Archives For alien life

inhuman pope

While the news keep calling Kepler-452b another Earth before somewhere in the depth of most breathless articles noting that all we know about it is that it’s rocky, similar in size to us, and it’s orbiting its parent sun exactly where it should to have liquid water, but we have no idea if it can actually support life or if its atmosphere actually allows liquid water to remain liquid. After all, we thought for many centuries that Venus must be a tropical rain forest underneath its clouds. As a candidate for a second Earth it was perfect on paper. Same size, the right orbit to allow for vast oceans of liquid water, thick atmosphere; it all looked so promising. And then the Soviets ruined everything by landing a probe on its surface to confirm it was a planet sized kiln, and the clouds were actually a miasma of noxious poisons. Kepler-452b could easily turn out to be suffering an eerily similar fate. Of course, it would be amazing if we could take direct snapshots of it and see massive oceans and clouds of water vapor, but until then, we should hold the champagne.

Regardless of what we learn about Kepler-452 however, theologian Mark Lindsay is ready with an opening salvo against the unbelievers who would use another Earth as an argument against the religious tenet that humanity was specially created by a deity and destined to play a big role in the fate of the cosmos. Just like every high minded theologian, he adopts a toned down view expressed by Bruno that the magnificence and wisdom of God could not be constrained just by one planet but that the Bible allows for many planets and many beings on those planets that all happen to be God’s children. Therefore, he says, should we find intelligent Keplarians, they will be another confirmation of the vast reach of the divine powers of creation rather than proof that our world’s religions aren’t up to snuff when we look to the stars with some knowledge of what’s out there and what we’re doing. It sounds like the comforting, borderline-deist verbal ointments voiced before when the scientific search for alien life got underway. But it also glosses over the important and immutable parts of faith academic theologians like Lindsay so often avoid.

Remember the opinion voiced by Bruno that Earth isn’t the only inhabited planet watched by an almighty creator liberally borrowed by Lindsay? Do you also happen to remember how it ended for him? Rather than being praised for his insight and his ability to harmonize science with faith, he was burned on a pyre as a heretic. Many believers hold that their faith is special and the text they call sacred is literal and inerrant. Should you question it or reject any of it, they are justified in retaliating against you, be it shunning you until you’re a social outcast, or murdering you with machetes for the glory of their god. Nowhere do many religious texts speak of other worlds, and those that do refer to them as places where gods dwell rather than just other Earths. Just tell a cleric who preaches his faith in ISIS territories that Earth may not be the only world where Allah watches what happens and see how that works for you. Or try asking Evangelical Christians for an opinion of evolution on alien worlds and try to have an open-minded discussion. Ivory tower theologians seem to forget how literally the faithful take their holy texts and how big of an issue that becomes when they’re taken out of their comfort zone. It’s a debate-changing omission.

Also, how many religious texts hold that certain people are picked over others to play a bigger, or defining role in universal affairs? How many chosen people are there? What about aliens on other worlds intelligent enough to try and interact with us? What’s their role in the universe and which holy text says that? Do the ones that do contradict each other and if they clash, which of these inerrant, literal, irrefutable texts is the right one? These aren’t trivial questions by the way, but very real problems posed by introducing an intelligent species into ancient religions. If they are also God’s children, where in the family tree do they fit? There definitely have been many a sincere attempt to look for alien-friendly metaphors in Torahs, Bibles, and Qu’rans, but none of them have been accepted by mainstream theologians, much less mainstream believers as the faith’s canon. As far as today’s gamut of belief runs, there seem to be only two places for aliens to occupy. They’re either irrelevant to God’s plan and shouldn’t even be mentioned, or they are actually angels or demigods in their own right sent by a deity to warn, teach, or punish us.

Of course the latter possibility only applies to highly advanced alien civilizations that understand interstellar travel and can communicate with us, and only in the context of highly educated, and wealthy nations where fundamentalism tends to be more subdued on average. What if they are not that far ahead of humans as far as science and technology goes? What rules apply to them out of the holy texts? If there are things humans do that displease God, surely there must be an equally important list of prohibitions for the aliens. We’re told that here on Earth, premarital sex is a sin. If the alien species in question don’t have the concept of marriage, are they all sinners, or are they exempt from the universal law of morality ordained by God? If homosexual pairings anger God who made all things male and female, do hermaphroditic aliens violate the law or do they have to follow a different set of rules? If they have their own set of divine rules to follow, is this list handed down to them and if so, in what form? Are they, like humans, apparently meant to follow some of the laws but not others citing some grand religiously historical effect?

