September 2, 2014

12.03.11: Attack (on the) Cyanobacteria?

Our x1023 Grandparents? (Credit: Richard B. Hoover, MSFC, Journal of Cosmology). 

This sunny weekend, we’d like to give some thought to the news story that erupted last weekend. Unless you’ve been off world, you’ve no doubt heard that researcher Richard B. Hoover of NASA’s/Marshall Space Flight Center released a paper via the Journal of Cosmology indicating the possible presence of fossilized cyanobacteria in certain types of carbonaceous meteorites. This is a similar sort of release akin to the arsenic life controversy late last year and the Mars meteorite claim of the 90’s. A backlash ensued, as science bloggers lined up to take their shot at the JoC and the research within. Granted, it’s an extreme claim, which we have to remember demands extreme evidence. But the idea of panspermia or the transfer of organic material via asteroids or comets isn’t a farfetched one. Perhaps, as the intro to the old Battlestar Galactica series goes, life here did indeed begin “out there…” I think that part of the skepticism that’s at least partially warranted is the fact that the whole thing has a sort of “basement scientist working in a vacuum” feel to it; modern science is collaborative, but that doesn’t mean that the claim should be dismissed as out of hand. Perhaps early life got a kick start on a lower gravity environment such as Mars or Europa and found its way here; if the battle scarred face of our Moon is any indicator, we obviously underwent a huge bombardment in our early history, and something had to bring us all that water… the idea is tantalizing.

So, what’s the take away thought? Chalk this one up in the “interesting, deserves further study.” catagory. I would read the direct report first before delving into the rebukes… certainly, this is a cue that we should, at very least, continue to turn over stones looking for life, on Earth, in our solar system, and further afield.   This is science at its best, which sometimes means a long row of peer review, analysis, and further study, pepered these days with an occassional ad hominem e-mail or tweet… expect to see astrobiology come into its own as a field of study in coming years.  

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