Chandra Wickramasinghe replies…and fails hard

After the public scouring of Wickramasinghe’s claims that he’d found diatoms in a meteorite, the godawful HuffPo has, of course, given him a free and credulous article in which to defend himself. The amazing thing is that even in a puff piece that doesn’t challenge him at all, he shoots himself in the foot.

Plait claims that the diatoms Wickramasinghe found, "a type of algae, microscopic plant life," are simply a freshwater species found on Earth. Wickramasinghe doesn’t deny that the meteorite sample his team studied contains freshwater diatoms.

"But — there are also at least half a dozen species that diatom experts have not been able to identify," Wickramasinghe said.

Boom, we’re done. That is an open admission that his sample is contaminated. It doesn’t matter that some portion of his sample is unidentifiable — and most likely, it’s the stuff he calls ‘filaments’ and ‘red rain cells’ that aren’t even biological … he cannot claim that the only possible source of that material is outer space.

And then there’s this vague bit:

Critics have also asserted that the meteorite in question may not, in fact, be from outer space. Could it simply be an Earth rock?

According to Wickramasinghe, "This was also the guess of the Sri Lankan geologists who first looked at the rock. They had considered the possibility that the rock may be … a rock that was struck by lightning. We examined this possibility and found it to be untenable. From all the evidence we possess (and we are planning to publish this), I personally have no doubt whatsoever that this was a stone that fell from the skies."

So the expert geologists tell him it’s a terrestrial rock, and then declares on the basis of unpublished evidence that he won’t describe that it can’t be. Right. I’m unconvinced. It doesn’t even matter if it is a meteorite or not at this point — it’s contaminated, and he published it as if it were not.

How’s that astrobiology gig working out for you, Dr Wickramasinghe?

Ooops. Hot off the dramatic fizzle of the bacteria in meteorites story comes word that Chandra Wickramasinghe is losing his job and the University of Cardiff is closing their astrobiology center. Not because they oppose his work, of course, but simply because the weird science isn’t cost-effective.

It turns out it was a pretty rinky-tink operation to begin with. All it was was Wickramasinghe, getting paid a part-time salary of $24,000/year, with a little unpaid assistance from other people working at the university. In other words, the Astrobiology Center of the University of Cardiff was Chandra Wickramasinghe sitting at a desk for a few hours a week, writing effusive editorials and essays about the wonderful things astrobiology was discovering. No loss.

I just had an idea for a movie: SQUIDNADO!

I got email this morning…and so did every member of the science & math division at the University of Minnesota, Morris. This happens every once in a while, since our official email addresses are all publicly accessible, and anyone can grab them and spam the heck out of us all. What was unusual is that this email was directly addressed to me, personally, and the sender decided that he needed to put me in my place and flaunt his erudition to every one of my colleagues.

I am unperturbed by his effort, because in every case, without exception, the loon just ends up exposing his inanity. I mean, you’ve got to realize that trying to harass an entire university division is a poor decision in the first place, right? That thinking that most of the faculty are at all interested in your disagreement with me is somewhat delusional? That you’ve immediately put the wrong foot forward by arbitrarily spamming a whole mob of disinterested people with your long-winded and ultimately pathetic excuses?

You should have known that I’d happily post your email to my blog, where people can opt-in and choose to read the whole thing voluntarily. So yes, I include every word of the thing below.

It’s from Ted Steele, who wrote that very silly article, Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?, in which he proposed that squid fell to earth in comets. I laughed at it in my article, Squids from SPAAAAAAAAACE!, and what has irritated him is that my criticisms were picked up by that prestigious newspaper, The Sun, in an article titled ARE YOU SQUIDDING? Are octopuses aliens? Bizarre new theory suggests the sea creatures’ eggs arrived on earth on a comet from outer space. So the real concern is that a bunch of working class blokes are going to be reading their paper down at the pub, looking for topless pics and anti-immigrant rants, and they’re going to stumble across this weird American egghead who thinks Ted Steele is full of crap.

I think he should be more concerned that The Sun finds his work amusing than that I think it’s garbage. But read on. He’s indignant.

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I was reading this article with a provocative title: Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It set my alarm bells ringing from the title onward.