All these questions might seem positively asinine in context, especially when talking about alien species we know nothing about and which may not even exist. But at the same time, when you take to a public podium and proclaim that your faith is ready for alien life without demonstrating how exactly it would work in light of the new discovery and how you intend to get today’s faithful to follow your lead, these are the kind of questions that go unanswered. Simply throwing out an extremely confident assertion that your religion can withstand whatever your throw at it without actually throwing anything at it to demonstrate means that you’ve just dodged the question you wanted to address. When citing a scientist’s argument about aliens being bad news for God as his jump-off point, Lindsay scoffs that his verbal target has no experience or knowledge how to properly analyze a religious text. He then hypocritically spends the rest of his argument parsing conveniently sourced semantics that aren’t even from the Bible. And this is why it’s hard to take a theologian espousing the powers of his faith in light of new science seriously. Instead of really asking what new discoveries means for their faith, they craft reflexive, soothing word salads.

[ illustration by Aram Vardazaryan ]

pop culture aliens

If you don’t remember Chandra Wickramasinghe, here’s a quick refresher. Back in the day, the scientist worked with Fred Hoyle, the brilliant astronomer whose really poorly supported notions about the origins of life inspired many a creationist, and led him and a few of his colleagues on a hunt for evidence of panspermia, the idea that life originated somewhere in deep space and as our planet was finally settling down after its turbulent infancy, it settled here and evolved into all the species we know, and numerous ones we don’t. On the face of it, it’s not an inherently bad, or even wrong idea. It has actually been around since Darwin started wondering about the very same questions, and despite being occasionally criticized, it’s still popular in astrobiology. There does appear to be plenty of interesting evidence in favor of at least some building blocks of life coming form space, especially from asteroids and comets. This is why finding complex organic structures in the carbon layer of 67P wasn’t a surprise at all. In fact it was widely expected.

Yet according to Wickramasinghe, it’s proof that comet 67P is actually teeming with life and the scientific community at large needs to step up and announce that we found aliens. Despite how generously he’s treated by The Guardian’s staff writer however, he’s not a top scientist and his claim to expertise in astrobiology comes from declaring pretty much every newsworthy event in any way related to viral and microbial life as undeniable proof of aliens. He’s done this with mad cow, polio outbreaks, SARS, AIDS, and one of his fans recently declared that Ebola could have come from outer space. His proof of all this? Pretty much none. What papers he published to at least clear up how he thought life actually got its start and how it can travel across billions upon billions of light years so easily were in a vanity journal which was basically mocked into shutting down after failing to include a single entry of real scientific merit, and are absolutely inane. Hey, personally, I’m a huge fan of the panspermia hypothesis myself, but even in my very generous approach to reviewing astrobiology papers, what Wickramasinghe produced was absurd.

But of course, as all cranks eventually do, Wickramasinghe cried conspiracy after his work was battered by other scientists, declaring that astrobiology was a discipline under assault from the conservative geocentric cabal made up of old scientists hell bent on shutting down research on possible alien life forms in the wild. This came as a surprise to the flourishing researchers who had been studying extremophiles, theoretical alien biochemistry, and discovering more proof of organic molecules and water floating in space. You see, astrobiology is doing great and keeps advancing every day. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, is not doing well because he doesn’t actually conduct any rigorous scientific experiments while desperately aspiring to be the person who goes into the history books as the scientist who discovered alien life. His constant attempts to stay in the media spotlight with his out-of-left-field proclamations and conspiracy theories are the typical self-serving machinations of a vain elder past his prime jealous that someone else is going to do what he aspired to accomplish. Honestly, it’s a sad way to end one’s career, to just chase after those doing the real work with outlandish soundbites and wallowing in self-pity.


The bizarre creature pictured above is an arthropod, a distant relative of crabs and lobsters, an amazing evolutionary blip during the Cambrian Radiation. We know three things about it. It was predatory, it was one of many such weird animals trying to eek out a living in the shallow water off uninhabitable coasts, and considering its lineage, it was likely delicious steamed and with a measured touch of melted butter. We also know that despite being an evolutionary dead end, it’s an important species because it shows us the sheer variety of life able to emerge when animals were a blank slate, starting with little more than disc-shaped bacterial colonies that evolved very primitive organs for filter-feeding. Who knows what they could’ve become had they managed to survive and their ancestors branched out, undergoing billions of years of change. What would a planet dominated by the direct descendants of such predators look like? Certainly very alien.

Just think about that for a minute. Consider that this spiny, eldritch thing really existed and what you would think were you to come across it today, and compare it to UFOlogists’ declarations of alien life that looks like really skinny gray humans with bug eyes and big heads. Of all the forms life has taken even here, on our home world, an alien planet around a distant star, with its own environment and evolutionary history managed to produce another intelligent life form which by sheer coincidence just so happens to look like us? It’s absurd! Who says there is a limit to how many appendages an intelligent life form could have? As long as it’s clever enough to build the shelter it needs and harvest the resources it requires, it has the potential to mull other life on all the worlds across its night sky, and maybe even build a ship to explore beyond its own world. If anyone tells me that he has seen aliens and they look like us post-nuclear apocalypse, and with a penchant for nudism, excuse me if I point at Cambrian fossils and scoff at such a notion.

ufo vector

Different people who want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 want her to win for many different reasons. Some believe that a female president is long overdue. Others, believe that of all the presidential contenders, she is the most electable. Yet others dislike her greatly, but with some complicated political calculus arrived at the conclusion that her ability to nominate four of the future Supreme Court justices makes her the only choice that won’t plunge the country into despotic arch-conservatism. But others still couldn’t care less about any of that because such, can we say, earthly, concerns are trivial to them. You see, to them, the most important part of a potential second Clinton administration is that they’ll finally get access to all the top secret files detailing our ongoing contact with alien civilizations. You know, after the last great reveal of our apparent alien alliances failed to materialize in 2012 as predicted, I started losing hope that an alien that’s been taken to our leaders will address the world, but hot damn! Another chance!

As said many times before and will say again, there’s absolutely nothing in the laws of biology that prevents an alien species on another planet from becoming intelligent, building spacecraft when their civilization is advanced enough, and exploring the cosmos, eventually making it to a little blue planet around an otherwise unremarkable yellow sun in the galactic suburbs. In fact, if we run the numbers, it’s almost a certainty. But the odds of this happening with a species close enough to detect us over the last century or so are astronomical. Think of meeting aliens a little like winning the lottery. Someone is going to hit that jackpot, but the chances of it being you just as you really need the money are basically nonexistent. Still, our dedicated ufologists are totally and irreversibly convinced that aliens are among us, whether we’re secretly waging war with an extraterrestrial army on the dark side of the moon, exploring their artifacts on and around Mars, meeting in secret with their representatives, or some combination of the above, and nothing will possibly change their minds, nor will any disclosure be adequate enough.

Again, the government could tell the ufologists everything it knows and even admit to every top secret drone and stealth aircraft test it may have chosen to cover up as a UFO, which would be fascinating for aviation buffs and historians. But that’s not the narrative that ufologists on whose behalf organizations like the Paradigm Research Group advocates, want to hear. Nothing short of the plot of Stargate SG-1 or Doctor Who turning out to be a documentary will do. For them, speculative astrobiology has reinforced a faith instead of acting as a fact check and they’re just hoping for a confirmation that an alien empire doing business with humans in every government report with enough reactions, like Evangelical Christians patiently await The Rapture and take every war or earthquake as a sign of the impending end of time. Although I would argue that the former is much more plausible than the latter in the grand scheme of things, either is so unlikely that it’s probably a bad idea to base our lives on either belief. If you really want to find alien life and get full disclosure about alien contact, I’d point you to SETI rather than any politician…

alien bacteria

One of the topics that’s been prominently featured on Weird Things has been panspermia, the hypothesis that life can originate somewhere in the galaxy and spread though asteroid or comet impacts, or even forward contamination by alien spacecraft. We know that amino acids can form all on their own when certain molecules are irradiated, that some creatures can easily survive a trip though space, and there’s evidence that molecules crucial for life here may have a strong link with primordial impacts. Now, true, the theory has been abused by those who either do not understand what it actually entails, or by those who just refuse to keep up with the science and spend most of their time accusing some secret anti-panspermia cabal trying to keep them down, but overall, it’s quite sound which is why it’s still being kept in mind by astrobiologists. Or so you would think unless you go by a Scientific American blog post which says the following…

In some ways the motivation for proposing this kind of cosmic panspermia is a little dated. It comes from a time when we felt that the origin of life of on Earth was such a mystery, and such an unlikely event, that it was convenient to outsource it. Although this didn’t actually solve the real question of life’s origins, it meant that a specific origin ‘event’ could be extremely rare among the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way yet life would still show up in other places.

