Punching Rhawn Joseph some more

I’ve made the big leagues. I’m cited on c/net in a review of panspermia claims.

Joseph is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a shirt unbuttoned to his stomach. He is, according to his autobiography, a well-known and acclaimed neurobiologist. He enjoys the ocean, walking along the beach and hiking. His self-published articles argue life has been found on Mars and Venus, and propagate an alternative view of life’s beginnings.

That theory is “panspermia.” It holds that life first arose in space and that planets in the solar system were “seeded” with microbes carried across the cosmos by dust, meteors and debris.

“Panspermia is one of those things where all the biologists are saying, ‘Maybe it could have happened, but we don’t have any evidence for it’,” says Paul Myers, a developmental biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Myers has refuted the theory in the past, leading to clashes with Joseph and his colleagues, a group he calls “the panspermia mafia.”

Two of panspermia’s biggest proponents are famed astronomer Fred Hoyle, who died in 2001, and his protege Chandra Wickramasinghe. Hoyle helped unravel “stellar nucleosynthesis,” a process that occurs in stars to generate all the chemical elements in the cosmos and, in collaboration with Wickramasinghe, the pair discovered the organic material that makes up cosmic dust. However, in the latter parts of their careers, the two have made controversial claims with little evidence to back them up, including the idea that viruses, like the flu and coronavirus, come from space.

Myers says the academic pedigree of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe gave panspermia an air of credibility in the 1970s, helping the pair popularize it as a renegade view of the origins of life. But the theory has served as a launching pad for nonsensical, pseudoscientific theories — including Joseph’s belief that Mars is full of mushrooms, fungi and lichen.

Wickramasinghe remains the godfather of panspermia, continuing to publish on the theory in books and his own journals. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph is the heir apparent.

It’s not just me, of course. They review his claim of mushrooms sprouting on Mars.

How Joseph’s piece moved past the peer review process and was accepted for publication remains a mystery. The process usually weeds out these explicitly non-scientific claims. Other astronomers and astrobiologists who examined the research soundly rebuked its conclusions, citing poor methodology and analysis.

Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University in Australia, said “there’s some pretty horrible over-interpretation of blurry photos,” while Gretchen Benedix, a geophysicist at Curtin University in Australia, noted “increasing image sizes to investigate the objects of interest does not change the resolution of the image and therefore does not give better analysis of the objects of interest.”

Rocco Mancinelli, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Astrobiology, called the science and logic “completely flawed,” and said he would recommend it be rejected for publication.

A NASA spokesperson told me “the consensus of the majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life.”

As the article points out, Rhawn Joseph and his cronies have been tainting a scientific subdiscipline for decades, relying on promotion by tabloids to generate the illusion of authority.

Over the last decade, Joseph and JOC have mostly been ignored by NASA and by the scientific community. Very few scientists take the alien fungi claims seriously, but Joseph’s work has been highlighted in UK tabloids, RT and many well-meaning science news sites since February 2019. Some have touted Joseph’s websites as “scientific journals” and even confused Joseph’s vanity website with legitimate, similarly named journals. One painted Joseph as someone trying to “defy the odds.”

And that’s where the danger lies.

Astrobiology, the search for and study of extraterrestrial life, is a serious scientific endeavor. NASA has an astrobiology program, and searching for life is a critical part of its Mars exploration program. And although the public seems resistant to fanciful claims of fungal spores on Mars or lichen on Venus, they haven’t gone away. If anything, social media seems to have made us more gullible. As crank, fringe theories start to gather steam in honest peer-reviewed journals, the public’s perception of astrobiology can quickly be muddied.

Let’s hope this is the end of Joseph and Wickramasinghe.

I doubt that it will be. They’re going to continue to dump junk science into the literature.


  1. madtom1999 says

    I’m not sure how many Gs DNA can cope with but I calculated that to leave Mars surface you would have to be accelerated at 50,000G for 100m. The acceleration is 100 times the acceleration of a pistol bullet. A physicist said the compression of most materials due to the acceleration forces would raise the temperature to several hundred degrees or more. And then it has an atmosphere to go through at each end. And space isn’t exactly radiation free.
    Try as I might I cant think of a way for panspermia to happen without spacecraft being involved. No-one else seems to be able to come up with a sensible one either.

  2. call me mark says

    Even if panspermia is correct (pretty big if) so what? Abiogenesis still had to have happened somewhere. One of Darwin’s “warm little ponds” strikes me as a much more likely somewhere than a comet nucleus.

  3. Matt G says

    Paul Myers? Any relation?

    I love science fiction, but I prefer to not use it as a source for science information.

  4. garnetstar says

    @1, thanks for th physics! I never knew that, but always wondered about the radiation?

    And then, lichen on Venus. That withstands, and can live in, concentrated sulfuric acid rain. Plants on earth curl up their toes and die even with the low-concentration acid rain that we get here. Maybe lichen isn’t a plant, but still.

  5. says

    People love tales of mavericks, of the little guy who gets it right versus the establishment who is totally wrong. They think maybe they can be in the same position someday. It’s also a subset of the “great man” idea of history. Unfortunately this leaves people vulnerable to slick talkers and true believers. Nikola Tesla is a good example of such a figure, especially since he did do pioneering work. Or Linus Pauling. Unfortunately both of them eventually came to believe ideas that haven’t panned out, but because of their other achievements people are unwilling to accept those ideas were wrong.

  6. Rich Woods says

    @madtom1999 #1:

    Try as I might I cant think of a way for panspermia to happen without spacecraft being involved.

    We have found meteorites on Earth which we can be reasonably sure to have come from Mars. However they would have had to have been ejected into space via an impact event on Mars, making it very unlikely that any form of life could survive.

    Of the 266 Martian meterorites currently known, only one appears to have traces which might indicate the existence of life on Mars many millions of years ago. This finding is still controversial.

  7. unclefrogy says

    what gets me about this “theory” of panspermia as well as other pseudoscience
    they all make definitive conclusions without any data. They all seem to skip the part of science of asking questions after formulating the hypothesis. They do not seem to be able to wait for the results nor do the basic “boring grunt work” of testing and research the questions implied and stated in their hypothesis.
    like these look like fungal spores as seen from a really huge distance away so they must be spores instead of asking how can we determine what they are exactly.
    I am reminded of something about a horses mouth I heard long time ago.
    uncle frogy

  8. says

    So, even granting the “there’s mushrooms in those soils” …. why would the panspermoid (heh) response assume the directionality that seems to be taken for granted? Couldn’t Earth be the seeder just as much as the inverse?

  9. sparks says

    @7 Rich Woods:

    Thank you.

    @7 fernado:

    Yes, and they’re all redheads! (Which means I’m all in!) Edgar Rice Burroughs lives!!!

  10. DanDare says

    The old saying “it is written” embodies an old conviction that something gains authority by being written down. A lot of people seem to subscribe to that.

  11. says

    Why do so many people seem to need panspermia to be a thing? I’ve been dissecting the pathways for purines, pyrimidines, and interconnected pathways and there’s nothing in there that hints at extraterrestrial origins of biochemistry from what I can see.

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