length with Richard Hoover and learned that the White House, i.e. the offices of President Obama, became a party to this issue almost immediately after the story broke. The exact nature of this involvement is unknown to us.

17) We have been concerned that Richard Hoover might be forced to recant. He has not done so yet. However, it is also clear he has been under enormous pressure at NASA by powerful forces which wish him to disavow his findings.

18) The involvement of the offices of the President of the United States in this sordid affair, and with all its power, is most distressing. What the motives are, are unknown to us, though clearly the entire campaign of slander, defamation, intimidation, took place after the Obama White House became involved.

These are the facts as we know them. We believe the data is real. The implications profound.

We have to consider if a mountain-sized chunk of this planet was sheared from the surface and tossed into the abyss, only to land billions of years from now on another planet, that this chunk of expelled Earth would be peppered with the fossilized remains of various organisms. Hoover found fossils of microorganisms which had lived in the parent bodies which may have included planets older than Earth.

The Hoover data, by itself, does not mean life on Earth came from other planets. It simply means we are not alone–and the implications are staggering. However, based on the evidence compiled in an inexpensive book, “The Discovery of Alien ExtraTerrestrial life” and which includes Hoover’s discovery and landmark paper, and the discoveries of other independent scientists, the conclusions are threefold:

We are not alone. Life is everywhere. Life on Earth, came from other planets.

JOC never intended to take the safe road. Our goal is to advance science. We are open to all ideas, even those we disagree with, so long as they are backed up by science and scholarship. This is why JOC, with 15 Million Hits for March alone, has become one of the most read scientific journals in the world.

It takes courage to lead. It also takes intelligence to recognize when it is time to move on. The involvement of the offices of the president of the United States in this sordid affair, and with all its power, is most distressing. What the motives are, are unknown to us.

Our goal is to advance science.

Microbes on a Moonbeam: Disentangling the Meteorite Microbe Claims

Earlier this month, a paper was published in the open access online Journal of Cosmology, claiming to have identified verifiable alien cyanobacteria in rare water-rich meteorites.  The paper, published by Dr. Richard Hoover at the NASA Marshall Flight Centre, was immediately picked up by various news outlets and soon, news of the finding had spread across the public domain causing amazement and outrage in equal measure.

Why?  The claims are controversial enough, but increasingly, all is not as it seems with Richard Hoover, his microbes, and the Journal of Cosmology itself.  Many people have said many things in the week following the announcement, and it is my hope to consolidate some of this, and also to shed some light from a personal perspective – I have a review paper published with the Journal of Cosmology in the same issue.

So, as far as I see it, there are two main questions that should be posed of the Hoover-microbe furore:

  • Is the claim true?  It is good science?
  • Has the paper been properly peer reviewed and published?

Various pieces of evidence may be brought to bear on each of these questions, and the story may change as more facts become available, but addressing each one should help to disentangle the complex issue.

The Science

In summary, Richard Hoover claims to have found filaments of alien cyanobacteria embedded within CI1 carbonaceous meteorites.  These meteorites are exceptionally rare – only nine have ever been recovered – and have an unusual petrology and structure.  They are composed largely of clays and carbonaceous material, held together with salts such that, when the rocks are soaked in water, they disintegrate.  Hoover has taken six samples from two of these meteorites, and tested them geochemically, as well as imaging them using Environmental and Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy.  Great pains were taken to reduce the chances of contamination with modern material during the preparation process, and a method developed by the author previously, using comparative nitrogen contents, was used to demonstrate that the imaged structures were not modern contaminants.  Hoover compares filamentous and variously tapering and bulging structures in the rock to forms of modern cyanobacterial genera, before discussing more general implications for life existing in the solar system, and even seeding our own planet in the past.

Hoover's 'Microbial' filaments

Hoover's 'Microbial' Filements

That is what the paper says.  But to the scientist, it does seem to simultaneously say too much, and too little.  It says too much about history, general astrobiology, and meteorite petrology which should have been, or should be, covered elsewhere.  And for such a big and important claim which understandably makes good headlines, the scientific method that supports it is notably lacking in substance.  The Journal of Cosmology picked up on the grumblings of the scientific community fairly quickly, and invited 100 experts to comment on the findings of the paper.  This commentary is now published on the Journal’s website alongside the paper.  At the time of writing, 21 invited scientists have offered comments, and the views are certainly varied.  Many accept Hoover’s findings without question, and use them as a platform for further discussion as to the search for, and implications of, extraterrestrial life.  Some agree with Hoover’s findings, but have qualms with the presentation or weight of evidence for certain of his conclusions.  And some scientists, notably Michael H. Engel of the University of Oklahoma, and Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford, find much of Hoover’s evidence unsubstantiated, and interpretations reached without proper appreciation of the extraordinary evidence needed to prove his extraordinary claim.