Look at those authors! So many, yet the paper itself is so empty of data. Most I don’t know. Steele I’ve heard of — he was promoting neo-Lamarckism in the 1980s, and thinks the Cambrian explosion was caused by retroviruses squirting new complex genes into the ancestors of all animals. Brig Klyce I’ve bumped into a few times on the internet…he’s a panspermia fanatic. Milton Wainwright is the guy who used an EM to look for odd blobs and declared they are evidence of alien life. The Wallis’s were part of a time that announced that diatoms came from outer space. Oh, and Chandra Wickramasinghe…yes, we have crossed paths multiple times. He published a lot in the Journal of Cosmology, with an editor, Rhawn Joseph, who really, really doesn’t like me.

Wickramasinghe has been making bank on this nonsensical idea that genes for complex intelligent life have periodically rained down on the Earth from outer space. There is no evidence for it, and no reason to invoke this random phenomenon to explain biology — we have random phenomena enough, thank you very much, and none of them have the extreme weirdness of the space virus explanation.

I guess I have heard of quite a few of the authors! And it’s a most unsavory stew of notorious crackpots.

Let’s take a look at the abstract for this gem of a paper, shall we?

We review the salient evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Much of this physical and biological evidence is multifactorial. One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ~500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space. In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion — life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.

It’s a moderately long paper, because it’s really easy to layer on thick coats of bullshit when you don’t care about the quality of the evidence. So I’m just going to look at — can you guess? — his second focus, “the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus”.

It’s garbage.

There are novelties in cephalopod evolution, and I’ve written about them before. In particular, cephalopods carry out a significant amount of gene editing, that is, they use enzymes to modify a few of the bases in RNA before it is translated into protein. This is not a shocking surprise — it’s not a universal modification of every RNA, but it has been observed in phyla all across the animal kingdom — although some gullible sources claim it is a violation of the central dogma (they’re wrong). But the key thing is that it’s not unique to cephalopods, lots of organisms have the enzymes, so you can’t use it as evidence for the claim that gene editing came from outer space.

In particular, there is no reasonable justification for this claim:

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6. Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12e13). Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research e discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years e typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.

We’ve gone from a few viral genes raining down on Earth and getting incorporated into life, to frozen squid eggs drifting from Alpha Centauri to Earth in icy meteors and somehow crashing into our oceans and surviving to populate the seas. I don’t think the authors understand the word “parsimonious”. If this were true, cephalopods would represent an entirely novel lineage, and more than having a few molecular novelties, they would be completely unrelated to any other animal lineage on the planet. They would not be related to other molluscs. They would not be protostomes. They would not be eukaryotes. They would be totally alien.

The authors even seem to be superficially conscious of this problem. Here is the “conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6”.

This diagram is what you get when you pretend that lineages are made solely of apomorphies, or the derived traits that distinguish each species from other organisms, and close your eyes to the plesiomorphies, or shared similarities. A phylogenetic tree is not “forced”, it is produced by identifying shared traits. The octopus has molecular similarities to snails, and the two together have similarities to other invertebrates, and all of them have shared attributes with all animals. You don’t get to just ignore all that! This is equivalent to saying that octopuses have tentacles, therefore octopuses are from outer space, completely neglecting the fact that octopuses have homologous genes linking them to insects and sea cucumbers and people.

To back up the remarkable assertion that cephalopods fell from space, they present no evidence, other than a flurry of citations of … N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s an embarrassingly masturbatory display. Wickramasinghe and his associates have been churning out these useless, garbage papers for decades, and now they use the volume of shit he has produced as evidence that his shit is valid. He occasionally sprinkles in references to other authors, which he gets wrong: Stephen J. Gould would not recognize figure 6 as an accurate representation of punctuated equilibrium. This is not how science is supposed to work. It’s simply fraudulent.

Wickramasinghe used to be associated with Cardiff University — they fired him and closed his astrobiology ‘department’, which turns out to have been a bit of a Potemkin village anyway. It was run entirely by Wickramasinghe as a part-time employee, and the entirety of the staff were “honorary”, unpaid volunteers.

“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.

“All the other staff, totaling about 12, is honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology. “What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally. “We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial. “I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”

Cardiff claims the closure was entirely due to budgetary reasons, but I rather suspect that, contrary to Wickramasinghe’s claim, his slack work and low standards of evidence have frequently brought discredit to the university.

