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Jerry van Andel sat abandoned on the bow of the RV Lulu, a amphibian junkyard of a ship, as it bobbed adjoin the after-effects of the Pacific Ocean. Beyond deck, a aggregation of scientists bustled about a bassinet abounding of aberrant activity forms, broken from a boss able in the Earth, 10,000 anxiety beneath the ocean’s surface.
It was a momentous haul, but van Andel, an active Dutch oceanographer from Stanford University, wasn’t dancing about the acquisition with the blow of the team. He was abysmal in thought, propped up on the ballast windlass. A shipmate, John Porteus, noticed and abashed over.
“What’s up?” Porteus asked.
“They don’t apprehend what we’ve discovered,” van Andel replied.
It was 1977. Scientists had aloof empiric life, thriving, in an amphibian backbone at the basal of the sea for the aboriginal time. They accustomed a desert; they begin an oasis. Camp angle swam through aphotic smoke billowing out of bedrock chimneys. Mollusks clung to hydrothermal vents and adorable breach worms — 6-foot-tall tubes adorned with blood-red agglomeration — affected in the current.
The RV Lulu’s mission independent no biologists. It wasn’t advised to attending for activity in the ocean depths. But advisers begin it anyway. Subsisting on a diet of baneful hydrogen sulfide in absolute darkness,under bone-crushing pressure, the abode was absolutely alive. As the brazier of specimens was aloft to the surface, van Andel anon grasped the acceptation of the find: The analogue of “life” was actuality rewritten.
Riftia pachyptila, the tube bastard credible at the basal of the ocean.
The assay had abstruse impacts on scientists’ compassionate not alone of activity on our planet, but of the abeyant for activity abroad in the solar system. If activity could advance 10,000 anxiety beneath the sea, again conceivably it could advance on added planets, too. Planets like Mars.
It seems absurd the Martian surface, credible to the acerbity of space, could accommodate annihilation but the apparitional charcoal of existence. The planet is too dry. Too cold. But abounding accept that not alone does activity abide on Mars, but NASA has already credible it.
In 1976, a year above-mentioned to the RV Lulu’s assay 10,000 meters beneath the sea, NASA landed two beetle-shaped spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, on the credible of Mars. It was the aboriginal time the bureau had accomplished the credible of the red planet. The landers were interplanetary laboratories, accustomed a apartment of instruments able of audition life. Alone a few weeks afterwards affecting down, Viking started assuming biological abstracts with clay samples from the surface. The aboriginal after-effects that trickled aback to Earth were astounding: positive.
Life on addition planet.
But was it really?
Staring at a ablaze TV adviser central NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gilbert Levin waited nervously with his assistant Patricia Straat as abstracts from beyond the creation trickled in. It was the night of July 30, 1976, and Levin, a 52-year-old accessible bloom architect with a agog absorption in microorganisms, was accepting after-effects from an agreement that had taken abode over 200 actor kilometers abroad on the credible of Mars.
Ron Levin pointing at a anew appear angel from Viking on a adviser from the assay aggregation allowance at JPL.
Inside a babyish alcove on the metal bark of Viking 1, a clay sample was actuality advised for signs of radioactivity. The test, accustomed as the Labeled Absolution experiment, was advised to booty Martian clay and aerosol it with a soup of radioactive nutrients. If there were bacilli in the soil, they would absorb up the soup and absolution it into the alcove as a radioactive gas — a acknowledgment that could be detected by instruments onboard Viking and, theoretically, prove that activity existed on Mars.
On the night of the experiment, Levin’s son, Ron, was stationed one attic beneath the assay aggregation at JPL. He apprenticed his face up to a artificial window, watching abstracts from the mission actuality printed assimilate fanfold cardboard as Viking boring beatific after-effects home. He could see, through the window, signs of a absolute detection.
He bound ran admiral to acquaint his dad and the assay team. Their astriction dissipated. At about 9 p.m., the aboriginal abounding readout had been delivered to the lab, assuming a aciculate ambit on the graph. It was the aboriginal assurance activity ability abide abroad in the cosmos.
“I was so aflame I beatific out for albino and a cigar,” Levin, now 96, recalls.
Additional abstracts were appropriate to affirm what the LR agreement was seeing. A anniversary later, Levin ordered a added sample to be taken and acrimonious to 160 degrees centigrade — killing any bacilli that ability be in the clay — and again advised with the radioactive soup. This time the readout showed nothing, as expected.
“The pre-mission acceptance for activity apprehension had been satisfied,” Ron says. “Dad begin microbial activity in the clay of Mars.”
In total, Viking performed nine tests, and all appeared to point to the aforementioned conclusion. But the action was short-lived. Addition agreement on the lander bootless to ascertain amoebic molecules all-important for life, arch NASA scientists to accept the LR agreement had detected an conflicting actinic acknowledgment demography abode in the soil.
“They absitively our agreement was wrong,” Gilbert Levin says.
Rhawn Gabriel Joseph believes the LR agreement was right.
Joseph is an bewilderment captivated in a riddle captivated in a shirt afar to his stomach. He is, according to his autobiography, a acclaimed and acclaimed neurobiologist. He enjoys the ocean, walking forth the bank and hiking. His self-published accessories altercate activity has been begin on Mars and Venus, and bear an addition appearance of life’s beginnings.
That approach is “panspermia.” It holds that activity aboriginal arose in amplitude and that planets in the solar arrangement were “seeded” with bacilli agitated beyond the creation by dust, meteors and debris.
“Panspermia is one of those things area all the biologists are saying, ‘Maybe it could accept happened, but we don’t accept any affirmation for it’,” says Paul Myers, a adorning biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Myers has refuted the approach in the past, arch to clashes with Joseph and his colleagues, a accumulation he calls “the panspermia mafia.”
Two of panspermia’s bigger proponents are acclaimed astronomer Fred Hoyle, who died in 2001, and his protege Chandra Wickramasinghe. Hoyle helped break “stellar nucleosynthesis,” a action that occurs in stars to accomplish all the actinic elements in the creation and, in accord with Wickramasinghe, the brace credible the amoebic actual that makes up catholic dust. However, in the closing genitalia of their careers, the two accept fabricated arguable claims with little affirmation to aback them up, including the abstraction that viruses, like the flu and coronavirus, appear from space.
Myers says the bookish full-blooded of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe gave panspermia an air of believability in the 1970s, allowance the brace popularize it as a apostate appearance of the origins of life. But the approach has served as a ablution pad for nonsensical, pseudoscientific theories — including Joseph’s acceptance that Mars is abounding of mushrooms, fungi and lichen.
Wickramasinghe charcoal the asperse of panspermia, continuing to broadcast on the approach in books and his own journals. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph is the beneficiary apparent.
Fred Hoyle (left), Chandra Wickramasinghe (center) and Lee Spetner with a account of the deposit Archaeopteryx, which they afield claimed was a fake.
Most of what I apperceive about Joseph comes via his website, brainmind.com. The armpit anon invokes the spirit of addition acclaimed Joseph — the Tiger King, Joseph Maldonado-Passage — with photoshopped images of Rhawn assuming in advanced of a ablaze augment billow account a novel, atramentous beard aloof aloft his head, chest beard peeking out from a babyish dejected shirt. The armpit feels like it hasn’t been adapted aback the ’90s, a far cry from the wall-of-text class vitaes about associated with academics and researchers.
It includes a 2,000-word adventures area Joseph capacity his adolescence and interests growing up, including the “profound impression” that a decapitated chicken, active to and fro, fabricated on him aback he was a toddler. Addition adventure recounts his aboriginal affectionate experience, at age 13, with his “deliciously lovely, long-legged” neighbor, a woman he says he gazed at “like a athirst bobcat staring at steak.”
These camp asides accomplish way for bookish credentials, answer Joseph’s aboriginal activity as a neuroscientist in the 1970s aback he fabricated “major discoveries” in the field, afore pivoting to his accustomed quest, gluttonous the origins of life. In 2009, he founded his own journal, the Account of Cosmology (JOC), and, he claims, by 2011 it was “the best read, best talked about accurate account in the world.”
But JOC isn’t absolutely a journal, it’s a website. Its believability has been commonly alleged into catechism by adolescent academics and it’s served as a breastwork for binding accurate behavior promulgated by a assembly of apostate advisers aback inception. In one instance, it appear claims by ex-NASA scientist Richard Hoover that anachronistic bacteria, built-in in space, were credible in meteorites on Earth. NASA attempt bottomward the artificial claims, advertence they hadn’t been thoroughly advised by experts, and they were broadly rebuked by the astrobiological community.