My personal opinion is one of scepticism.  Claiming to find life in a meteorite is indeed an extraordinary claim, and given that we have not abundant evidence for life verdantly colonising other planets and bodies within our solar system, we must logically assume that it is rare.  Thus, it is more likely that such structures are abiogenic, than being formed by life.  Biogenicity may only be confirmed by multiple lines of supporting evidence, and convincing disproof of the null abiogenic hypothesis.

While Hoover’s work goes to great lengths to prove that the structures are not modern contaminants – including exhaustive isolation methods during preparation, noting the fact that the filaments are embedded in freshly fractured rock surfaces, and the fact that their elemental and protein constituents do not match with measured modern biological objects – it does fail to acknowledge the likelihood that the structures, while being native to the meteorite, are in fact abiogenic.  As any Precambrian palaeontologist will tell you, identifying cellular fossils in Earth’s rocks is fraught with difficulty.  Disentangling true body fossils from abiogenic structures like carbon chains (as in the 3.4Ga Apex Chert, proposed as biogenic by Schopf and Packer in 1987, and subsequently given an abiogenic explanation by Brasier and others in 2002), and carbonate globules (as in the Martian meteorite ALH84001, proposed as biogenic by McKay and others in 1996, and subsequently given an abiogenic explanation by Golden and others in 2001) is an essential and logical part of the scientific process necessary to confirm life in an otherwise barren rock.  The biological morphology would also need to be supported with multiple other lines of information – contextual, geochemical and elemental, and the much more likely abiogenic null hypothesis for each supposedly biological signature would need to be first disproved.   Only in light of these many lines of robust evidence, could the structures be confidently assigned a biological origin.

Martin Brasier, of the University of Oxford shows compelling images of ambient inclusion trails (included below), which are formed by the migration of a mineral crystal through a lithified substrate (Reported in detail by Wacey and others in 2008).  These purely abiogenic processes create structures that look strikingly similar to Hoover’s trichromic cyanobacterial filaments.


Ambient Inclusion Trails

Ambient Inclusion Trails

In a personal communication, Ian Musgrave of the School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide, drew my attention to magnesium sulphate nanotapes that closely resemble the tape-like structures reported by Hoover (Zhou 2006).  Further, Gounelle and Zolensky demonstrated in 2010, that magnesium sulphate bacteria-like structures do occur in CI1 meteorites due to post-landing changes in water content.

Magnesium Hydroxide Sulphate nanobelts

Magnesium Hydroxide Sulphate nanobelts

The general outcry by scientists and the informed public since publication of Hoover’s paper, not only in the official Journal of Cosmology commentary, but also on countless blogs and social media discussions bears testament to the fact that the science is not as robust as it could be.  An official statement from Dr Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, seems to be trying to put distance between NASA and the paper:

“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.”

Even though Dr. Rocco Mancinelli, Editor of the Journal of Astrobiology later says that the manuscript was rejected after peer review, the whole affair remains suspicious.

But it is the job of the publication process to pick up on any problems, so now the Journal of Cosmology itself is coming under scrutiny.

The Publication

The Journal of Cosmology website, as the first encounter, does not inspire confidence.  In these days of easy website hosting, creation, and design, the unprofessional look of the page is jarring, and harks back to a MySpace age, where fourteen-year-old musical wannabes with very little design taste could make a page that looked surprisingly like this.

Journal of Cosmology home page

Journal of Cosmology home page

But look is not everything.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, and taking the Journal at its word, one can assume that its concern is more with good, peer-reviewed science, and not with superficial appearance.

Any paper published by an academic journal must first go through what is known as the ‘peer-review’ process.  An author, or group of authors submit a manuscript to a journal for consideration.  The journal first decides whether they are interested in publishing the paper, based on the topic, and then they send the manuscript out to at least two experts in that particular field – the peers.  The experts are asked to assess the paper on the basis of relevance to the field, international importance, and the robustness of the science carried out.  The peers will then either recommend the paper for publication, and advise ways in which the paper could be improved, or reject the manuscript, giving reasons.  The peers remain anonymous throughout.  After correction and redrafting of a recommended manuscript, the journal will accept it, and it will move into the ‘proof’ stage.  Here the text is typeset by sub editors of the journal, and returned to the authors for final error checking.  It is the job of the subeditors and the authors together to ensure that all typographical, grammatical and subject errors are picked up and corrected before the paper is published.  Only after this has been completed, will the paper appear on an online or in print, and may be cited by subsequent papers.  The publication process can be extremely lengthy, often taking months or even years from initial submission to publication.  It is a rigorous and thus time-consuming process to ensure that the science is as good as it could be, and potential queries and qualms are addressed premptively.