These days I think our discoveries about the remarkable abundance and diversity of so-called pre-biotic chemistry […] in every nook and cranny of our solar system, and even in the proto-stellar nebula of other stars and the wilds of interstellar space – swings the pendulum back to Earth. Nature seems adept at making all the pieces for life, apparently raising the odds of local bio-genesis.

How are these two thoughts connected again? I’m not exactly sure how life being very adaptable would mean that it raises the odds of Earth being its origin because we’re talking about evolution rather than abiogenesis. Caleb Scharf, the scientist who wrote the post, seems to be making the same kind of mistake many creationists do when trying to ridicule evolutionary theory by asking how life would’ve come from non-life and nothing that evolution fails to answer this question. So it’s little wonder that whatever life gets here or starts here would fill every available nook, cranny, and environmental niche since natural selection would favor their reproduction. But whether the origin of these species is on Earth or in space is more or less a toss-up if we’re considering just how well they adapted to their current environments.

Yes, we could say that it’s more likely that life originated on Earth because space is vast and the odds of enough comets and asteroids hitting the planet at just the right conditions for life to take hold are astronomical, literally, so it makes sense to look for an explanation that makes life more likely to arise here. That explanation may not be right, but we don’t have a complete picture of how it came to be and so we’re still trying to find viable ideas that seem to fit the evidence we’ve observed so far. But an important part of the process is not to discard hypotheses without any evidence that they simply don’t fit with the observations, something that Scharf does with an odd certainty about the habitability of promising places in the solar system by hearty microorganisms that should dominate the universe based on the way natural selection works.

But the problem, and the potential paradox, is that if evolved galactic panspermia is real it’ll be capable of living just about everywhere. There should be [organisms] on the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, minor planets and cometary nuclei. Every icy nook and cranny in our solar system should be a veritable paradise for these ultra-tough life forms, honed by natural selection to make the most of [the] appalling conditions. So if galactic panspermia exists why haven’t we noticed it yet?

He then goes on to answer his own question by saying that we probably haven’t looked all that hard in all these places, don’t know for what we’re really looking, or possibly both, and ponders would it would mean if we kept searching and found nothing. You can tell that he’s really pushing for the Earth-centric explanation and again, as elaborated above, I can see why, but his primary reason for pushing it seems to be based on a very strange confusion between abiogenesis and natural selection with no facts to back it up. The argument seems to be: we know more extreme organisms on Earth, natural selection seems to be doing it’s job, we haven’t explored all of the promising candidates for life in our solar system in sufficient detail and we don’t really know what we’re trying to find and how we’ll know we found it, therefore, life arose on Earth. Doesn’t seem like a scientific train of thought to me, especially with all the evidence that there was at least an important role being played by organic matter or microorganisms from space…

Unless you’ve completely avoided the web for the last day or so, you know that SETI’s radio telescope array is mothballed for the foreseeable future and the project’s funding is drying up. Maybe we can compose some sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide style message for aliens, like "hello, thank you for calling Earth. We currently don’t have the budget to take your call, but please leave a message and the coordinates of a star system where we can contact you and we’ll return your call as soon as we raise the cash?" Would an alien be willing to leave an interstellar equivalent to voicemail? But I digress. This turn of events is a real shame and it’s unfortunate that just as we’re finding planet after planet that may be a viable habitat for something that may possibly evolve an abstract, elaborate intelligence and want to find other life like it in the galaxy, we’re shutting off the very devices we’ve created to catch their attempts. The Allen Array’s $2.5 million annual price tag isn’t even that huge of an expense if we put it in perspective, but unfortunately, the far-reaching and highly speculative nature of what it’s intended to do puts it among the first projects to be on the chopping block when finding runs a little low.

Hold on a second, you might say, didn’t you do a whole bunch of posts saying that it would be very hard to get anything out of signals sent by alien creatures? Didn’t you go into detail about why our first attempts at some sort of a conversation with extraterrestrials will more than likely fail, both in simple signals and mathematical codes? So why would you care about SETI getting an axe if intelligent alien life forms are rare and the odds of two intelligent alien creatures close enough to each other to truly talk are astronomically negligible? Yeah, in the grand scheme of things whether we try to get an alien signal tomorrow or next century matters very little as far as the universe is concerned, but the sooner we start searching and the more we search through the vast real estate out there, the sooner we can find something amazing or tantalizing. And while we can look for any communication directed towards us, we can also use the Allen Array to listen in on signals that aren’t meant for us either, just stray blips on the radar like the Wow! Signal which may be an indirect sign that there’s either something out there or we discovered a new cosmic phenomenon. To say that we have all the time we want, and delaying the process of actually listening and searching is inexcusable procrastination given the fact that all we really want is a sign that there’s intelligent life out there and even the most mysterious and convoluted communication we could never translate would be a life altering event just by virtue of its existence.

There are moments in human history when something so momentous happens that we can look back at all recorded time and legitimately split all of our existence into years before that moment and the years after that moment. Right now we do it with religious milestones and ancient legends, while we could really be doing it with the first city state, the first nation, the first great monument, the first ship, and of course, the first human in space and the first human to walk on another world. Finding iron-clad proof of alien life would be one of those history-splitting moments because it will mark the point in our history when we didn’t just have a good guess that we weren’t alone, but know it for a fact. And the longer we wait for it, the longer we hem and haw about an otherwise small amount of money required for it, the longer it will take to get there and the more likely it is that we may miss a once in a thousand year opportunity to catch that elusive signal. We didn’t have to build cities, learn how to fly, and go to the Moon. But we did. When those milestones happened was of little consequence to the flow of time. Another arbitrary date here or there is no big deal after all. But why do it later rather than as soon as we can? Why drag our feet and suggest we postpone every lofty goal until the world is just perfect for the accomplishment in question? We have SETI now. So let’s help them out and use its tools now rather than at some indeterminate point in the future when and if we run out of reasons to put it off!

Last week, we covered the concept of stealthy aliens guarding their natural resources from big, bad invaders who could make mincemeat out of their defenses and pillage their holdings to fuel whatever immense horde they have to feed and supply. But even though I said that it was highly unlikely given the resource glut of the typical solar system, it’s not inconceivable, and some informed speculation from Dr. Ian O’Neill prompts me to revisit the topic of alien invasions to ask whether we should take Hawking’s words on the subject to heart and live with some fear of being invaded by armies of little green men. Maybe a little paranoia would go a long way and pay major dividends in the end. After all, our entire space program exists because two superpowers’ military resources made it possible and we don’t go around decrying the internet, microwaves, and GPS as a waste of time and cash because they were never used for their intended purpose: as tools in a war between two of the world’s largest and best funded militaries armed with nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. How much will we complain if we get space hotels and vacations on Mars by preparing for an alien invasion?

Of course this isn’t to say that we should look at our defense establishments as clairvoyant or assume that a space program is only possible with military involvement. The reason why they were and are still involved in matters concerning space has to do with the size of their budgets and their overarching mission of look for a potential threat in just about anything. Having a somewhat paranoid mindset and a large budget to tinker with some seemingly outlandish ideas does yield some interesting out-of-the-box thinking and prototypes for the kinds of things today’s risk averse and numbers-driven research institutions won’t even consider. It’s how the generals in both the USSR and the U.S. decided that launching humans in space was an interesting and viable idea, committing some of their substantial resources to human space travel, while wondering what it would take to assemble a citadel on another world just to keep an eye on their rivals. We can certainly bring up the human cost of the Cold War, but there’s no question that humans seem to be at their most ingenious when planning for conflict. With a potential alien invasion in mind, pretty much any idea may be viable and all sorts of interesting new research avenues might just be opened, yielding new technologies with a number of uses in the civilian world, from power generation, to manufacturing, to medicine.

Hold on a second though. How could we ever afford to prepare for an event as unlikely as a war with aliens if we live in an era of gaping budget deficits and there’s widespread poverty around the globe? And realistically, strictly speaking, we couldn’t devote a whole lot of time and effort to this, though we could also say that aliens really won’t care about our fiscal situation or vaccination and literacy rates in developing nations if they were to attack. However, we can use some cash buried in weapon development programs and used on redundant or needless projects and invest it in those which yield weapons capable of doing damage in space. As noted a while back, our conventional missiles and bombs won’t work in a vacuum, so we’d need to further develop kinetic impactors, lasers, and railguns, weaponry that is suitable for an orbital dogfight and also delivers a lot of damage down here on Earth. More complex things like armed, crewed spacecraft capable of long trips into the solar system are going to be more complex to pull off, but they are very likely to be just militarized versions of civilian space stations made by the same companies busy planning orbital hotels, and the technology they will require could then be channeled right back into the space tourism industry to build new, bigger, and more reliable space hotels and research stations. Though depending how heavily the military craft in question can be armed could be governed by the Outer Space Treaty which forbids orbital WMDs.

