Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Storm over Life-on-Comets concept

TV - ITN report, Monday 6th July:  There could be life beneath the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko according to two UK astronomers. Apparently the comet displays characteristics typical of an environment that could support alien life, including a black crust and icy lakes. Rosetta, the European Space Agency [ESA], spacecraft is also said to have picked up clusters of organic material that resemble viral particles.
## And two articles in The Guardian
  Neither Rosetta nor Philae are equipped to search for direct evidence of life after a proposal to include this in the mission was allegedly laughed out of court.

## Then the bloggers got busy:
"This morning, several news outlets gave voice to an extraordinary claim... But extraordinary claims, we all know, require extraordinary evidence. So guess what these morning’s claims were lacking!"

## Storm over the Concept, not the Content
What the paper at the RAS meeting concluded from considering various indications of ice below the dark crust is that the comet would be more hospitable to microorganisms (terrestrial, not 'alien' ones) than the Arctic and Antarctic; I added to this previously-published stratospheric microdust particles which can now be identified with fragments of such a comet’s crust. Surely rather mild claims! 
   The critics attack Press Reports of the RAS press release in their popular, exaggerated language, rather than consider the RAS Abstract and published work linked to it (previous post).  Why such a reaction from people who call themselves scientists, who should be concerned with the concept and evidence, even if poorly presented?  Why do critics use debating strategies and extravagant language, quite non-scientifically ?
  •    The hoary old saying about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence is repeated, yet the evidence comprises some ignored as not fitting mainstream theories and some from samples studied in Cardiff University labs.  The evidence is extraordinary only in the way it’s put together.  No-one was concerned about stratospheric dust containing siliceous fibres until identified as extraterrestrial with silicious spines of diatoms embedded in the matrix.  No-one was really concerned until the tentative identification of microdust particles as bits of cometary crust such as found on comet CG.
  •    No surprise that galaxy-astrophysicist Jillian Scudder failed to recognise potentially “extraordinary evidence”.
  •    The ESA project’s Matt Taylor declares “pure speculation”, yet he’s well aware of the published work and well aware that Rosetta studies have confirmed our concept of a cometary crust of carbonaceous-mineral aggregate. He saw our evidence of comet-like particles containing bio-fibres.  Is he bound by ESA’s decision against seeking evidence of extraterrestrial life (first Guardian article) ?
  •    Sarah Hörst says her research horizon is the ‘origin of life on Earth’.  Have discoveries of the hardiness of microorganisms carried on meteorites from Mars and space passed her by?  Perhaps she's unaware of panspermia studies, showing that viable spores (and DNA) can spread between planets and, on some arguments, spread to the interstellar dust that contributes to new planetary systems?
  •    Monika Grady is well aware of this as a meteoriticist, so she comments more moderately: “highly unlikely”. We await her argument  for saying our stratospheric dust particles are unlikely to come from a comet and/or unlikely to be representative of comet CG’s crust.

Why such unscientific reactions?  Life on other planets and planetary systems is largely accepted amongst the public.  Spores travelling within meteorites to nearby comets and planets are known to potentially survive.  Only the scientific establishment declares panspermia is “extraordinary”, sticking to the old life-began-on-Earth paradigm for the various sociological reasons given by Thomas Kuhn (Structure of Scientific Revolutions).    


  1. bsmith821: Comment to the Guardian's philae-comet-could-be-home-to-alien-life-say-top-scientists

    As NASA has now changed its overall mission tag from "Search for Water" to "Seeking the Signs of Life"; and as missions to Titan, Enceladus, Europa and Mars are planned to "seek for the signs of life", the astrobiologists of this new generation are no longer constrained to seek life just on earth.
    The spread of material from Mars to Earth and back, is proven and accepted; the associated spread of viruses and bacteria, live, dessicated or fossilized, is statistically likely and studied by astrobiologists in Universities around the world. It is now mainstream science, so get over it.
    The Hoyle-Wickramasinghe Model of Panspermia has remained the most likely model for over 40 years and over the last 5 years discoveries in deep earth, deep rock and deep space have increased the likelihood that we will find our "little friends" on most solar system bodies - from Mars, Titan, Europa and Enceladus.
    Comets with their short orbits contained within the inner solar system, (ie short period comets), have likely seen continuous transfer of microbes since "Day 1". Rosetta's Comet 67P is a 8 year orbit comet, so it falls into the category of very likely containing solar system microbes. Personally I am more excited about long period comets like ISON coming in from the Oort Cloud and likely even adjacent stars. There is every possibility they contain new strains of microbes.
    But 67P is "one of ours". So if Rosetta and Philae experiments find "NO" microbes, this will indeed be a major discovery and will be a start of a huge rethink. Even challenging the validity of Panspermia.
    The probability is Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe will be again proven right and their vision acknowledged. Surely, in this birth centennary year of Sir Fred, the champagne will flow at Churchill College, Cambridge University, UK.