Given that the peer review process is specifically aimed at making the science in a paper as robust as possible, it is then reasonable for non-specialists to interpret the results at face value, as being the best they can be.  Disagreements with the interpretations may be subsequently made, but the assumption is that results were reached in a way that is generally accepted and respected by other experts. This should be the case for the Hoover paper in the Journal of Cosmology, just as it is the case with every paper in every academic journal.

Now, I am in a bit of a special position, in that I have a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology in the same issue.  This was an invited submission, passed on to me by my supervisor, and the paper is a broad theoretical review of the potential for life in our solar system.  It is nothing groundbreaking, but was intended as part of my PhD thesis conclusions.  The chance to publish it was an added bonus, so I submitted it on a wing and a prayer, on 1st February, for publication in the March issue.  I should add at this stage, that the Journal of Cosmology is one of many ‘open-access’ journals – requiring no payment or subscription in order to read the articles within.  It is also exclusively an online journal, so printing related publication times are unsurprisingly significantly reduced.  Still, I was somewhat surprised that they expected just a month-long turnaround from all reviewers, authors and subeditors.

Along with the manuscript, I was asked to recommend five potential experts who would be a position academically to review my work.  This is normal for academic publication – as often the authors themselves will have the best idea of who the experts are in their field.  The journal may not use these recommendations (obvious problems of the author only choosing people who will review their work favourably apply here!), but they are often used as at least a starting point.  I selected reviewers from a range of fields, from space science to microbiology.  On the 24th February, I received an email from the Journal of Cosmology, informing me that my paper had been seen by two reviewers and that they had both recommended it for publication… and this is where the process became a little irregular.  Normally, the reviewers would write a few short paragraphs confirming their thoughts on the manuscript and directly advising changes and additions.  No such comments were included in my communication with the editors.  They merely said:

“Your article has been reviewed by two referees, both of whom recommend publication without need for significant revision.

However, both felt that many of your references were outdated, and that if you included, or at least mentioned, some of the recent research and theories which have been published, RE: Europa, Titan, Enceladus, it would make for a much stronger paper.


This was reasonable feedback, and there were several references that I had inadvertently missed – not difficult when you are reviewing a large amount of literature.  Even so, I thought it odd at the time that no reviewers comments were included.  Nevertheless, I revised my manuscript, and resubmitted it on the 27th February.  I received an email from the Journal confirming receipt, and saying it was being ‘processed’.  I assumed that this meant it was being sent back to the reviewers for approval, but didn’t hold much hope for it being ready in time for the March issue.  It was to my great surprise, therefore, that I received an email on 1st March:

“Your revised article has been reviewed, accepted for publication, and can be viewed at this link: Your article, with links, has also been added to the Table of Contents for volume 13.”

And so it was.  I was amazed – how efficient!  But, no proofs?  As a bit of a pedantic proof reader, I was quite looking forward to seeing proofs and being able to check my own writing for errors, and was very surprised that the Journal did not do this.  Perhaps it is because it is online, I thought, perhaps because it is open access.  I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

But when Richard Hoover’s paper in the same issue started to make a stir in the scientific community, my doubts were resurrected.  I decided to do a little prying.  So I contacted all five of my suggested reviewers to ask if they had, in fact, reviewed my paper.  To my astonishment, none of them had even seen a sniff of it.  As I said before, the recommended reviewers are not always used, but as the Journal is primarily about Cosmology, and my manuscript was mostly about astrobiology, I was more than a little surprised that none of my suggestions, even one who had previously published in the Journal of Cosmology, had been approached.

There was also a small matter of me being credited with a PhD I do not yet have.  Not something to cause complaint from someone like me, on a relatively un-ground breaking paper like mine, but still something completely unfounded.  It now appears that they have done the same with Richard Hoover.  On all NASA Marshall Flight Centre (his employer) sites he is listed as Mr, and yet, the Journal of Cosmology have given him a Dr., as they did with me.  Some critics suggest that this is Hoover himself trying to overstate his position, but I can attest that it is, in fact, coming straight from the journal.

