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Sep 22 2013

I’m not the troll, but I think they caught one in their sample

I got a strange email the other day.

Dear Troller

Dear Dr Myers, I note that you are trolling our work Please find attached a copy of our SPIE paper which we gave in San Diego. I would welcome the opportunity to give a talk at you Institution so that you, with all your infinite wisdom, could shoot me down in flames and make a fool of me. However, I doubt that you have the balls ! Professor Milton Wainwright

“Trolling” their work? And who the heck is Milton Wainwright? And then I looked at the paper and realized…

Earlier this week, someone had told me that there was another loony “organisms from space” paper touted as proof that British scientists had discovered alien life published in that joke journal, the Journal of Cosmology by this guy Wainwright, and I admit it, I took a quick look at his goofy blog. But that’s it! All I did was read it! I didn’t comment or write about it here!

For a moment I had this terrible thought that maybe the crackpots have finally figured out how to read our minds.

But then I realized that these guys get so little attention paid to them that they probably carefully scrutinize their tiny little referer logs, and they noticed that someone from Morris, Minnesota stopped by, and obviously, since I’m the sole inhabitant of this eerily empty ghost town on the prairie, it must have been me.

So now merely reading their work is trolling.

Well, now I guess I’m obligated to follow through. I had read their paper and decided it was more of the same ol’, same ol’ and hadn’t said anything then, but I’m willing to summarize it.

It’s crap.

The data collection is fine. They’re lofting balloons into the stratosphere, and at a designated altitude, are opening a trap that allows dust, debris, small organisms, and so forth to settle and adhere to EM stubs. Then the trap is closed, the balloon descends, and they put the stubs on the electron microscope and see what is floating around in the atmosphere.

So far, so good. The problem lies in the interpretation. They’re then sorting the material observed into known vs. unknown, where “known” is clearly material from earth, and “unknown” is immediately categorized as Possible Signs of Extraterrestrial Life. The logic doesn’t work. It makes no sense. You’re looking at low density airborne particles in the atmosphere of a planet; it’s not as if we’ve come even close to categorizing all the particles of terrestrial origin, so you can’t play this game of assigning subsets to some other source outside our world.

The authors also have a bad case of apophenia. Almost every bit of unrecognizable garbage they spot is called “life”. Here is one of their examples.

A, Sheet-like inorganic material recovered from the stratosphere which is clearly not biological; and B, a  clump of stratospheric cosmic dust which includes coccoid and rod shaped particles which may, or may not, be  bacteria.

A, Sheet-like inorganic material recovered from the stratosphere which is clearly not biological; and B, a clump of stratospheric cosmic dust which includes coccoid and rod shaped particles which may, or may not, be bacteria.

So the sheet-like stuff to the left is not biological (how they know that, I don’t know and they don’t tell us — I think it’s “it doesn’t look like it to my untrained eye”), while the amorphous blob to the right may or may not be biological. In other words, the information content in this image is precisely zero. (By the way, that mess on the right doesn’t look at all bacterial to me.)

In other cases they flat out claim that the blob they see is biological.

An unknown biological entity isolated from the stratosphere

An unknown biological entity isolated from the stratosphere

Unequivocally biological, no less. How they know, I again don’t know. It seems to be that when they stare at it and do a little subjective pattern matching, they call something a “neck” and something else a “body” — that is, they slap labels on things that conform to their beliefs about the morphology of organisms.

The structure shown in Fig.3 however is unequivocally biological. Here we see a complex organism which has a segmented neck attached to a flask-shaped body which is ridged and has collapsed under the vacuum of the stratosphere or produced during E/M analysis. The top of the neck is fringed with what could be cilia or a fringe which formed the point of attachment of the neck to another biological entity. The complexity of this particle excludes the possibility that is of non-biological in origin.

Complexity does not exclude a non-biological source. Also, just saying that things have names similar to the names we’d give a life form does not support the claim that it is anything other than a subjective interpretation of some debris.

They have another example that demonstrates my point.

A collapsed balloon-like biological entity sampled from the stratosphere. Note the “proboscis” to the left,  with nose-like openings and the “sphincter” present at the top of the organism

A collapsed balloon-like biological entity sampled from the stratosphere. Note the “proboscis” to the left, with nose-like openings and the “sphincter” present at the top of the organism

The structure shown in Fig.4 is also clearly biological in nature; here we see a somewhat phallic balloon-like structure which has presumably collapsed under low pressure. A “proboscis” is seen emerging from the left of the main cell which has two, nostril-like openings. At the top of the collapsed “balloon” is a sphincter-like opening. Again, this entity is clearly biological in nature, and is not an inorganic artefact. Although it is clearly not a bacterium it could well be an alga or a protozoan of some kind. The organisms shown in Figs. 3 and 4 are presumably clear enough for experts in the relevant branches of taxonomy to provide some kind of identification.

Why would an alga or a protist have a proboscis with nostrils? Do they have multiple samples that exhibit a similar shape? Isn’t it more likely to be a random scrap of material, rather than the patterned shape of an organism?

gnomish

Oh, wait. They missed something: look at that wrinkle at the bottom right of the object. It looks like…a pointy ear. And then there’s the nose, alright, and a robust jaw beneath it. By golly, it’s the tiny decapitated head of a gnome that was less than a tenth of a millimeter tall in life! And its forehead has been bashed in, no doubt in a great battle between microcosmic fairy tribes waged by thrip-mounted cavalry in the skies!

I think that’s a more plausible explanation than the authors’ similarly evidence-free guess that unidentified particles are signs of extraplanetary life.

Also, I thought Journal of Cosmology was defunct — it was up for sale, complete with crude slymepit-style parting shots at me. I guess it’s still dribbling on, providing a forum for the worst and dumbest kinds of pseudoscience.


By the way, Rawn Joseph, former(?) owner of the JoC, appears to have had a rather nasty falling out with Chandra Wickramasinghe, who he accuses of theft and plagiarism.

70 comments

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  1. 1
    chigau (違う)

    OK.
    Are there any *peas* in there?

  2. 2
    chigau (違う)

    I mean *peas* are biological entities.
    Right?

  3. 3
    Inaji

    PZ:

    So now merely reading their work is trolling.

    I’d think they’d be grateful anyone was bothering to read such nonsense. I guess you’re only allowed to read if you’re sitting there thinking good thoughts.

  4. 4
    chigau (違う)

    I am definitely thinking thoughts.

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ahem.

    … whom …!

  6. 6
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    It’s crap.

    I see you are going in for British style understatement….

  7. 7
    shouldbeworking

    Some of the JoC rumblings make Deepak Chopra sound almost scientific.

  8. 8
    Roy G

    Okay, now I’m confused.

    “collapsed under the vacuum”
    “collapsed under low pressure”

    Wouldn’t this mean that the pressure inside would have to be even lower for something to collapse?
    Don’t things with higher pressure expand in vacuum, or am I being stupid?

  9. 9
    PZ Myers

    Yeah, pressure isn’t the concern, except indirectly. These samples are dessicated.

    Basically, you’ve discovered that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  10. 10
    marcoli

    Thank you for not showing their picture of an alien diatom. I am rather tired of that thing now.

  11. 11
    OptimalCynic

    Are there any *peas* in there?

    Only mushy ones.

    This paper methodology is flawed – they were looking over the wrong county. Clearly, they should have tried it in Lancashire.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDvJapTZDtg

  12. 12
    nellalou

    It’s a new form of skrying. How quaint. Reading entrails is much more accurate IMO.

  13. 13
    Muz

    Surely he means trolling in the original, pre-internet sense (even if by originally giving it a casual glance you’re not really filling that definition either).

  14. 14
    robertschenck

    My opinion of these guys was already pretty low—what with the junk they put into the JoC, and especially the ‘diatoms in meteorites’ article—but now it’s pretty much hit rock bottom. /That’s/ how they contact you thru email, that’s the message they sent? What a bunch of morons.

    And my opinion of them was only not at rock bottom already because I had /forgotten/ about those idiotic slams they made at you on the JoC page.

    Also, they’re saying these are biological entities, but they didn’t do, apparently, any of the sort of prep work that is typical of SEM analysis when working with biological materials? They’re OK with samples being collapsed under hi-vaccum?
    And now I see that they’re claiming they tell if something is organic with EDX because the tiny organic stuff is stuck to tiny inorganic stuff, and it’s all just too small to distinguihs? That’s completely bogus, SEM based X-ray analysis should be able to work on multiple spots in these objects, let alone distinguish between two parts. They even say in the “paper” that if it looks biological, but EDX shows it to not be, then it’s because the EDX was wrong. Utter BS.

  15. 15
    Al Dente

    a clump of stratospheric cosmic dust which includes coccoid and rod shaped particles which may, or may not, be bacteria.

    How can something be both stratospheric and cosmic simultaneously? Do they mean something cosmic which ended up in the stratosphere? How do they know it’s cosmic? (I accept that since they collected it in the stratosphere it’s stratospheric.)

    I love how they come down on both sides of the question about the dust particle being bacterial or not, as the case may be.

  16. 16
    keelyn

    PZ:
    “…published in that joke journal, the Journal of Cosmology …”

    That is the truth! It is the World Net Daily of cosmology. What a rag.

