The news of the recent experiment by Prof. Milton Wainwright of the University of Sheffield has been making news of late. In case you haven’t read about it, here’s a synopsis of the experiment (from the provided link) and why it has garnered interest:

British astrobiologists are claiming to have found alien life form in the Earth’s stratosphere. They collected a small diatom frustule that could have come from space after sending a balloon to 27 km into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower.

“Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27 km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip,” explained Prof Milton Wainwright from the University of Sheffield, who is a lead author of a paper reporting the discovery in the Journal of Cosmology (full paper).


 The above-mentioned “diatom frustule”image_1393-alien-diatom

I will assume the comment about the volcanism is true, but other articles have mentioned at least one red flag:

The group’s findings were published in the Journal of Cosmology. We should point out, the credibility of the journal has been called into question before. Time magazine in 2011 pointed outthis scientist’s words:

Blogger and biologist P.Z. Myers puts it a little more pithily: the journal is, he writes, “the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics.” Some of the articles that have appeared do nothing to dispel this idea include “The Origin of Eternal Life in the Multiverse” and “Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space.”

The I’ve been on that journal’s website before, and the titles above aren’t made up. The other problem with the journal is that it doesn’t produce articles by blind peer review. Rather, authors of submitted papers themselves submit a list of people whom they presume are qualified to review the paper. It isn’t hard to see the problem with that (“I want my paper published, can I think of five friends with PhDs that like me and my ideas and who will almost certainly approve my paper”). Ouch. That’s really a problem. It tells me that the journal’s creators feared that some papers they’d want to put before the public eye in a presumably academic context might not make it. That isn’t the goal of scholarship (or shouldn’t be).1

From a layman’s perspective, one obvious problem (that may or may not be a real problem – hope someone in the science community asks) with the study is: “How does Wainwright know that his balloon didn’t pick up an organism within earth’s atmosphere on the way up to the 27 km mark?” What I mean here is that, while such particles are “generally accepted” as being incapable of floating up to that height, how do we know it couldn’t have been picked up at a lower height and brought along for the ride? (Or, for that matter, on the way down when the balloon landed). Were there foolproof safeguards against those possibilities?

It’s encouraging that they will seek to repeat the experiment in October to “coincide with the upcoming Haley’s Comet-associated meteorite shower when there will be large amounts of cosmic dust.” Hopefully that will provide the kind of data needed to rule out this layman’s concerns and the concerns of other specialists. Ideally, it would be prudent for them to publish those results under blind peer review.

Finally, note once again how far this is from certainty with respect to panspermia. If you’re finding an organism that isn’t found on earth, how could it have contributed to evolution? Answer: it couldn’t have. But the reasoning extends that other such particles that are traceable to earth by some means came here. In other words, it’s not evidence of panspermia, but it would add coherence to the extrapolation.

  1. For all the haters out there, when I list an article on my own CV under “peer-reviewed,” it’s a journal that has blind peer review – I never know who the reviewers are.