I read the Hoover paper.  Now, I am not senior enough to offer heavy weight criticism about the scientific methods, although I do still have my opinions (expressed above).  But I am a freelance editor, and I know an edited piece of writing when I see one.  Or rather, I know a not-edited piece of writing when I see one.  In my experience and opinion, Richard Hoover’s paper is just not very well written.  In overall content, it is not the concise and exact writing that is normally used to report important paradigm-changing claims such as this (see every paper published in Science and Nature for the desirable format for ground-breaking research papers).  There is historical perspective, and direct quotes, which could be just as easily cited as references in the text.  We are told that a falling meteor broke a branch from a tree, and are quoted the philosophical musings of nineteenth century scientists for nearly six pages before the author’s contributions are even broached.  The discussion following the reported results are not relevant to the major finding of the paper, and fail to identify any of the possible alternative interpretations of the microbe structures, other than discounting the fact that they are modern contaminants.  Typographically, the manuscript is riddled with errors.  Fractured and nonsensical sentences, such as:“It should be noted that one seriously Murchison sample was found to be contaminated…” are frighteningly common.  Symbols and units are erratic too – ‘H2O’, ‘SiO2’, and ‘200oC’ are errors that I would expect to find in a an undergraduate essay.   I do not blame Richard Hoover for this.  We all make a mess of our sentences when editing, but it is the job of reviewers or proof readers to pick this sort of thing up.  Formatting is odd as well – not all figures have their own figure caption, making interpretation of the data difficult without intense reading.  This is just not what I would expect from a professionally peer reviewed and edited journal.  How did they let it slip through unless, and this is just a logical conclusion to draw from the weighty evidence in its favour, the Journal of Cosmology are not doing what they say they are?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not casting unfounded aspersions on the basis of my own biased opinion, and if the reviewers of the Hoover paper, or indeed my paper, come forward and say they did their job to their accepted standard, I will not doubt it.  If the Journal of Cosmology can stand up and say they have done all that is expected of a respected academic journal in terms of presenting good science in a good way, and provide robust evidence in support of it, then my qualms will only lie with the reviewers.  Until that time the Journal is unavoidably sitting under a black cloud of suspicion.

Clearly, the Journal is aware of the criticism coming its way – as evidenced by this official statement preceding Hoover’s paper on the website.  In itself it is not that odd, and is a natural defence against the press’ and public’s scepticism of the paper.  But when I first came across it yesterday (10th March), it read very differently, and not so objectively:

“Official Statement The Journal of Cosmology,

Have the Terrorists Won?

The Journal of Cosmology is free, online, open access. Free means = No money.

Our intention has always been to promote science and this means, particularly in this case, stepping on the toes of the “status quo” who have responded with a barrage of slanderous attacks. They are lying to you.

The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal Two of NASA Senior Scientists Science Directorates have published in the Journal of Cosmology (JOC). A NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate served as a “guest” Executive editor and repeatedly referred to the Journal as “prestigious.” Four astronauts, two who walked on the Moon have published with JOC. Over 30 top NASA scientists have published in JOC.

Top scientists from prestigious universities from around the world have published in the Journal of Cosmology, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and so on. Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford and who shared the “Wolf Prize” in physics with Stephen Hawking is Guest editing the April edition.

Peer Review NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate Joel Levine, while participating in a NASA press conference, remarked about how his papers were peer reviewed and he was required to revise all of them, even though he was the editor for that edition of JOC!

As every editor, and guest editor will attest, all articles are subjected to peer review. We reject over 30% of invited papers and over 70% of those which are not invited. Over 90% of all papers are sent back for revision following peer review. Every editor, and Guest editor, has had their work subjected to peer review, and every editor has been required to revise their articles after peer review. Even the executive editors have been required to revise their papers after peer review. We believe in peer review. Peer review provides wonderful feedback which can help make a paper better, or which can explain why the paper is hopeless and must be rejected. However, we do not reject great papers because we disagree with them as is the habit of other periodicals.

Richard Hoover’s paper was received in November. It was subjected to repeated reviews and underwent one significant revision.

Selling JOC The Journal of Cosmology has no income, a small staff, and is overwhelmed with submissions from scientists around the world. A decision was made in early February to stop publishing in June. A buy out offer was received in mid-February. Terms were agreed to in late February. The offer was made public in February. Hoover’s paper was received in November of 2010 and published in March.

We were well aware we would suffer profound, slanderous, attacks by those who would do anything to destroy our reputation. If Hoover’s paper were a factor in this sale, we would have never published it. They are lying to you.

Have the Terrorist Won? Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study. NASA’s chief scientist was charged with unprofessional conduct for lying publicly about the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper. The same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?

Few legitimate scientists have come forward to contest Hoover’s findings. Why is that? Because the evidence is solid.

But why have so few scientists come forward to attest to the validity? The answer is: They are afraid. They are terrified. And for good reason.

The status quo and their “hand puppets” will stop at nothing to crush debate about important scientific issues, and this includes slander, defamation, trade libel… they will ruin you. Three hundred years ago, they would burn you for questioning orthodoxy. Has anything changed?

The scientific community must march according to the tune whistled by those who control the funding. If you don’t do as you are told, if you dare to ask the wrong questions, they will destroy you.

JOC offered the scientific community a unique opportunity to debate an important paper, but for the most part they have declined.

The message is: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Or you will be destroyed.

Why is America in decline?

Maybe the terrorists have won.”

By all means attack me for being small minded, call me a crackpot and a charlatan, but to me, and to the many people who also read it during its brief period on the website, this is not reasonable scientific debate and defence, but is the stuff of hysterical conspiracy theorists.  I am not even sure what point this statement is trying to make – and the fact that the Journal have since removed it, is testament to  the fact that they themselves don’t know either.  What is going on?

Only time and further developments between NASA, Richard Hoover (who has remained surprisingly silent throughout) and the Journal of Cosmology will eventually reveal the twisted processes behind this suspicious publication.  It may be that we will never get to the bottom it.  But given that the scientific world has been shaken by the strong viewpoints in play and the many apparent inconsistencies, how have the press and the public reacted?

Sensibly, for once, it would seem!  I will put together my views on how the press has dealt with this report in a separate post.  But in summary, many of the official news and comment outlets – Yahoo news, CBSTIME, Philip Ball at Nature and many many others, carried stories that emphasised the scepticism shown by scientists about the report.  Some, most notably and disappointingly, Fox News in their initial ‘exclusive’ report, and the Guardian newspaper, show very little caution in using the story to crash the headlines (leaping head first into the churnalism snake pit), but in general, the mixed reception of the paper has been well represented.

Curiously though, in his own blog post, P. Z. Myers, a biology Professor at the University of Minnesota questions why it is almost exclusively him who is quoted as debunking the Hoover findings.  In his own words: “I know I don’t have much clout with the academic establishment, and I certainly don’t control the funding…”.  Few other expert academics have commented, or at least are being quoted as commenting, other than this very nice summary from Rosie Redfield.  While I am fully in support of the media showing a bit of hysteria mitigation, I am in agreement with Prof. Myers, and disappointed in the resourcefulness of the journalists.  But that is another story.

So, is there a conclusion?  Is there a definitive answer which can be reached?  Right now – no.  A lot of things seem fishy about Hoover’s science, and about the Journal of Cosmology, and it will take much time, official statements, and academic rebuttals before it is sorted out.  I for one, however, hope that this issue does not just fizzle into obscurity, as there are important lessons to be learnt by scientists, publishers, and the public alike, about scientific transparency and open debate.

And readers, please, if you know more, if you have heard whisperings that can shed any light on this suspicious situation, please get in touch.  I will happily post links to blogs, articles or web pages that can give insight.  Croudsourcing exposed the problems with the research, let’s see if it can provide a solution.


Battison, L. (2011) Niche Habitats for Extra-Terrestrial Life: The Potential for Astrobiology on the Moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Journal of Cosmology, 13.

Brasier, M. D., Green, O. R., Jephcoat, A. P., Kleppe, A. K., Van Kranendonk, M. J., Lindsay, J. F., Steele, S., and Grassineau, N. V. (2002) Questioning the evidence for Earth’s oldest fossils.  Nature, 416, 76-81.

Golden, D. C., Ming, D. W., Schwandt, C. S., Lauer, H. V., Socki, R. A., Morris, R. V., Lofgren, G. E., and McKay, G. A. (2001) A simple inorganic process for formation of carbonates, magnetite, and sulfides in Martian meteorite ALH84001. American Mineralogist, 86, 370-375.

Gounelle, M., and Zolensky, M. E. (2010) A terrestrial origin for sulfate veins in CI1 chondrites. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, 36, 1321-1329.

Hoover, R. B. (2011) Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites. Journal of Cosmology, 13.

McKay, D. S., Gibson, E. K., Thomas-Keprta, K. L., Vali, H., Romanek, C. S., Clemett, S. J., Chillier, X. D. F, Maechling, C. R., and Zare, R. N. (1996) Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001. Science, 273, 924-930.

Schopf, J. W., and Packer, B. M. (1987) Early Archaean (3.3 billion to 3.5 billion-year-old) microfossils from Warawoona Group, Australia. Science, 237, 70-73.