  17. 17
    Inaji

    Chigau:

    I am definitely thinking thoughts.

    As it seems Prof. Wainwright lacks the ability to wish us into the cornfield, I think we’re safe on that front.

  18. 18
    Lynna, OM

    Nice takedown of junk “science,” PZ. I enjoyed that.

    As for all the little pieces of whatchamacallit in the atmosphere, that’s an interesting topic.

    The JoC reads like a script for a Saturday Night Live skit. No editing required.

  19. 19
    Lynna, OM

    An added note: All of the “crude slymepit-style parting shots” are truly crude. I saw those before, when you first posted them, but I went back for another look, and, yes, the doofuses at JoC can add another Fail to their long list: Photoshop.

  20. 20
    madscientist

    That’s funny – all those micrographs look exactly like dust to me. Put a bit of filter paper outside for a day and then examine the stuff on it with a SEM.

  21. 21
    Lynna, OM

    Here’s some real cosmology-related news — just to cleanse your palette of the bad taste of JoC sludge.

    http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2013/09/22/20637095-whats-the-deal-with-voyager-1
    Excerpt below:

    “While Voyager hasn’t yet left the Solar System, it still passed an important milestone — entering INTERSTELLAR space. This means that the spacecraft, launched in 1977, has left the bubble made by the Sun’s magnetic field as moves among the other stars in our galaxy. This sphere of influence is called the heliosphere (we astronomers call ‘em like we see ‘em). Inside the heliosphere, charged particles from the Sun stream out in all directions as the solar wind at speeds up to millions of miles per hour. Outside the heliosphere, the density of these particles drops sharply as they mix with the clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms that fill the space between the stars.

  22. 22
    No One

    They have enough money to collect the samples and view them under an electron scope, but not enough to run lab work on their specimens?

  23. 23
    Ichthyic

    who the heck is Milton Wainwright

    his writing style and how he parses his thinking reminds me a LOT of one John Davison.

  24. 24
    Ichthyic

    What a bunch of morons.

    I think it’s rather more sad than that. Again, thinking of John Davison.

  25. 25
    Reginald Selkirk

    while the amorphous blob to the right may or may not be biological

    My bad. I should have been more careful where I flicked that booger.

  26. 26
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    The schmutz in figure 4 is “somewhat phallic”?
     
    Is there a kind of pareidolia in which one perceives visual patterns as intromittent organs even when no such interpretation is warranted?

  27. 27
    Lynna, OM

    They have enough money to collect the samples and view them under an electron scope, but not enough to run lab work on their specimens?

    That was my thought. What the heck?

    Anyway, someone should take away their electron microscope privileges as they are using the scope to disseminate misinformation.

  28. 28
    Lynna, OM

    The schmutz in figure 4 is “somewhat phallic”?

    Is there a kind of pareidolia in which one perceives visual patterns as intromittent organs even when no such interpretation is warranted?

    Or … now we know what Milton Wainwright’s phallus looks like.

  29. 29
    zenlike

    No one @ 22

    They have enough money to collect the samples and view them under an electron scope, but not enough to run lab work on their specimens?

    Running lab work would have disproven their hypothesis, just eye-balling it proves their hypothesis. Therefore, this joke of a scientist has chosen the latter method. The University of Sheffield who employs this anti-scientist should be embarrassed.

    I would laugh at this idiocy, except that it appeared as a legitimate article in almost all newspapers over here in my part of the world. Science reporting in main-stream media: absolute garbage, they are not even trying anymore.

  30. 30
    linuxryan

    OK so they found perfectly clear samples of biological organisms in the high atmosphere (benefit of the very very large doubt, work with me here).

    Who says it’s extraterrestrial? Nearly every cargo-carrying spacecraft berthed with International Space Station gets loaded with trash before unberthing and deorbiting. Even though deorbit means the vehicle is largely burned up, that still does not and cannot remove all traces of its existence.

    I’d hazard a guess that some of that trash is biological, or has significant biological contamination, such as used clothing, food wrappers, hygiene products and old experiments.

  31. 31
    Marcus Good

    What Muz said – maybe they mean trolling in the marine sense; that is, I assume it’s a corruption of “trawling”. Perhaps they think you were reading their page in a search for things to report on?

    That or these things are brain slugs, and this is how they find new victims.

  32. 32
    Inaji

    AE:

    The schmutz in figure 4 is “somewhat phallic”?

    Is there a kind of pareidolia in which one perceives visual patterns as intromittent organs even when no such interpretation is warranted?

    It’s a phallusy. Seriously, some people see phalluses everywhere.

  33. 33
    eigenperson

    To me, it looks like #3 is from kingdom Geologica, but perhaps that’s only because I’m not an expert in the relevant field of taxonomy.

  34. 34
    Lofty

    I think they should rename their august institution to the Journal Of Kosmic Exploration..

  35. 35
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Everyone I meet, absent proof otherwise, may or may not be the smartest espionage agent ever to come out of Indonesia.

    Since a smart espionage agent would be adopting a cover, we can’t take the appearance of lower intelligence as decisive of the question. Since Indonesia is a racially diverse country and has reason to place agents that can pass unremarked in the most racist of societies, we can’t use race as decisive of the question. Obviously not purported nationality.

    I think I’ll publish a paper with pictures of my neighbors and “clearly an Indonesian espionage agent” in the caption. You can’t prove I’m wrong!

  36. 36
    garydargan

    The right hand object in the first picture looks like a tiny bunch of crystals. This makes them more complex than the blobs of trash they call alien life.

  37. 37
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    On the flask-shaped one, I see a charging elephant.

    And, erm… nope. I can’t think of any way to make a point from that. Except that “pareidoliation” really needs to be a real verb.

  38. 38
    roxchix

    what robertschenck said.
    and
    “Pattern recognition is the lowest form of science”, although, given their blatent rejection of quantitative analysis, I am loathe to bring the word science anywhere near this crap.

    The grain sizes make me think they didn’t actually control well for tropospheric contamination. Conceivably they could have picked up some IDP (interplanetary dust particles).

    If they were true scientists, they’d have published the EDX points and plots along with the pictures, and element maps, for each sample.

  39. 39
    Tethys

    I thinks this qualifies as the most silly thing I’ve read today.

    Astroblog has a good article that absolutely shreds the idea that these particles are extraterrestrial in origin.

    http://astroblogger.blogspot.com/2013/09/diatoms-from-outerspace-how-not-to-find.html

    The authors entire argument rests on it being unlikely that chunks of diatom can last in the stratosphere for a long time.

    Except it is not that unlikely. We know that diatoms are ubiquitous in atmospheric dusts, indeed the worlds largest source of atmospheric dust is diatomaceous earth, let alone marine and other surface water droplets. Contamination of forensic and other materials with extraneous diatoms is a perennial problem. So extreme caution is need when interpreting these sorts of results.

    Another article on livescience discusses diatoms being launched into the stratosphere by a volcanic eruption, and has some fantastic photos to prove it.

    Slimy brown algae not only survived a wild ride into the stratosphere via a volcanic ash cloud, they landed on distant islands looking flawless, a new study finds.

    http://www.livescience.com/39787-super-eruption-seeded-sky-diatoms.html

  40. 40
    chigau (違う)

    We recently purchased a hand-held microscope with a USB to attach to the lap-top.
    OMG!
    The things we see!!!

  41. 41
    dannysichel

    Bodies get decapitated. *Heads* get severed.

  42. 42
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Figure 4 is clearly a tiny human. How could this not be biological in origin?

    It looks much like the depictions of women in flowing, somewhat diaphanous robes. With her back to the viewer and as seen from a bit to the left, she is reclining toward the viewer in a semi-fetal-like position, as if balanced carefully or supported by an invisible wall.

    Why do you deny that tiny young blessed virgin marys fall from space as cosmic dust to bring life to our planet? When sperm meets egg, this third cosmic component joins the other two to provide the soul.

  43. 43
    Tethys

    a great battle between microcosmic fairy tribes waged by thrip-mounted cavalry in the skies!

    :D I love this mental image and the proper usage of thrip vs thrips.

  44. 44
    Rob

    How exactly did they get funding for the data collection? Did the funder actually understand the purpose of the proposed research? What a waste…

  45. 45
    otrame

    Any of that stuff might have come from space, I suppose, but really, considering how much junk our atmosphere has floating in it, Occam suggests it’s has terrestrial origins. I read an interesting article a couple of years ago while researching snails about them finding snail eggs and hatchlings during flights just below the stratosphere. Along with all the other tiny detritus up there. Seriously, all they did was look at it and thought that proved anything.

    Sad.

  46. 46
    Robin Grant

    I think the metaphor he probably meant was from the pre-internet meaning of trolling:

    v.intr.
    1. To fish by trailing a line, as from a moving boat.
    2.
    a. To wander about; ramble.
    b. Slang To patrol an area in search for someone or something.

  47. 47
    Colin J

    Come on people, open your eyes. Take a moment to really look at that last specimen.

    That’s no gnome. That’s Alf.

    Which is exactly what they were looking for, I guess…

  48. 48
    Andy Groves

    I think we should ask Ed Conrad what he thinks…….

