The Ancient Alien Question 

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The scientific controversy that is the search for alien life

Philip Coppens


In 2011, many newspapers reported that due to the worsening economy, NASA made several budget cuts; as a result, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) had no funding. Actress Jodi Foster, the star of the movie “Contact”, even stepped in and raised some funding for the illustrious project, so that the search for ET could continue.
It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that the October 2011 issue of the magazine “Popular Science” headlines about alien life: “Why we’re closer than ever to the discovery that will change everything”. Next, it poses the question there has even been an “E.T. on Earth?” So what is going on?

In recent decades, if not years, whenever scientific journals and newspapers touched upon the subject of ET life, it was largely to conclude that the efforts of NASA and other organizations were worthwhile, but highly unlikely to make contact or find evidence. Today, NASA has made changes in its approach and focusses on astrobiology, not radio-astronomy in trying to identify alien life, and that discipline is blossoming within NASA.
In the “Popular Science” article “The Search Is On”, Jennifer Abbasi starts off by noting that astrobiologists are now projecting to find alien life within 15 to 20 years. This hope is based on the findings and statements of the likes of Andrei Finkelstein, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is convinced that life is a cosmic imperative. He has boldly proclaimed: “The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms.” And so, whereas SETI’s budget has been largely annihilated, since 1996, NASA has increased its annual astrobiology budget from 10 to 55 million dollar. It meant that in early 2011, the Kepler space telescope found 1200 new exoplanets, 54 of which are potentially habitable. Equally, NASA is once again focusing on the planet Mars, sending a rover with a mission to search for the chemical signatures of life on our neighboring planet. In 2018, another rover will be sent, to gather soil samples, which will be sent back to Earth. Why? In 1976, when probes landed on the red planet, the scientific instruments on board all suggested that there were no signs of life on the planet. But since, meteorites and a reanalysis of the 1976 data have hinted that life on Mars is likely. NASA is now hoping that the new missions will find corroborating evidence for that possibility.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon

This sudden confidence boost in finding ET is partly due to the discovery of extreme forms of life living on our own planet, from microbes in volcanic calderas to bacteria living in subzero temperatures in methane-rich springs. Soon, Russian scientists will drill in Lake Vostok, which has been isolated for as long as 20 million years under an ice cap, with the distinct hope of finding living conditions on our planet that will teach us many things about life elsewhere in the universe. It also shows that large parts of our own planet still need to be explored for signs of life.
However, astrobiologists have been complaining vociferously that since 1982, there is largely a dogmatic stance of several peer-reviewed publications, many of these refusing to publish anything that suggests life originates not on our planet, but has come here from elsewhere in the universe. They argue their position has now been proven to be true, but they cannot reach the masses because of this stance. And science’s reluctance to discuss alien life is also apparent in the very next article in “Popular Science”, which details the story of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who in December 2010 presented her findings of bacteria that subsist on arsenic from Mono Lake (California) at a NASA press conference. Writer Tom Clynes says the announcement “jolted” the scientific community, for if confirmed, a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth had been discovered. Mono Lake would become the first location where “alien life” had been found.
Within days, however, Wolfe-Simon’s announcement was attacked by fellow scientists, her detractors using blogs and Twitter, before the controversy reached the mainstream media, with some scientists trying to destroy the finding by labeling Wolfe-Simon and her team “bad scientists”, another calling her work “science fiction”. The discovery showed that the academic world was not ready to accept this extraordinary finding and as usual took to character assassination.

What was all the fuss about? In 2009, Wolfe-Simon had visited Mono Lake as a result of a series of theoretical models about the possibility that maybe there existed life not based on phosphorus, on which all life on planet earth was apparently based. When she took samples from the lake back to her laboratory, six trials showed that a microbe was able to survive and reproduce using arsenic. The next question was how, as most scientists had declared this to be impossible. Further analysis revealed that arsenic was indeed not just present, but seemed to be the engine responsible for the growth. Backed by more than a dozen scientists, Wolfe-Simon felt there was enough evidence to publish her initial findings and submitted her paper for publication in “Science”. That is when the controversy began...
Though Wolfe-Simon did not work for NASA, NASA decided to organize a major press conference for December 2, 2010, at which they would announce the findings of her research. The December press release had been the first big statement NASA had done since 1996, when President Clinton had personally announced the findings of life in a Martian meteorite. But in subsequent months, various scientists argued that NASA had not found evidence of alien life. To this day, many still believe this is where the debate currently stands. David McKay, principally involved in the 1996 Mars meteorite saga, states that the media “jumped on every sensational criticism of our story, and what people are left with is that ‘life on Mars’ has been disproved – even though a lot of what supposedly disproved our theory has itself been disproved.”

Mono Lake

NASA hoped that the December 2010 announcement would not meet with the same results and it rolled out a number of big-wig NASA employees to corroborate Wolfe-Simon's findings. Mary Voytek, NASA’s director of the astrobiology program stated that science textbooks might have to be written, while Edward Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said: “The definition of life has just expanded.” At the press conference, Wolfe-Simon herself announced that “We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe.” Shortly afterwards, she made it into the Time 100 list for 2010, showing how how the important the media felt this announcement to be.
But soon, the scenario of 1996 was repeated. Spearheading the critics this time was Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia. She made ad-hominem attacks, questioning the motivations of Wolfe-Simon, her co-authors, NASA and science, stating: “I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.” Of course, it is not an agenda, but scientific findings, which Redfield was simply unwilling to accept for what they are.
All the controversy made life extremely hard for Wolfe-Simon, who for several months decided not to speak to the media, as it would continue to create a controversy she did not want. The controversy also endangered her own further investigations. For even though NASA is funding her research till 2013, Wolfe-Simon currently has no home for her work because the laboratory that took her on, evicted her, for unspecified reasons, but likely to do with the fact that they do not want a controversial scientist in their corridors.

Wolfe-Simons’ story shows that today, science continues to refuse to address the issue of extraterrestrial life. When evidence for it is released by some of the biggest authorities in the world, science ridicules NASA by claiming they have “an agenda” and every scientist that finds evidence in support of it, is either derailed or, if the news does get out, ridiculed. But despite being at the centre of a controversy, Wolfe-Simon herself is confident that she will win. In “Popular Science”, she concludes the interview by stating that “I know there will come a day when [my niece] will ask me two questions: Are we alone? And how did we get here? These are things that humans have been asking for a long time. And right now, we don’t know the answers.” Right now, we need to seek for answers.