Now I can already hear the biggest objection of them all to this concept. Why militarize space? Why not simply explore it rather than take our wars to yet another place? One of the biggest hurdles to the idea of a peaceful, space-faring human species of the future is our nature. If we start settling space, we will declare territories or outposts as our property and there will be debates and clashes over who owns what. Treaties will have to be rewritten, new legal frameworks will have to be put into place, and all those claims will have to be enforced by something and that something is more than likely going to have to be the threat of military intervention. And as long as we have humans who think that because an unarmed territory just means that they can waltz on it and claim it as their own, we’ll have a need for militaries. But of course there’s a little more to it than that. If there’s alien life in our solar system, it’s most likely in forms that can’t harm us, trapped under the ice of moons that orbit gas giants, or very hearty, radiation-resistant bacteria on Mars. Were we to try and reach beyond, to an extrasolar world which might be habitable, our probable plan for the trip would have to involve weapons just in case there’s some sort of confrontation. Even if we go with the best intentions, we could stumble into a very paranoid and highly militarized species ready to attack anything that moves, and we need to be ready. It’s not realistic to ascribe to messianic UFOlogy when we know that space is often a very harsh place, and assume that the aliens we might encounter will be docile and ready to share their knowledge with us…

Scientific papers and their preprints are used for many different purposes. They can be used to entertain new and strange ideas, generate feedback on a concept before the paper is ready for publication, encourage like- minded collaborators to contact you, and generally, just get your work out into the world. But one use for which they’re definitely not intended, is to serve as soapboxes for one’s whining and conspiracy theories. Chandra Wickramasinghe, who recently gained some notoriety on science blogs for his involvement with an eccentric, publicity-hungry journal which served as one man’s crusade to convince the world that we found alien life, should probably know that. Regardless, he decided to publish a recitation his woes, sprinkled liberally with several conspiracy theories in which astrobiologists are being systematically silenced, on arXiv. If you expect roughly sixteen pages of paranoia and allusions to a sinister scientific cabal censoring research that doesn’t meet some silent consensus the author fervently opposes, you’re not going to be disappointed by his essay, which also tries to to present a few vague findings as irrefutable proof for panspermia events along the way.

Over the decades, there have been a few projects trying to figure out whether life did come from space and it actually is considered to be a viable hypothesis by numerous scientists interested in its many variations. Did life form completely on Earth? Was there some interference with alien bacteria? Could alien bacteria make a trip between the stars and seed our planet? Or did we just get seeded with organic compounds during the solar system’s formation and had the elements to from into RNA and then DNA, kick-starting life? We really don’t know and in the past, the evidence for life coming from space was rather inconclusive and experiments which tried to get some answers but failed to really wow space agencies and universities were shut down so their limited funds could be used to peruse more promising lines of research. But in Wickramasinghe’s mind that’s not at all what happened. Apparently, as he and Sir Fred Hoyle, as well as some other researchers had a few fun ideas at the time, the Sinister Scientific Cabal went to work, covering up the growing proof for aliens seeding our world and rejecting papers with concrete proof that this is exactly what happened. Somehow, he must have missed the last decade of research into whether bacteria can survive atmospheric entry and if tiny organisms known as tardigrades could weather the rigors of space, as well as the search for life on Mars, life that Wickramasinghe insists is being covered up by the agency for reasons that apparently make sense only in his warped, self-focused psyche. To him, astrobiologists are a persecuted minority.

Of course this must be the case because his own astrobiology office was shut down following the disaster that was his work with Schild’s Journal of Cosmology and his publication of awful papers in which the laws of physics and basic logic were turned on their heads to make his hypothesis work. It’s not that he worked with a crank perusing woefully outdated ideas and is decades behind the field, publishing utter nonsense in eccentric vanity journals. No, it must be the machinations of the aforementioned SSC suppressing evidence for extraterrestrial microbacteria, alien viruses, and fossilized remains of creatures from other worlds found in meteorites held by NASA. Keep in mind that this is the same cabal which allowed NASA scientists to publish a highly inconclusive paper arguing for the possibility of arsenic-based life, and let researchers note that a rock impregnated with bacteria and carried by Columbia survived reentry and the craft’s disintegration, which they took as evidence for the notion of microbes arriving on other worlds intact. It’s almost as if the only kind of research that the Cabal  is censoring is Wickramasinghe’s ramblings and his pet projects, which either rush to conclusions based on lackluster evidence, or make grandiose and ridiculous claims based solely on other grandiose and ridiculous claims. Now if he were a scientist, he might start wondering if his work is lacking a little rigor and if he were to try something different, he might have a paper worth publishing in a journal which doesn’t outsource its site design to someone who’s never seen the web past the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, Wickramasinghe has turned into a crackpot, and his reaction is to cry persecution and proceed to very loudly defend himself from his perceived enemies, who are apparently just plotting to take him and his work down from the shadows, as per the textbook behavior of a crank in the final stage of his affliction. It’s ridiculous to argue that today, the topics of panspermia and alien life are somehow taboo because NASA has a whole lot invested in hunting for aliens and looking for habitable worlds. In fact, the vast majority of its space exploration budget is used for some form of alien hunting, and that’s not to mention that SETI is regarded not as a collection of random kooks who think they’re going to talk to aliens, but a perfectly respectable scientific organization which is pursuing a very difficult but scientifically justifiable goal. Just because you don’t get your day in the sun for recycling ideas you concocted with a man who had a track record of being spectacularly and demonstrably wrong about almost everything outside of astronomy to such a degree that a fallacy often cited by creationists bears his name, doesn’t mean that you’re a victim of a conspiracy. It just means that you’re an old geezer who hasn’t had an original idea since the 1980s, and you’re furious that scientists have moved on and won’t let you ride on Hoyle’s coattails anymore, much less coast on your own recycled half-guesses.