  49. 49
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Scientific pareidoilia?

  50. 50
    rosieredfield

    I got the same email this morning, though with a parenthetical ‘figuratively speaking’ after ‘balls’. Looks like he’s the one trolling for attention.

  51. 51
    Lofty

    Scientific pareidoilia?
    Naah, just kook magic. And volcanoes.

  52. 52
    WhiteHatLurker

    Okay, I saw this earlier on The Register, & thought it would be good for fodder here.

    Until I clicked the last link in PZ’s post, I didn’t recognise the journal. Now I recall that thing, once I saw its unique styling.

  53. 53
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Do they mean something cosmic which ended up in the stratosphere? How do they know it’s cosmic?

    The long hair and paisley?

  54. 54
    kosk11348

    Have they ever found more than one of these “unequivocally biological” entities or is every organism unique?

  55. 55
    Sandy Small

    While I wholeheartedly concur that Fig. 3 is “unequivocally biological”, Professor Wainwright has it all wrong–it’s quite clearly the tooth of a microscopic space shark. Although I doubt he has the balls to confront me on that point

    “Look here, brother, who you jivin’ with that cosmik debris?”

  56. 56
    Kagato

    The internet term “trolling” is derived from the fishing term, and not from the bridge-dwelling monster (though in many cases that imagery works just as well).

    Originally, trolling meant one would lay out a baited line (of commentary) for the target to latch onto, and then drag them along with it for as long as it was entertaining…

  57. 57
    Nick Gotts

    Sandy Small@55,

    No, no, it’s clearly a micro-amphora. The ancient Greeks didn’t all submit to the Roman Empire, some of them evolved extremely small size and migrated to the stratosphere.

  58. 58
    garydargan

    Picture two is clearly a chitinozoan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chitinozoan
    These were thought to have become extinct since the Devonian clearly just as the coelacanth hid for 200 or so million years in the ocean depths these took to hiding in the stratosphere.

  59. 59
    LykeX

    So, when does the real study get published? You know, the one where they actually do some objective testing of the specimens, rather than just going “Gee, that kinda looks like…”

    Wait, you mean this is it? Oh dear.

  60. 60
    Routemaster

    Milton Wainwright is a familiar name if you’re a British Fortean and has form: he was a supporter of the idea that red rain in Kerala was of extraterrestrial origin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_rain_in_Kerala).

    He has also written letters to the Grauniad in support of Michael Behe’s and Andrew Wakefield’s hypotheses – although, to be charitable, this may the result of Galileo Syndrome – and at least one “Why don’t Darwinists talk about Patrick Matthew and Charles Wells!1!!!1″ letter. I also remember one letter from Roger Musson, of the British Geological Survey, correcting something Wainwright wrote but I can’t remember the details or the organ.

  61. 61
    madtom1999

    You say their data collection is fine???
    Imagine a latex balloon expanding rapidly as it rises. Chance of huge amount of static electricity at all? Chance of this sucking in anything nearby?
    At the collection height you have a balloon covered in 27km of atmospheric junk and then you open a trap an expect to collect things from the local atmosphere!!!!

  62. 62
    andrewriding

    I was thinking it looked like a miniature howling wolf head.

  63. 63
    birgerjohansson

    Didn’t Conan Doyle write the short story “The monster at 40.000 feet” a century ago?

  64. 64
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    Didn’t Conan Doyle write the short story “The monster at 40.000 feet” a century ago?

    The Horror of the Heights

  65. 65
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Caine 32: My cap is doffed.

  66. 66
    billyeager

    This is the same grossly flawed thinking that leads people to equate an Unidentified Flying Object with ‘Alien Spaceship’. Or, for that matter, gaps in scientific knowledge with ‘God did it’.

  67. 67
    LykeX

    @billyeager
    Hell, it’s the same reasoning used when reading the future in animal guts.

  68. 68
    coffeehound

    They really didn’t need to spend the money on balloons at all.
    I mean that cloud there looks like an amoeba. This one here looks like a horse. Just as scientificky and groundbreaking as their report.

  69. 69
    blf

    I wonder what the results would be if whether or not the trap opened was random, and not revealed to the people doing the analysis of the contents until after they had done said analysis. That is, in effect run a blinded check that the analysts could tell the difference between actual samples and not having any samples (e.g., contamination?).

  70. 70
    feralboy12

    These samples are dessicated.

    Did they try adding water? They might be some kind of extraterrestrial sea monkey. You can tell them from the terrestrial variety pretty easily, as rather than little crowns they wear little space helmets with antennae.
    I’d go read the blog, but then they would find me.

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