Don’t cry for Chandra, though. He was snapped up by the University of Buckingham to form a “centre for astrobiology”. I think that might mean he was allowed to host a webpage on their site, because he’s never had a real research unit, and I doubt that he’s been given the funds for one now.

But yeah, if you see his name on anything, or apparently any of the names in that long list of articles, you’ve found a treasure trove of pseudoscience.

They had me going for a moment


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.

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Down the rabbit hole with Ken Ham

Ken Ham claims to have been reading the science news. Oh, really?

Sometimes when I read the science news I just have to laugh. It seems that secular scientists are willing to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, rather than admit the truth that they know in their hearts. There is a Creator (Romans 1:20–21). Well, in the news recently there was a story about scientists from the UK who reportedly found a “tiny metal circular object” in Earth’s stratosphere, and they are now “suggesting it might be a micro-organism deliberately sent by extraterrestrials to create life on Earth.”

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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?


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.

Totally unsurprising

Chandra Wickramasinghe is on twitter, trying to defend that awful paper claiming to have found diatoms in a meteorite. When asked why he published in the Journal of Cosmology rather than a more credible journal, he replied “because the conclusion is tentative and awaits peer review. Have patience my dear son.”.

So JoC is unreviewed. Tell me, who is just blown away by that amazing revelation?

Diatoms…iiiiin spaaaaaaaaaaace!

You all know that the Journal of Cosmology is complete crap, right? In addition to some of the worst web design ever — it looks like a drunk clown puked up his fruit loops onto a grid of 1990s-style tables — the content is ridiculous, predictable, and credulous. Their big thing is seeing life in every space rock, or raining down from Mars, or drifting in vast clouds through the galaxy. I’ve criticized their absurd conclusions before, and jumped on the quality of their work, and in return…they photoshopped my face onto a picture of an obese woman in a negligee. Multiple times. That’s the kind of rigorous scientific thinking we’re dealing with here.

Their latest is an article claiming to have found diatoms in a meteorite (pdf). It’s the same ol’, same ol’. They have taken electron micrographs of samples from the rock, and found things that they claim look like organisms, most of which don’t at all.

But this time there’s a twist. They’ve got a picture of something that looks exactly like a diatom. A diatom that is identical to a natural, earthly species of freshwater diatom. Exactly like one. Now you or I, seeing that, would wonder why a space organism (or a Martian organism, or whatever) would evolve to look exactly like a species that evolved in a completely different environment, and how it could have converged in all its details on such remarkable similarity to a specific earthly species. Why, we might even suggest that it clearly looks like contamination. But no, not to the editors and authors at JoC (pronounced as you might expect): no, these are proof of diatoms in spaaaaaaace.

In addition, Phil Plait explains that it probably isn’t even a meteorite — it doesn’t look like a carbonaceous chondrite, and it’s of highly dubious provenance.

Are we done with anything that comes out of the word processor of Wickramasinghe yet? Or at least with anything published in that joke of a journal, the Journal of Cosmology? I am, anyway. I wouldn’t trust anything published in it.

By the way, Greg Laden found that Anthony Watts, the climate change denier, was completely taken in by this crap.

Anthony Watts, the anti-science global warming denailist, was not equipped to recognize this bogus science as bogus. We are not surprised.

Crackpots do tend to hang together.

Wickramasinghe NC, Wallis J, Wallis DH, Samaranayake A (2013) Fossil diatoms in a new carbonaceous meteorite. Journal of Cosmology 21(37).

Speaking of crackpots…

Here’s another one: Lynn Margulis. HIV denial, weird ideas about spirochaetes making sperm tails, dismissing the whole field of population genetics, failing to understand evolution in general…it’s embarrassingly bad. Dr Margulis had a weird idea once about endosymbiosis, and she was right — and now she’s always off gallivanting towards the latest, weirdest, most untenable idea she can find. It’s such a waste.

I think someone should arrange a conversation between Margulis and Wickramasinghe. Their egos will either synergize and produce a spectacular explosion of time-cube level kookiness, or they’ll mutually annihilate each other. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, for the lulz.