Bad science…luckily not my own…’alien life forms in space dust’….

Some so-called ‘science’ has appeared in the media today that’s made scientists like myself very angry. I was called up earlier today by Sky News to appear on their evening show commenting on this particular story (I’ll get in to what the story is in a minute) of which I’d previously heard nothing about. After a quick google I found the science to which Sky were referring, on the Daily Mail website (say no more?!). I didn’t need to give it much of a read before I called them back almost instantly to refuse to comment on the work because I didn’t want to give this ‘science’ the airtime. I also asked Sky not to cover the story because, basically, it is a total load of codswallop. I now know I’m not the only scientist who was called by a media agency today to comment on this story. However, this doesn’t mean that journalists haven’t covered the story in their droves! I’d prefer to ignore this story but I feel like I need to vent my fury and re-educate all those journalists who mistakenly chose to cover it without asking for any independent scientific opinion on the matter (I’m looking at you Daily Mail and Independent…oh and I can now add The Telegraph to that list although they did make some attempt to add some other science in at the end of the story, but that hasn’t appeased me!).

So the story is published in The Journal of Cosmology and this is instantly where I start to get concerned. This journal has a history of publishing dubious science and all I can say is it’s not somewhere I would submit any of my work! The ‘new scientific research’ presented in the paper tells us that alien life forms have been discovered in stratospheric dust returned by space balloons. One of the scientists on the work, Prof Wickramasinghe, has cropped up before telling us that he found diatoms in a meteorite. The origin of this particular meteorite itself was slightly dubious and it may have lingered for some time in a river after it came to Earth meaning that if life was found in this meteorite then it might very much have a terrestrial origin. However, there’s no need to discuss the origin of any diatoms because they simply didn’t exist in the meteorite anyway, the findings presented in the paper were a load of rubbish. Essentially no one in the scientific community believes any of Wickramasinghe’s claims and no one will believe any of the new claims. When we look at the ‘evidence’ in the new paper we are even less convinced. Images show what I would say is probably a piece of terrestrial volcanic dust (I presume, but with no scale bar it is impossible to say, in fact there are no scale bars on any of the images). However, the researchers instead suggest the dust is a collapsed alien organism with a head, nose and sphincter ‘clearly’ on show (see the Daily Mail website for pics and then try to match the caption with the image…it’s quite fun). This is all obviously ridiculous and to make matters worse there are no analyses presented to tell us the composition of this material, presumably because if you were to analyse it you would find it was made of rock, not ‘life form’. Anyway, I have a confession, I’ve been a bad journalist here and I’ve not read the paper associated with this piece I’m writing. I believe I’m exempt in this situation though because the paper can’t be considered a ‘real’ scientific paper so there was no need to read it.

Anyway, I’m bored of writing about this bad science now. As readers of my website will know, I study space dust collected in the stratosphere by NASA and I’d prefer to trust NASA to do this job to ensure that the dust remains pristine with no contamination. I will continue to analyse space dust to understand the composition of, and the conditions in, the early Solar System (of which organic material, not diatoms and sphincters, was clearly a component). ‘Life forms’ have not been found in space dust, which is not to say there’s not life somewhere out there in the Solar System, or that it didn’t exist in the past, but, if life were to be found then we’d need a little more proof than just some microscope pictures. And it’d also help if the microscope pictures actually looked like what they were being suggested to be. Oh, and of course if life forms were found in meteorites then the work would be published in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal!