This “news” article lead in with some rather positive statements, and had me wondering for a bit how life could exist on a comet.
Evidence of alien life is “unequivocal” on the comet carrying the Philae probe through space, two leading astronomers have said.
The experts say the most likely explanation for certain features of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, such as its organic-rich black crust, is the presence of living organisms beneath an icy surface.
Rosetta, the European spacecraft orbiting the comet, is also said to have picked up strange “clusters” of organic material that resemble viral particles.
Hmmm. I could imagine bacteria living deep in a organic-chemical-rich rock in space, but it would have to be metabolizing at an extraordinarily low rate — how would a probe that wasn’t designed to detect life even see it? Are there cues other than that the surface is dark? Because that’s kind of routine, and doesn’t require life.
And then that bit about
viral particles…how would they know? Does Philae carry an electron microscope on board?
Despite the emphatic wording, this article is extremely suspect. But it’s Sky News, a real UK news source! Just like Fox News in the US! They would at least check with real scientists, wouldn’t they?
Nope. All is revealed.
Prof Wickramasinghe said: “What we’re saying is that data coming from the comet seems to unequivocally, in my opinion, point to micro-organisms being involved in the formation of the icy structures, the preponderance of aromatic hydrocarbons, and the very dark surface.”
Wow. UK news sites actually quote Wickramasinghe as a “scientist”, rather than as a professional kook?
I experienced a strange moment of enthusiasm for the space program, because if Philae had actually found evidence of life on a comet, that would be reason enough to lobby for lots of money for NASA. But then I felt real disappointment when I discovered the source of this claim — Chandra Wickramasinghe metaphorically kicked my feels in the balls.
Now I have even more reason to detest that old crank.
And oh, look. This bullshit is in the Guardian (with a denial, too, at least), in the Daily Caller, Discovery News, the Daily MailIrish Times.
Matthew Francis in Forbes has an article asking, Is there life on Comet 67P? The first paragraph is clear, and I quote it in full:
I like it. All you other papers: you know, if you actually had science journalists on staff, you wouldn’t embarrass yourselves like this.
I’m having trouble coping with this strange new world where Forbes has apparently high journalistic standards.
chigau (違う) says
I’m having trouble with the concept that being an astronomer makes one a biologist.
Why do I get the feeling that some thinky-thought leaders will only focus on the Guardian presenting this and ignore the shit from all the other papers?
consciousness razor says
Do you really need to check, or would you believe me if I told you that Wickramasinghe is (among other things) “Board Member and Director of Research, Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics“?
An astronomer is certainly capable of making sensible statements pertaining to biology. But Wickramasinghe isn’t, judging from his attempts so far. Good at getting press, though.
chigau (違う) says
consciousness razor #4
Well, I thought you were kidding.
But I did check.
It’s a good thing that I’m kinda tipsy.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
I saw this on RawStory. Nothing against the site, but science journalism is pretty shitty. I knew it was an exaggeration from the start. There would have been a bigger hoopla about it if it was true.
@PZ: Why, oh why, do you hate life so much, you life-hating scientistic atheist? Don’t you know that life is capable of performing amazing transmogrifications, like turning the Dinosauria into mammals and birds ? ? ? . . . !!
AJ Milne says
It’s a bit of a metaquibble, but anyway:
A related/overlapping peeve of mine is that there also seems to be a certain fixation with ‘xenobiology’ ‘mongst the press and certain followers of astronomy. It’s as though you can’t explore or discover anything much beyond the orbit of the moon without someone asking ‘Ooo! is there life there!?’, too.
It’s a bit… I dunno… self-absorbed? Yes, I get we’re life and life is naturally pretty interesting to us, and sure, it would/will be pretty epochal to discover life anywhere else, but there are other reasons to explore space. And other questions to ask. And comets, as in this example, are pretty awesome in their own little way without harbouring life.
