Fossil Diatoms Found in a Meteorite? Really?

In their recent paper, N. C. Wickramasinghe, J. Wallis, D.H. Wallis and Anil Samaranayake claims that fossil diatoms were found in a new carbonaceous meteorite. (Diatoms are group of algae: most are unicellular, although they can exist as colonies.)

One of the diatoms found in the speciman. The scale bar is 30 microns, about one-third the width of a human hair.Image credit: N. C. Wickramasinghe et al.

One of the diatoms found in the specimen. The scale bar is 30 microns, about one-third the width of a human hair.
Image credit: N. C. Wickramasinghe et al.

Paper’s abstract:
“We report the discovery for the first time of diatom frustules in a carbonaceous meteorite that fell in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012. Contamination is excluded by the circumstance that the elemental abundances within the structures match closely with those of the surrounding matrix. There is also evidence of structures morphologically similar to red rain cells that may have contributed to the episode of red rain that followed within days of the meteorite fall. The new data on “fossil” diatoms provide strong evidence to support the theory of cometary panspermia.”

Original work here: http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC21/PolonnaruwaRRRR.pdf

So yesterday, I’ve read very interesting article by Phil Plait (aka. “Bad Astronomer“), in which he debunkes the claim by a very reasonable logic.

As Phil Plait sums in his article the claim from the paper:

“A brilliant meteor was seen over Sri Lanka in December 2012. Meteorites from the fall were found and sent to a lab for analysis. When examined under a microscope, clear evidence of diatoms was found. They are fossilized, which means they aren’t ones from Earth that somehow got into the meteorite after it fell. Therefore, this is evidence of life in space.”

Why is the paper and presented claims wrong?

1. The Journal of Cosmology under which was the paper published is an online site that claims to be peer reviewed. Nevertheless, Phil Plait says that the papers it publishes are not always of the best quality.

The lead author of the original study is N. C. Wickramasinghe who is a zealous proponent of the idea of panspermia. Also “he attributes everything to life in space. He’s said that the flu comes from space. He’s said SARS comes from space. He’s claimed living cells found in the stratosphere come from space.”

This argumentation itself doesn’t mean that the whole claim of the authors must wrong but it tells us the credibility of the lead author and The Journal of Cosmology (or quality of their peer reviews, maybe?).

2. Although in the photo are indeed diatoms, they’re in great shape and there is no sign that they are fossilized. So the rock was probably contaminated by water and “all the diatoms shown in the paper are from known species on Earth.

An expert on this topic Kociolek (and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology) points out, the authors made some really basic errors in identification and didn’t recognize these specimens as Earth diatoms. “

3. The authors claim that one of them found a meteorite from the Srí Lanka event and sent it to Wickramasinghe for analysis. However in their study, there are no information, as exact location, surrounding environment or how they prevented sample’s contamination, present. Also how do they know for sure that the “meteor” was from that particular sighting? “They do present a chemical analysis and claim it’s a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite However, their analysis doesn’t prove it’s a carbonaceous chondrite, let alone a meteorite. There’s no reason to trust that what they have is a meteorite.” 

Moreover, astronomer Phil Plait writes in his article that it doesn’t look like a meteorite to him (and he owns several meteorites!). Instead, he’s guessing that this piece of rock is just  some rock from a river bed or other similar location.                                                                   (Personally, I’ve seen various types of meteors (from photos) and it really doesn’t look like any of them.)

I should point out here that Phil Plait is no big opponent of life in space idea. He just wants the science to be done properly. He says:

“I do think there is life in space, or at least that’s the way to bet. We know there are billions of planets in our galaxy, and we know life on Earth arose almost as soon as conditions on our newly-formed planet were right for it. So I’m confident that, statistically speaking, there is life on other planets, at the very least “primitive” life such as one-celled plants.”

However, the idea of life in space must be solved with careful scientific processes. “Flamboyant articles with grand conclusions based on questionably-conducted research and incomplete reporting are not the right way to go about this.

Read another post on this topic by PZ Myers:
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/01/16/diatomsiiiiin-spaaaaaaaaaaace/

and another one by Greg Laden:
http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/17/greg-laden-liar/

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatom
http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/15/life_in_a_meteorite_claims_by_n_c_wickramasinghe_of_diatoms_in_a_meteorite.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_Wickramasinghe#Detection_of_living_cells_in_the_stratosphere
http://www.panspermia.org/panfluenza.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2931246.stm

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About ~ wolfrayetstar

Science enthusiast and visual artist - hobbyist. Begginer in astrophotography and huge fan of nerdy jokes.
This entry was posted in Discoveries, Researches and Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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