By Michael D. Lemonick
The question of where life began is one of the enduring mysteries of science. Charles Darwin himself speculated that it might have happened in "a warm little pond," while modern biologists think the superheated water around seafloor volcanic vents is a more likely spot.
But a far more exotic proposal has been floating around for years: maybe life first arose in outer space and came to earth fully formed. It's an astonishing idea, but it's not completely crazy: after all, astronomers have discovered dozens of organic molecules floating in giant interstellar clouds, and meteorites have been cracked apart to reveal amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
It's no surprise, then, that a paper just published in the online Journal of Cosmology has suddenly grabbed the world's attention. Titled "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites" and authored by NASA scientist Richard Hoover of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, it makes the audacious claim that a meteorite that slammed into France in the 1800s has clear evidence pointing to space-dwelling microbes. "The implications," says an online synopsis of the paper, "are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets."
Well, maybe. But before anyone gets too excited, a little history lesson is in order. Back in 1996, TIME's cover trumpeted the astonishing words "Life on Mars." A NASA scientist claimed he'd found evidence that ancient bacteria had once lived inside a Martian rock that had been picked up in Antarctica (the rock had been blasted from Mars' surface by an asteroid impact long ago and fallen to earth as a meteorite). Newspapers, magazines and TV broadcasts were all over the story, because while alien visitations are a staple of the UFO crowd, this discovery had a pedigree. Not only was the scientist on NASA's payroll, it was NASA itself that made the announcement at a major press conference. The paper, meanwhile, had been published in Science, one of the world's top scientific journals, which gave it even more apparent gravitas.
Before long, though, the whole thing went away, as other astronomers took a good look at the evidence and pronounced it completely unconvincing.
Then there was the claim back in the 1960s by Fordham University chemist Bartholomew Nagy that he'd found evidence of life in a meteorite — the very meteorite Hoover is talking about now. That went away too. As did claims in the 1930s that scientists had not only found but also revived dormant bacteria from a meteorite. As did claims in the 1890s of meteorites with fossils inside.
All of this may be why many experts in the field of astrobiology — a perfectly legitimate area of science — paid little mind when an e-mail circulated a few days ago trumpeting the latest life-in-a-meteorite paper. "I get e-mails from them regularly, maybe once every month or two," says a senior astrophysicist at a major university. "They always sound extremely nutty ... so much so that I have never been tempted to investigate more closely."
Blogger and biologist P.Z. Myers puts it a little more pithily: the journal is, he writes, "the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics." Some of the articles that have appeared do nothing to dispel this idea include "The Origin of Eternal Life in the Multiverse" and "Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space."
But panspermia — the notion that life wafts through interstellar space, seeding worlds as it goes, is one of the journal's mainstays. Indeed, a frequent contributor, Chandra Wickramasinghe, of Cardiff University in Wales, has been proving the existence of life in outer space for years. Along with his frequent collaborator, Fred Hoyle, Wickramasinghe has "discovered" viruses and freeze-dried bacteria floating among the stars.
Somehow, though, these revolutionary discoveries have failed to become accepted science. One theory, advanced by some of panspermia's most avid supporters, is that the scientific establishment simply can't accept radical new ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. They laughed at Alfred Wegener, after all, when he proposed the notion of continental drift, and at Barry Marshall when he claimed that bacteria cause ulcers.
It may ultimately turn out that they are wrong to dismiss Richard Hoover as well. But Myers, for one, doesn't think so. "This work is garbage," he writes. "I'm surprised anyone is granting it any credibility at all." As for the Journal of Cosmology, he writes, "I'm looking forward to the publication next year of the discovery of an extraterrestrial rabbit in a meteor."
In that, however, he may be disappointed. According to blogger David Dobbs, a press release has gone out announcing that the Journal of Cosmology is soon to be no more. The headline on the release doesn't exactly add to the journal's credibility: "Journal of Cosmology to Stop Publishing — Killed by Thieves and Crooks."