It also may get to be a bit cry wolf, too, I worry. The constant credulous/incompetent pushing of stuff like this is as likely to make people think oh, geez, we keep looking and it’s just not there… Why bother? Not realizing: again (a) there are other reasons for looking, and (b) no, that wasn’t particularly one of the expectations, looking there especially, (and c) realistically, life just isn’t quite so likely to be quite that common that we’re going to find it elsewhere in our solar system. And, of course, (d) there’s a lot of bullshitters out there happy to sell a story like this.
And I’m one of those does think it’s virtually certain there’s life somewhere else out there (just don’t ask me to quantify how close… as much as we know a lot more know about exoplanets than we did even ten years ago, we still are missing lots of information necessary to put decent bounds on that as yet). I’d also say I think it’s even not vanishingly unlikely I’ll still be alive when we find the first planetary atmosphere out there spectroscopy suggests is ‘interesting/anomalous’ on the level of ‘could be some active biological process doing that’. And sure, I’ll be hugely excited if I do live to hear the same from a competent, reliable source… But come to think of it, this is kind of the same point again: we should be getting spectra off those atmospheres even if we don’t expect to find exoalgae that way. Just because we don’t know what else we might find.
But, again, enough with the fixation, I guess.
It’s a bit also like watching some very prolonged version of ‘Are You My Mother?’ So: no. That’s not your mother. That’s a comet. And just settle down, already. This may take quite a while.
(/Related quibble: the somehow vastly sillier (as in: someone somehow found a way to be sillier even than this) question: ‘Ooo! Can we move there?’ But PZ has already covered that one a few times.)
What I find most annoying about this is that it feeds into science denier’s line of bullshit.
To people like creationists, anti-vaxers, and global warming deniers this is just one more example of science always being wrong, and they will be trumpeting it to the skies.
Here we go again; the transpermia hypothesis as a bit of new life and the fallacy of infinite regress as well.
John Harshman says
I heard this story on the BBC news tonight. It was bad because they mostly let Wickramasinghe talk, but he did get asked one semi-tough question (“Do most astronomers agree with you?”, which he bloviated on) and they mentioned at the end that there are plenty of astronomers who think it’s a crap idea and provided one quote. So, mixed success.
Panspermia has always amused me – well the name is funny when you are thirteen! However the best argument against it seems to be the difference between the energy require to shock quartz and the bonding of bits of dna.
@consciousness razor #4
“Study of Astroeconomics” — Why do I feel like that means little more than that he’s read the final bits of Battlefield Earth?
jedibear #1, not only Forbes, but also Buzzfeed. These two surprisingly keep coming up when I find good articles about current scientific topics, like vaccination for example.
Aawwww shame. My 11 year old told me at breakfast they had found life on a comet. I was exited I’ll have to put him right.
Well, technically that is true. The Philae probe is unequivocal evidence of life alien to the comet.
Pierce R. Butler says
Except for the debunkery at Forbes, our esteemed host cites a list of transatlantic sources.
Had this “story” gained any traction in the US, it would have gotten coverage primarily over the question of how it might affect Hillary in 2016.
Forbes seems to be trying to turn into a good source for science news. I have read a number of good science pieces there lately, and it is the new home for Faye Flam.
Wickramasinghe testified in the Arkansas creationism case back when. For the creationism side.
Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says
But how many licks does it take to get to the center?
Pretty confident wording, there.
@2chigau: I’m having trouble with the concept that a biologist identifies a crackpot as an ‘astronomer’.
…or as a scientist of any kind.
Bronze Dog says
I can understand “astrobiology” as a field, though it’s obviously an infant discipline. NASA wants a probe to take soil samples among other things on Mars. So they include a biologist when designing the probe, since they know something about less obvious forms of life, possibly something about hypothetical alternate forms might take, and how to find them, just in case the probe stumbles on some. It’s highly speculative, but it’s built on what we know of Earth’s life and chemistry, and you gotta start somewhere.
But “astroeconomics?” Someone’s jumping the gun.
John Horstman says
@woozy #18: That’s seriously the direction I though this was going to go, that they had found life alien to the comet i.e. some bacteria or spores or something that had managed to survive the trip from Earth. That would be a far funnier way to troll readers, IMO. (They’re just trolling their readers, right? I mean, they can’t possibly be taking some random crank seriously…)