Wacey, D., Kilburn, M.,  Stoakes, C., Aggleton, H., and Brasier, M. D. (2008) Ambient Inclusion Trails: Their Recognition, Age Range and Applicability to Early Life on Earth. In: Links Between Geological Processes, Microbial Activities & Evolution of Life, 113-134, Springer.

Zhou, Z., Sun, Q., Hu, Z., and Deng, Y. (2006) Nanobelt formation of Magnesium Hydroxide Sulfate Hydrate via a Soft Chemistry Process. Journal of Physical Chemistry B., 110, 13387-13392.

Seeking Signs of Life: Astrobiology at 50

Seeking Signs of Life:

Astrobiology at 50

Last week, I was a very privileged observer at NASA’s symposium, ‘Seeking Signs of Life’, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the exobiology program.  A day-long symposium covered everything from the founding politics and economics of the program, to the fantastical predictions for the next 50 years.  More than anything, it reaffirmed for me how fantastic and forward looking the multidisciplinary astrobiology community is, and how very much I want to continue to be a part of it.

The event ran from 9 am to 5 pm, and was webcast live from the Lockheed Martin Centre in Arlington VA.  Archived videos of the three keynote presentations, and the four panel discussions can be found here.  The following is a brief review of the day to whet your appetite!

Keynote: James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis: Exobiology in the Beginning

After opening remarks from James Green, the first keynote was delivered jointly by Professors James Lovelock (University of Oxford, UK) and Lynn Margulis (University of Massachusetts Amherst).  Professor Lovelock is best known for formulating the Gaia hypothesis, now approached scientifically as Earth System Science, but has also played a major role in life detection in the solar system and beyond.  He spoke of his life as a researcher, describing in a personable and charming way his work on red blood cells, on the life detection equipment for Lunar and Martian missions, and on the speedy scientific revelation that entropy reducing life will modify an atmosphere away from thermodynamic equilibrium, something which may be detectable in distant exoplanets.  He politely and offhandedly dismissed the idea of Earth lying within the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ as a ‘silly idea’, as the planet requires life to modify it to make it habitable.

Professor Lovelock was followed immediately by Professor Lynn Margulis who, in her own characteristically eccentric way, reinforced Prof. Lovelock’s comments on the Gaia hypothesis, declaring that we may now call it the Gaia theory, and treat it accordingly.  She urged the importance of water to life on Earth, and the importance of life to water on Earth.  She ended by proposing changing the name of the planet, to Planet Water.

Panel 1: The Origins and Evolution of Exobiology and Astrobiology at NASA

The first panel discussion was entitled ‘The Origins and Evolution of Exobiology and Astrobiology at NASA’, and was chaired by Roger Launius, from the Department of Space History, at the National Air and Space Musuem, Washington DC.  Speaking on the panel were Steven J. Dick, former Chief Historian at NASA, Baruch S. Blumberg, from the Fox Chase Cancer Centre, and Noel Hinners formerly from Lockheed Martin and Director of the Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Steven Dick spoke about the early genesis of astrobiology, citing Percival Lovell as a major trigger in sparking interest for life on Mars.  We were told how Josh Lederberg was a catalyst for the astrobiology program at NASA, and was the first to coin the term ‘exobiology’.  But why was NASA the one to lead the search for life?  Not only because they were the ones going to Mars, he said,  but also because they had an active policy of looking for ‘diamonds in the rough’, for funding exciting but non traditional projects like Lynn Margulis’ symbiogenesis research, and James Lovelock’s Gaia project among many others.

Noel Hinners addressed the audience next, dealing principally with the topic of the Viking landings in 1976.  He told us how the Viking program was NASA’s first real search for life, and how the public were led to expect a positive result from it.  Thus the disappointment felt by them and scientists around the globe caused a long hiatus in Martian exploration not only for the American space program, but for the Soviets too.  Dr Hinners expressed his belief that the Viking program was premature, and that we really need significant knowledge about a planetary body before we can design the best suite of life detecting equipment.  He believes that a major priority should now be a Martian sample return mission, as there is no substituting a full terrestrial lab.

Finally, Baruch Blumberg spoke, giving a potted history of the NASA astrobiology program.  He listed a large number of major players involved from the start, many of whom are major NASA household names.  He described the importance of the Martian meteorite ALH84001 (which was purported to contain several lines of evidence pointing to fossil life) in sparking debate and generating new ideas and hypotheses in astrobiological research.  Further, he talked of his time as a research director, and how he gave his researchers relatively free reign in order to increase quality as well as quantity of results coming out of NASA.

Panel 2: Understanding the Origin, Evolution and Distribution of Life in the Universe

Following this, the second panel discussion, chaired by Lynn Rothschild of the NASA Ames Research Center, was entitled ‘Understanding the Origin, Evolution and Distribution of Life in the Universe.  The panel members were Pamela G. Conrad, from the Planetary Environments Lab at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, Martin Brasier from the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, and John Corliss, from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University.

Dr Rothschild presented a concise and informative introduction to the session, defining astrobiology as the three questions:  Where did we come from?; Are we alone?; and Where are we going?, the first of which falling within the remit of the panellists.

Pamela Conrad spoke first.  She described her work on modelling habitable zones around stars, stating that above all else, a habitable environment depends not only on location, but also on raw materials and on timing.  Thus, the nature of the habitable environment and the nature of the inhabitants are inexorably entwined.  She mentioned the likelihood of a habitable environment on Earth during the Hadean (4.6 – 3.8 billion years ago), and listed among other things the necessity of a magnetic field and physically stable rocks to make an environment conducive to life.

Following this, Jack Corliss spoke on the research topic that has become his life’s work: the synthesis of life around hydrothermal vent systems.  He described how the submarine hot springs were detected remotely, and an expedition planned to investigate, using the submersible ‘Alvin’.  After finding these hydrothermal systems teeming with life, Dr Corliss said that the hypothesis of life originating here ‘seemed obvious’.  In a series of well presented illustrations, he described how synthesis of organic molecules, organisation into cellular structures, and the adaptation of metabolic processes may all occur at different points within the vent system.

Professor Brasier concluded the session concisely with the presentation of a new concept in the study of Mass Extinctions.  He described how, although many extinction events have been accounted for by meteorite strikes, lava flows, and ice ages, these events occur frequently elsewhere within the rock record, without having the same effect on the biosphere.  The explanation for this is that the extinctions are driven chaotically, by the collapse of highly interconnected systems.  In short, the state of the ecological system determines that small triggers can have large, non-linear consequences.

Following a brief lunch, an award ceremony took place, where various senior contributing members of the program were honoured for their service to the scientific community.  Among those recognised were Professors Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, Michael Meyers, and Baruch Blumberg.

Keynote: Daniel S Goldin

Next on the agenda was the second keynote address, delivered by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin.  He spoke of his time at NASA, seeing it through 3 presidential administrations, and the accompanying political and economic changes.  The tone of his address seemed somewhat melancholy, bemoaning slow moving NASA for missing out on the biological revolution of the 50’s and 60’s, the lingering bad image of the Association following the Apollo and Challenger catastrophes, and the continuing budgetary constraints on the space program.  The content wasn’t all negative though.  He described the continuing excitement of the public in response to the astrobiology program and the search for life, despite the lack of concrete results.  Further, he expressed the encouraging conclusions from meetings with worldwide religious leaders, that the search for life was not in conflict with those religions.  He concluded on the positive note that Exobiology and Astrobiology represented an unprecedented merging of all disciplines, and that by competitively engaging organisations rather than individuals, the field can remain sustainable and productive.

Panel 3: Who Are We? Where Are We Going? Are We Alone? Astrobiology in Culture

Following this, the third panel discussion of the day, chaired by Linda Billings of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, was entitled ‘Who are we? Where are we going? Are we alone? Astrobiology in Culture.’  Sitting on this panel were Marc Kaufman, Science Writer at the Washington Post, Connie Berkta from the Geophysical Lab at the Carnegie Institution, and David Grinspoon, Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Linda Billings began by introducing the panellists with respect to their journalistic and academic publications, and went on define culture as a process by which reality is maintained and transformed, explaining how astrobiology, being of international interest, plays a fundamental role in cultural development.

MarkKaufman began by professing to not being a follower of Star Trek or of NASA but maintained that this gives him the opportunity to give a public view of the astrobiology program. He went on to say that the public is in fact fascinated by the search for extraterrestrial life, with as many as 80% of polled Americans believing there is life elsewhere in the universe.  Further, he applauded the efforts of scientists involved in astrobiology, in their efforts to help him as a non-scientist understand concepts central to their individual research.

