Sunday, March 6, 2011

Life found in a meteorite? Probably not.

The Journal of Cosmology has posted an article called "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites" by Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center.

Now the quality of this work should stand on it's own, and at first this scientist is able to talk the talk. However, as a microscopist, I am most skeptical when people claim to see something under a microscope that is unlikely. It is very easy to look for life (as I bet this author was) and then find it under the Scanning Electron Microscope. If you look for rods and spheres, you will find them eventually at some magnification. That hardly means that you have found micro-fossils. Specimen preparation can produce a wide range of artifacts - and it is very easy for bacteria on Earth to get into any nook and cranny you can imagine. We find micro-organisms in just about any place we look on Earth, including deep underground and inside of rocks. Not to mention inside the human body, nuclear reactors, and certainly on the hands of SEM operators. To be honest, these objects look more like non-living artifacts or in a few cases, clay minerals. But that is just what it looks like to me. All that matters is that these observations be used to make testable predictions about the future (hypotheses) and that these are then falsifiable with future research. Where do we go next? Obviously the final word is that we need to visit these objects around the solar system and look for extant life directly.

I also have serious doubts about this journal in general. The production value of it (comparable to this humble blog), the fact that there are Google ads and ads, and the fact that there are blog posts and comments, all make me wonder how carefully they check articles. Is this unfair? Compare it to other journals and scientific web pages; Nature, the FAS, or the NYAS. Clearly they have more money, and clearly making a new journal is hard. But if you are not getting the money, there may be a reason for that. Either NASA and the Illuminati are out to get you (see the letter below), or there may be a quality control problem with your product. The product of a journal is carefully reviewed scientific research. The one thread that links all sciences, including anthropology, is not the hypothetico-deductive method (despite what students are told in high school), rather it is the peer review process. That ensures that good science survives while flawed research is respectfully left behind.

Having scanned some previous articles, my impression is that basically this is a place to go for real or slightly fringe scientists to publish articles that cannot be published elsewhere because the work is a bit too tenuous or the claims made go a bit to far. By this I mean that, while many of the articles are a good read, many of them are also opinion based or speculative. It is a good read, but one should be (as always) very careful about the claims made by any source, particularly this source.

Here is what Phil Plait has to say about this, taking a careful skeptical path (as everyone should when confronted with extreme claims) and also treading far more lightly than he could have when critiquing this journal. He does mention that one of their editors has made some outrageous claims in the past: Chandra Wickramasinghe.

Also, note that the Journal of Cosmology appears to be closing. Take the following statements, as always, with a huge grain of salt:

Feb 14, 2011
"Journal of Cosmology To Stop Publishing--Killed by Thieves and Crooks

JOC will publish its last edition in May of 2011.

The Journal of Cosmology (JOC) was founded in the summer of 2009, published its first edition in October, and immediately became a success. Within one year it was receiving nearly 1 million hits a month and dozens of news articles were appearing regularly about its content--a phenomenal achievement for a scientific journal.

Naturally, JOC's success posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals, such as "science" magazine; just as online news killed many newspapers. Not surprisingly, JOC was targeted by science magazine and others who engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books.

Because JOC's editorial policy was to publish all peer reviewed science-based theory, including articles which directly challenged the "sacred cows" of "conventional wisdom", its success posed a direct threat to the entire scientific establishment and the "gate-keepers" who wish to protect easily disproved myths and crush dissenting views. Suddenly, here was this upstart, highly successful scientific journal, with a prestigious editorial board, which was directly challenging the status quo and their control over science.

JOC also threatened the status quo at NASA.

As we all know, the leadership at NASA is a disaster. Just last month NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel concluded that NASA is "adrift" and dysfunctional. Its leadership is under attack by Congress and is good only at leading a retreat and killing programs. They are running scared with their heads down, fearful of upcoming Congressional hearings, fearful of more criticism, fearful of losing their jobs. Fear. Fear. Fear. If these nincompoops and gutless wonders had been in power during the 1960s we would have never made it to the Moon and would not have a space program today. No clear goals, no direction, a space program completely adrift, this is the leadership at NASA.

The Journal of Cosmology stepped into the leadership gap and published a special edition explaining how a mission to Mars could be accomplished and paid for--as detailed in a brilliant article by Dr. Rhawn Joseph (Marketing Mars). Twenty four NASA scientists contributed, including two astronauts who walked on the Moon, over 120 top scientists in total.

How did NASA's leadership respond? With fear. What if NASA's leadership were asked to explain this before Congress? So, they sabotaged, interfered with, and blocked press releases by their own Senior Scientist, and kept secret, from reporters, a press conference at NASA to discuss the human mission to Mars book and JOC's special Mars edition edited by a member of their own science directorate. The leadership at NASA headquarters is afraid of losing their jobs, they are being attacked as incompetent failures by Congress, and here was JOC and top NASA scientists saying: Onward to Mars. Better to kill the messenger.

As it turned out, certain people at NASA have a business relationship with JOC's competitors. As the folks at NASA admitted in a letter to Dr. Joseph (dated 2/13/2011), they knowingly plagiarized his article, they knew its purpose was to promote JOC and his business plan, and they stripped his name and all mention of JOC from the article, and used it instead to promote themselves and their publishing partners in the private sector. Dr. Joseph summed it up this way: "What a bunch of crooks."

When people working for NASA decide to steal from you, and when NASA (the U.S. Government) is in business with your competitors, it is time to say "Adios."
The April Edition of the Journal of Cosmology will be devoted to: "Consciousness and the Universe" (edited by Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford).

The final May edition, will be devoted to astrobiology, astrochemistry, and the pioneering work of Fred Hoyle (who coined the term "the big bang") and his colleague (and JOC editor) Chandra Wickramasinghe who along with Hoyle, coined the term: "Astrobiology."
In this final edition, evidence will be presented, demonstrating that life on Earth has a genetic pedigree extending backwards in time by over 10 billion years (billions of years before Earth was formed). We have the evidence. Its in our genes.

Life on Earth, Came From Other Planets ---and this is something the Bible-thumpers, the "leadership" at NASA, and the status quo, do not want the public to know.
With nearly a million hits a month, JOC turns off the lights as a winner. The loser is the public... but this is the history of science, and the nature of business. Its just the way it is."

Truly, Lana Tao

Sounds like a very bitter, very emotional statement. Real journals have no argument to sell, no desire to fight horrible leadership at NASA or "Bible Thumpers." Real journals present scientific research which is supported by evidence. And science stands alone quite well, supported internally, and needs no angry advocacy.

The more I think about this story, the more I think this was just a final publicity grab by a group of scientists who, as too often is the case, are very good at their area but then know precious little about other branches of science.

The journal even has a shockingly petty attack on Phil:

"The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait's most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer." Source from search.

Not only does good science stand alone, good scientists do not have to rely on personal attacks or arguments from authority to convince anyone. I don't know what we are losing when this journal closes, but I somehow doubt it is very much.

Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? Almost certainly. Have we found it yet? Probably not. Has this paper proven anything conclusive? Certainly not.

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