I love aurorae. Possibly one of the most beautiful and spectacular natural phenomena to grace this planet.
Astronaut Ron Garan recently posted a fantastic photo of an aurora from Earth’s orbit on his Twitter feed:
Makes me feel like a 9 year old kid again, wishing he could be an astronaut when he grows up.
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Alliteration is fun.
Anywhooo…a lot of people know that only one side of the moon faces the Earth. That is because the moon rotates on its axis at roughly the same rate that it orbits the Earth.
The side of the moon which faces away from the Earth is commonly referred to as the Dark Side of the Moon (also one of the best album’s of all time).
In actuality, through the course of a year we see about 59% of the Moon’s surface. That is because the moon tilts and wobbles a bit, so sometimes we get a little more moon for our buck.
This video by the Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows one whole year of moon motion in a 2.5 minute time lapse video.
Pretty cool stuff!
Also, don’t forget to check out today’s Google Doodle, which is a nifty little animation showing today’s total lunar eclipse.
The big news today is that it is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space. Gagarin was the first human to ever be shot into orbit. Also, as a side note, he landed back on Earth safely.
It was April 12th, 1961 aboard the Russian flight Vostok 1 that Gagarin made his epic journey. The trip lasted 108 minutes; in order to land Gagarin had to eject from his capsule while still 23,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
Upon reaching orbit, Gagarin had this to say:
“I feel splendid, very well, very well, very well. Give me some results on the flight!”
Shortly after saying this, Gagarin went out of radio range from mission control, and was on his own for a short while.
How freakin’ scary is that!?
The site on which Gagarin eventually landed is now a monument park. The Vostok 1 capsule is on display in the museum, and a new documentary showing exactly what Gagarin would have seen from his window, shot from the International Space Station, has been released.
And now, Gagarin has received the most magnificent of all accolades: his very own Google Doodle!
So hurray for manned spaceflight, and for the incredible courage of those who were the first to go into space inside a metal tube full of flammable material!
Japan has suffered from a major natural disaster, and my thoughts are with all those who have lost family members and friends because of this terrible event.
Which is why I’m sickened to see that one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, has an article today entitled “Japan Tsunami: Was ‘Supermoon’ to Blame?”
Here’s the deal. The moon orbits the Earth in an ellipse. When it is furthest from the Earth (about 405,000 km) it is called apogee and when it is closest to the Earth (about 355,000 km) it is called perigee . This time is special, however, because the moon will actually be closer than it has been in 18 years…by 2 percent.
So some astrologers and other dead-heads are claiming that it was the moon that caused the Japan earthquake.
This is complete and utter bullplop. BULLPLOP!
Phil Plait of course wrote about this on his blog as well. So tidal forces caused by the moon are extremely weak, and even though the moon will be slightly closer to the Earth at perigee, they are not powerful enough to affect the Earth in any way other than the sea tides moving in and out. There is no correlation between major earthquakes and moon phases.
And guess what? The so-called ‘supermoon’ won’t happen until March 19. The moon was 400,000 km away when the earthquake happened, which is actually farther than it usually is on average (about 384,000 km).
I give The Globe and Mail a hard time quite often, but it is only because they deserve it. Peddling this nonsense in the wake of a major disaster like this is extremely disheartening and shows poor journalistic integrity.
If you’ve been following the drama around the Richard Hoover article in the Journal of Cosmology about fossilized alien bacteria in a meteorite, you may have been wondering what NASA thinks about all this.
I mean, Hoover works for NASA. They should have said something, right? Wouldn’t they want to get in on this publicity if they could?
But NASA did release a statement today about the paper. Via Spaceref:
“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.” – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
So they are basically saying that Hoover tried to publish this work a few years ago, and it didn’t make the cut. So NASA is distancing themselves from this claim as much as possible.
No one would be happier than me if evidence of alien life was discovered. But it hasn’t.
So by now you’ve probably all heard about Dr. Richard Hoover, the NASA scientist who possibly has discovered alien bacteria in meteorites. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the paper itself and the opinions of some researchers more closely related to the fields of astronomy and, more importantly, biology, I want to give you a better idea of what this paper is saying.
Let’s start off with the journal itself, the Journal of Cosmology. It is a journal published entirely online, though it is technically peer-reviewed. However, the journal has been known to encourage the publishing of fringe ideas and scientists that jump the gun on certain conclusions about their data.
Take for example the supposed giant planet in the Oort cloud which was discussed last month. The paper was met with scorn and skepticism from a large group of scientists, including Phil Plait. A news article by Gabriel Beck on the Journal of Cosmology homepage had said this in response to the criticism:
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.
Not exactly a scientifically sound argument, nor something you would expect to read from a credible scientist reasonably discussing a paper. So the Journal of Cosmology is not impressing me, particularly since I love Phil Plait and actually try to model the style of this blog after his. In addition, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical about ANY finding. If your research is sound, then it should be able to stand up to the highest level of scrutiny and you shouldn’t get defensive.
But Beck’s pettiness aside, this does not discount Dr. Hoover’s research out of hand, so let’s look at the actual paper.
The meteorites were imaged using an electron microscope and the images examined. What Hoover found was that some of the images showed strange “filaments” in the structure of the meteorite. Upon further inspection, the filaments seemed to correspond with the general shape and size of certain species of bacteria.
Hoover believes that the filaments were not the result of contamination of Earthly bacteria after the meteorite landed because there was a definite lack of nitrogen in the samples. This is because nitrogen fixation is an essential part of the life cycle of “Earth-based” bacteria, and the level of nitrogen in the sample should be detectable for several thousand years. Since we know the dates on which these meteorites landed, the lack of nitrogen within the sample was evidence that the filaments were in the meteorite prior to it landing on the surface of the Earth.
In one of the meteorites (Orgueil) Hoover found structures within the filaments that resembled “heterocysts”, which are specialized cells used to fix nitrogen. Hoover says that
…the detection of heterocysts provides clear and convincing evidence that the filaments are not only unambiguously biological but that they belong to one of these two orders of cyanobacteria…
Another point Hoover makes is that the Orgueil meteorite is composed of certain minerals that dissolve when exposed to water. Since we know the meteorite landed in 1864, and that cyanobacteria generally require the presence of water to live, he suggests
that none of the Orgueil samples could have ever been submerged in pools of liquid water needed to sustain the growth of large photoautotrophic cyanobacteria and required for the formation of benthic cyanobacterial mats since the meteorite arrived on Earth. Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Those are the basic arguments. The paper then extends its assumptions far beyond the scope of the research to discuss how this finding could be indicative of life on comets or on Europa.
So as you have probably already gathered, there are some serious problems here. My biggest problem of the paper is that it is not quantitative. How many images in total did you take? How many filaments in total did you find? How many of them exhibit shapes resembling heterocysts? If there was a colony of bacteria in the meteorite, how many of these fossilized remains should we expect to see and how many of them should have structures resembling heterocysts?
I also have a problem with heterocyst structures themselves. Does it makes sense that a bacterium that is not from Earth would have a structure similar to what Earth-based bacteria use to fix nitrogen?
I will concede that these are strange structures in the meteorites. But given the huge diversity of bacteria, doesn’t it seem like it would be quite easy to take any structure that is remotely filament-like and match it with some type of bacteria?
The answers to these questions are not given. This could be because some of them are difficult questions with complicated answers, which is fair, but they do not seem to be addressed at all.
It comes down to the fact that Hoover is comparing filament structures in a meteorite to the shapes and sizes of certain bacteria on Earth. He is then making two conclusions:
- That the filaments were there prior to the meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere and
- That the filaments were caused by the fossilization of bacteria.
Consequently, there are 3 possibilities:
- Hoover is correct that these are fossilized bacteria of a non-Earth origin.
- The filaments were caused by bacteria contamination from Earth and the lack of nitrogen could be explained by something else.
- The filaments were caused by something other than bacteria, before or after the meteorite landed on the Earth’s surface.
Frankly, even though Hoover gives a few arguments as to why he thinks the filaments were caused by alien bacteria, I think possibilities 2 and 3 are much more likely. Simply because Hoover cannot come up with another explanation for the lack of nitrogen or the presence of what look like heterocysts does not warrant the conclusion that these are fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. That is a huge leap and it is an extremely premature assertion.
But it is still early so we will see what the experts end up saying. PZ Myers already weighed in with his opinion in a blog post called “Did Scientists Discover Bacteria in Meteorites?”:
No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.
He is chalking this one up to a glorified case of pareidolia.
In the end, it again comes down to “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
The claim is extraordinary. The evidence, unfortunately, is not.
It sounds too good to be true, especially since these kinds of claims have been made before.
But a paper published yesterday in the Journal of Cosmology by Dr. Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist who studies meteorites, claims to have discovered fossilized Cyanobacteria in a meteorite. His conclusion is that the fossils are not due to Earthly contamination, and that they are of a non-Earth origin, i.e. alien life.
The implications of such a discovery are huge. That is why the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cosmology has released a statement regarding this paper, saying that they will publish commentaries of the study by other experts:
Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover’s paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented. No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published. We believe the best way to advance science, is to promote debate and discussion.
Of course we shouldn’t start celebrating the discovery of life from outer space just yet. It is indeed a very interesting discovery, but let’s hold our excitement until after a large number of other experts have had a chance to look over the results.
I’ll write more about this after I actually read the paper myself and hear the opinions of other experts in the field. But as Dr. David Marais, another NASA scientist, told FoxNews,
“It’s an extraordinary claim, and thus I’ll need extraordinary evidence,” Marais said.
Carl Sagan couldn’t have said it better himself,
What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence