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Machines Like Us

Proof of alien life? You need a lot more evidence than that

Saturday, 21 September 2013
by Terry Kee

Funny looking alien. University of Sheffield

Could life really exist on other planets? The most positive scientific answer we can offer is: well, maybe, but we do not yet have enough evidence for or against.

Yet Milton Wainwright and colleagues from the Universities of Sheffield & Buckingham would seem to disagree with that. They seem to have found evidence of life-forms in Earth’s atmosphere, delivered from space. The press has rapidly and uncritically echoed these claims.

This most definitely grabbed my interest. There has been a lot of talk that life on earth was seeded from space, a hypothesis called panspermia. It has been considered for hundreds of years, and has got a boost from modern research: life, in the form of bacterial colonies, can survive under the extreme conditions found within space environments. But is there physical evidence for “life arriving from space”? Such evidence would be monumental.

On reading results from Wainwright in the Journal of Cosmology, I would suggest the jury go back to deliberate some more. What the authors report sending a balloon for obtaining tiny objects from the lower stratosphere, which they examined using a scanning electron microscopy.

They found something called a “diatom frustule," which is, in essence, the non-living outer shell of a dead organism, a type of algae that thrives in rivers, streams and oceans. Diatoms are so common and so populous in such environments that they are central to those ecosystems. Wainwright makes a case that the inanimate material they see once belonged to a living entity.

The elephant in the room of course is, how did the diatoms end up in the stratosphere?

The authors conclude that they come from some other planet. But the explanations and (more to the point) the scientific evidence provided in the authors’ paper are rather weak. While terrestrial sources for diatoms so high in the stratosphere, such as volcanic eruptions & contamination of the original sampling equipment are considered unviable by the authors, they offer as an alternative that the material must have come from space. However, to date there is no supporting evidence for that hypothesis either.