[ illustration by Aaron Sims ]

dark planet

In the wake of the news which must have rocked the scientific world, any by extension, probably yours as well, the Journal of Cosmology, the pet project of cosmologist Rudolph Schild, is going out of business. What pray tell are eccentric scientists on a mission to prove to the world that the aliens are out there and came here on meteorites and comets in ongoing panspermia events, to do now to continue their quest? Apparently, give a little new life to their paper which tries to trace the emergence of life to within a blink of a cosmological eye, a mere several million years after the Big Bang on mysterious planets that apparently litter the universe. And in their minds, they can get more publicity for their work by asking PZ Myers for a review.

One wonders why they didn’t just dive right into a pit of starving lions and cut out the electronic middleman, but answers to questions like this are well outside my area of expertise and I’m digressing here. Suffice it to say that the paper is really not persuasive in the very least, and the authors ramble and jump around from paragraph to paragraph while throwing out random numbers and equations that supposedly prove that the universe was brimming with life which was just peacefully evolving along during an epoch of turbulent galaxy formation and hypernovae.

So where do we start with this premise? How about with the fact that a few million years after it was born, the universe should have been smaller and denser than it is now and after the first flash, entered a dark age that lasted for millions of years? Stars as we know them are thought to have been born only 150 million years after the Big Bang and those Population III stars had to synthesize all the metals and silicates needed to form any future planet which could be home to living things. What this paper basically says is that the first planets were born before the first stars and this happened at the very dawn of the universe. And not only that, but that these planets, which somehow came into existence only 300,000 years after baryogenesis, when the only elements really present in the entire universe were hydrogen, helium, and lithium, spawned living things in 2 million to approximately 20 million years after they were formed.

All right, sure, there’s a good model suggesting that a planet could host life even if it wasn’t orbiting a star, so if they can somehow explain how a planet without a surface or an ocean can spawn living things from the three elements mentioned above, they have an idea we could actually consider. But the authors manage to severely mangle their timeline so we somehow have vast clusters of white dwarfs seeding these mysterious and ill-defined planets with organic compounds at some point in time, and what’s even more bizarre, stars suddenly forming from planetary collisions, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t sound even remotely plausible. Did those planets just slam into each other and start fusion? It’s pretty hard to tell because no mechanism for this alternative hypothesis of star birth is given.

If by now you’re feeling lost and confused, don’t worry. That’s normal because the paper in question is wildly disorienting and spends its bulk looking for traces of planets in nebulae, ancient galactic clusters, and filling various globular clusters throughout space. Every particle that looks spherical is interpreted as being one of these mysterious planets and then further classified as being the culprit behind dark matter. By the end of the paper, you’ve been told that not only were there magical planets at the dawn of the cosmos, but that they’re an incubator for life, that they seeded the universe with primordial bacteria, that they were the progenitors of early stars, and finally, that they’re also dark matter. Ow. My brain. It hurts. After finally reaching the conclusion, I was wondering why I subject myself to this kind of stuff and whether there’s some from of nerdy sadomasochism I might unwittingly be into.

But believe it or not, I’m still not done listing this paper’s doozies. You see, all those amazing planets, which seem to be the answer to every cosmological question asked today, and a complete reversal of solar system formation were invented for a simple reason. One of the co-authors, who worked on the mechanics of panspermia with Hoyle, used his old assertion that life is way too complex to have started in just a billion years or so on Earth, and thus must’ve come from space. We’re now returning to the days of Lord Kelvin, when panspermia offered to explain how a "young" planet like ours had enough time to develop its biosphere since back then, Earth was thought to be 400 million years old at most.