Connie Bertka followed, and with her background in science and religion, was able to give a more theistic view of the search for life, already previously touched on my Daniel Goldin.  She made the point that when children inevitably ask the questions central to the astrobiology program: ‘Why are we here? Where did we come from?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ then most parents will turn not only to science, but also to religion, for answers.  She presented the figure that 42% of Americans still don’t accept the concept of evolution, and that this figure hasn’t changed in 50 years.  Such a fact is discouraging, and it contributes to making the question of the origin and evolution of life especially challenging, as most people turn to religion.  However, she said, the numbers of people describing themselves as ‘Spiritualist’, both from a theistic and an atheistic point of view, has risen, and this reflects an encouraging increase in independent thought, rather than institutionalised religion.

Finally, we were addressed by David Grinspoon, who as the only curator of astrobiology in a major museum, can claim in his collection such artefacts as the original Miller-Urey apparatus, and many Earth and space rocks illustrating the search for life.  He discussed how astrobiology at NASA has an excellently integrated Education and Public Outreach  program, that is helping improve the reputation and image of scientific debate.  He mentioned how truly interdisciplinary astrobiology is, and how it is a fun and positive way of presenting scientific connections to the public.

Panel 4: Homing in on ET Life: Where and How to Look

The final discussion panel of the day was entitled ‘Homing in on ET Life: Where and How to Look’, and was moderated by Michael A. Meyer of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA HQ.  Panellists were Daniel P. Glavin from NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, Victoria Meadows from the Virtual Planetarty Laboratory at the Department of Astronomy, Univeristy of Washington, and Steven A. Benner from the Foundation of Applied Molecular Evolution.

Daniel Glavin was first to speak, and he described the excitement that the discovery of organic compounds and materials in meteorites such as the Martian rock ALH84001 and the carbonaceous chondritic Murchison meteorite.  Despite the fact that life signatures in ALH84001 have been all but disproven, the stir that their initial report caused is undeniable.  Results from the Murchison meteorite and others showed that there are without a doubt organic compounds in space, as well as abundant carbon bombarding all cosmic objects.  The major challenge however, he said, would be finding a signature for life among that abundant carbon, and that this would be a target for the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory rover to be launched this year.

Vikki Meadows followed, with a discussion of the search for life outside the solar system.  She began by questioning: ‘Where is life most likely to be?’ As energy and nurtients are fairly easy to come by around stars, the so-called rate limiting step would be the presence of a liquid solvent such as water.  Thus, she said, the habitable zone around a star where it is neither too hot or too cold for liquids to exist, would be the best place to start looking.  She maintained that this may not be the only place that life exists, but that in the great vastness of space, it is the best place to start.  She finished by mentioning some of the exciting possibilities for detecting life on extra solar planets, such as looking for the ‘glint of light reflecting from off oceans’ or the characteristic reflectivity of forests.

The panel was concluded by Steve Benner, who began by distributing five beautiful rocks around the audience, two of which were real fossils, and three remaining questionable.  His point in doing this was to demonstrate the difficulty in identifying historical life here on earth, let alone elsewhere in the universe.  He discussed how, in trying to define life, our ‘Laundry List’ only describes terrestrial life, and that it may be different elsewhere.  Even scientists from different disciplines take different views, he said, quoting that modelling physicists and biologists believe life is easy to start, whereas chemists see the chemistry of life as extremely difficult to get going.

Keynote: Steve Squyres: The Next 50 Years

The concluding keynote address was delivered by Steve Squyres of the Department of Astronomy, Cornell University, and looked forward to the next 50 years of the Exobiology Program.  Being primarily concerned with Martian exploration Professor Squyres focussed on the fascinating topic of explorative missions to be considered in the Decadal Plan and beyond.  The day could not have ended on a more exciting and engaging topic.  Stressing that none of the missions he was about to describe would necessarily be pursued within the next ten years, he went on to outline marvellously fantastical proposals for investigating Venus, Titan, Mars, the Moon, Asteroids and Comets.  Comet surface sample return to non-cryogenically collect and return cometary material to Earth; a Mars trace gas orbiter to monitor the composition and distribution of methane on the red planet; and the Mars Polar Lander to observe changes in the polar ice caps and potentially look for life, were among some of the far reaching but achievable goals.  Longer term mission proposals included a three-phase Martian sample return, a Titan lake lander and submersible suite, and a Europa ice drill and submersible.  I personally sat, open mouthed and amazed that these missions were being seriously considered and could take place within my lifetime.

What a fantastic way to end the day!  As I shuffled out among NASA’s brightest and best, I was filled with an overarching sense of awe and motivation.  To be a part of this world, whether academic or professional, is a privilege that a meeting like this can really help to push home.  I look forward to the next 50 years!

Don’t forget, that the archived videos can be found here, also watch this space for further comments and discussion on some of the topics discussed at the symposium.