Have We Found Alien Life In the Atmosphere Above Chester?

On this day in 1961, Barney and Betty Hill claim that they were abducted by aliens on their way home, something which seems to be largely a product of hypnosis and fantastical thinking taking from episodes of The Outer Limits. But it appears to be the case that others are fancifully doing the same in a “scientific” context.

As is being reported in The Independent, British scientists have used a balloon-based capture system to find life forms in the atmosphere above Chester. Now, plenty of things do live up in the sky, tends of kilometers up, but this particular life form is a diatom, and their weight would make it more difficult for them to stay aloft for a protracted period of time.

Life from beyond this world? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So because the critters cannot stay up in the air on their own, they must be falling in from space, and thus these are alien diatoms! Or so say the researchers. In particular, they launched their balloon on July 31st of this year, timed with a meteor shower; such showers are the left-overs of comet tails, so material on comets would then make up the meteors. And so, the life forms would come from the comets.

And fortunately this has passed peer review in… oh, fuck, Not again. Yeah, this is appearing in the infamous Journal of Cosmology, which every couple of months claims finding alien life based on shoddy evidence and methods.

So, let’s go through their premises again. They authors of the paper (PDF here) say that the trap they devised found this one critter, and it had to come from space. Assuming that these life forms cannot maintain their 27 km altitude, there is an obvious way I can imagine them getting that high up without coming from space: contamination of the trapping device. They said that they cleaned this system with alcohol, but when you are searching for only a single cell, then you have to have levels of cleanliness way higher than this. Otherwise you are just dealing with ground-level biological noise. When we send a probe to space, NASA tries to kill as much bacteria on their machines as possible, especially when it’s being sent to places like Mars, but even so they can’t kill them all. And that makes me cautious to say the least about leftover single-celled organisms in the trap.

Heck, we can’t be sure this isn’t from contamination after the balloon trip. There is not enough information to say they had the protocols in place to guarantee their retrieval of the balloon and the workings of their lab didn’t introduce life forms by accident. Please note, I am claiming nothing about faking results, just accidental contamination.

In another paper in the same issue of the journal (here), the researchers also say they found hints of DNA. They haven’t proven it, so this had two issues

  1. If it has DNA is it probably Earth-based life and thus contamination. Why assume life forms from beyond will have DNA? Since we don’t know life beyond the Earth exists, we don’t have that great of grounds to assume it will have DNA. Let’s do a quick Bayesian analysis: the probability of a contaminating cell from Earth having DNA is 100%; the probability of a life form from beyond Earth having DNA is less than 100%, perhaps significantly lower. Thus, having DNA is evidence against it being space-based life.
  2. If it has DNA, they why not sequence it and see if it is something from the Earth? That is how you would do at most the minimal check that this isn’t local wildlife. Now, even if it comes out as not a known species, it could still be an unknown Earth-based life form. What the researchers need to do before making any announcements is show that this critter has DNA so different from anything else on Earth that it must have had an independent evolutionary history. Humans share a lot of their DNA with plants, so if this cell had, say, only 10% of its DNA coding in common with known life, that would be big news. Otherwise, this is just speculation based on very weak evidence.

But there are other incredible claims here. In the second paper I linked, the researchers said that they knew the cell must have come from a comet in part because it has signs of coming from an aquatic environment. Aquatic, as in water. Liquid water. That is, not a comet. Comets are frozen balls of ice, and coming from the Oort cloud they have not had a history of being close to the Sun at their origin and having a liquid phase for life to evolve and grow. This is just lunacy without the Moon. But I can think of an aquatic environment that has DNA-carrying diatoms: EARTH. Heck, Chester has some nice bodies of water nearby, and diatoms aren’t unheard of in that part of the world. Again, way more likely to be ground- or water-based creatures than space-based.

One of these days, I hope we actually can find life on other worlds. Mars, Europa, Enceladus, Titan; these are great places to look. But this locally? And publishing in his journal? Not likely. I’ll wait until something of this magnitude gets published in Nature or Science. Believe me, if it’s real, these journals will fight to publish it.


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