But hold on though, something seems off. Did you catch it yet? Let me give you a hint. According to the author whose convictions underpin this paper, Chandra Wickramasinghe, a billion years or so is just not enough to develop the first life forms, and living things are too complex to arise by abiogenesis. Yet on his planets which populate the universe at its inception, life arises by abiogenesis in two to 20 million years. Huh? What? How can a billion years be too little for life to evolve when the universe is 9 billion years old but when it just begins, a few million years is plenty? But then again, Wickramasinghe is not known for being entirely reasonable and his quest to prove that life got here by extraterrestrial seeding his taken on bizarre forms, like accusing NASA of hiding evidence of life on Mars and claiming that SARS was an alien virus.

Insisting that life is just far too complex to evolve on its own, he’s been trying to grasp at any straw to prove that somehow, in the vacuum of space, or on a world at the dawn of the universe, all the same problems he assigns to life on Earth arising on its own suddenly vanish, then parades this assertion as if he’s solved the problem of abiogenesis. He hasn’t done that at all. All he really did was push it back. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve written about some of the neat science regarding panspermia and research into organic compounds in space quite a bit on this blog. It’s not impossible that some vital ingredients for life came from space. But what’s being offered in this paper simply falls flat on its face, argues absurd things using incredibly unscientific double standards, and shows why few scientists took Schild and his friends’ ramblings seriously enough to contribute to their journals.

See: Carl H. Gibson, Rudolph E. Schild, and N. C. Wickramasinghe (2010). The Origin of Life from Primordial Planets Int. J. of Astrobiology arXiv: 1004.0504v4

Oxygen is a gas we generally take for granted here on Earth thanks to the abundant flora that keeps its levels in our atmosphere nice and high. Not only it is vital for our bodies to power themselves, but it’s essential for quite a bit of our technology. Metallic alloys and plastics on which we rely to build everything from buildings to spacecraft, require fire to smelt, mix, and mold. Even something as basic as pottery and bricks still require an oven with a steady flame, and cooking food to kill bacteria and parasites, would be impossible without a nice, roaring fire. And if you want fire and heat without having to deal with a violent volcano belching noxious fumes, you need to have oxygen. I learned this as a kid in science class, giving it little thought until recently, when my girlfriend asked me if aliens living on a planet which didn’t have oxygen could ever develop a civilization as we know it since they’d never be able to start a fire to cook their food, much less build advanced technology.

Now, I really didn’t know how to answer her question, but after giving it some thought, I think she might have a very interesting point. After stone tools, the first major leap forward for humans was fire. With food that was far safer to eat and much easier to chew and digest, we could get more from our nutrition. On cold nights, a good fire would warm our caves and huts. And fire allowed for the next leap forward, the invention of metal tools and the ability to create lighter and more durable weapons to defend our farms and hunting grounds. And you may even say that fire was one of the technological catalysts for the emergence of human civilization as we know it today. For fire, though, we needed to have oxygen in our atmosphere. So what would’ve happened if the Earth produced macro life that didn’t need oxygen and the reactive gas was present only in very trace amounts? Say goodbye to caves that could be warmed on demand, creating custom tools from metal, or even making basic pottery wherever you want. And even if you could just walk up to a superheated volcanic vent, you would have a lot of trouble making tools that wouldn’t burn up or melt from the magma’s radiant heat.

Even if you’re extremely creative and manage to tap into a geothermal source, you can forget about controlling the temperature to create exactly what you need because it really isn’t as simple as moving what you need to heat to the right distance from the magma. All sorts of environmental factors would affect the heat that’s being put out of the vent and the exposure to noxious gases would be a major problem for any macro life. Basically, you really need to get heat on demand if you want to build cities close to easily traversable terrain, rivers, and seas, and if you want to make materials that require a very precise recipe, materials you can use in everything that’s needed to build computers, radios, TVs, lenses, and mirrors, you’re out of luck. Does that mean that we have to look for a world with oxygen in its atmosphere if we ever want to find alien cities, and not because we want to find high levels of atmospheric oxygen as a requirement for life, but because we’re looking for species that can discover fire? Maybe there’s a chemist in the house who could set us straight and let us know if there may be another way of creating a controllable heat source in an atmosphere without oxygen? And what do you think? Can one have a technological society without having to discover how to handle fire first?