A screengrab of Rhawn Joseph’s website, brainmind.com, on June 29.
Joseph’s own arguable claims about activity on Mars accept alone occasionally been mentioned in the boilerplate columnist and, mostly, accept been met with suspicion. The best high-profile of these came in February 2014, aback he filed a accusation adjoin NASA acute the bureau to appraise a “putative biological organism” apparent in images beamed aback from Mars by the Opportunity rover. The “organism” was afterwards accustomed to be a rock.
Since then, Joseph has rarely been heard from. Outside of a now-defunct YouTube channel, which accumulated millions of angle on its videos about age-old history, conflicting activity and war atrocities, he maintains no amusing media accounts. He is not affiliated with any accurate institutions or universities bar the “Brain Assay Laboratory,” which he accustomed himself in 1986, and “Astrobiology Associates of Northern California San Francisco.” Neither accept an online attendance or a concrete abode and Joseph’s name appears alone four times in PubMed, an online athenaeum of assay affidavit maintained by the National Institutes of Bloom — all afore 1989. His bookish accreditation anemic in allegory to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe.
Joseph charcoal a abstruse figure, the airy prince of a broken-down kingdom. And while his advancing angle of the creation accept mostly been abandoned by NASA and the added accurate community, he’s afresh claimed a breakthrough.
The aboriginal alternation I had with Rhawn Gabriel Joseph was via an email beatific to journalists on April 11 of this year. The accountable band was eyebrow-raising: “Life on Mars appear by Nature/Springer.” Attached to the email was a 50-page certificate claiming affirmation acerb supports the abstraction “mushrooms, algae, lichens, fungi and accompanying organisms” are present on the Martian surface.
It independent 13 images, acquired by NASA’s Opportunity departer during its time in Eagle Crater. These predominantly featured zoomed and circumscribed images of Martian “blueberries,” all-around rocks composed of hematite, a mineral fabricated of oxygen and iron. The assize “refuted” the angle that these sphericules are hematite and instead posited they may be photosynthesizing augment colonies.
The “blueberries” credible by Opportunity Departer in April, 2004. The blueberries are fabricated of hematite, a accustomed adamant oxide mineral.
The amazing claims were accustomed for advertisement and set to appear in a respected, long-running journal, accustomed as Astrophysics & Amplitude Science. Accessories submitted to the account abide associate review, a action acceptance added scientists to anonymously appraise and validate the research.
After I aloft questions about the accuracy of Joseph’s assay with Jeremy Mould, the editor in arch of Astrophysics & Amplitude Science, a agent for the account accustomed it had advised the associate assay action and “revealed apropos over its robustness.” Further associate reviews were ordered, but Joseph withdrew the commodity from consideration, claiming the publishers had caved in to “pressure from NASA.” A anniversary later, he absitively to self-publish on addition website of his, accustomed as “Astrophysics and Amplitude Science Reviews,” a name eerily agnate to the Springer Nature journal.
How Joseph’s allotment abashed accomplished the associate assay action and was accustomed for advertisement charcoal a mystery. The action usually weeds out these absolutely non-scientific claims. Added astronomers and astrobiologists who advised the assay deeply rebuked its conclusions, citation poor alignment and analysis.
Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University in Australia, said “there’s some appealing abhorrent over-interpretation of bleared photos,” while Gretchen Benedix, a geophysicist at Curtin University in Australia, acclaimed “increasing angel sizes to investigate the altar of absorption does not change the resolution of the angel and accordingly does not accord bigger assay of the altar of interest.”
Rocco Mancinelli, the editor in arch of the International Account of Astrobiology, alleged the science and argumentation “completely flawed,” and said he would acclaim it be alone for publication.
A NASA agent told me “the accord of the majority of the accurate association is that accustomed altitude on the credible of Mars are not acceptable for aqueous baptize or circuitous life.”
The Martian augment antecedent fell apart. But six months earlier, Joseph’s theories of interplanetary fungi had already fabricated it to the big leagues.
In November 2019, Astrophysics & Amplitude Science appear Joseph’s paper, blue-blooded “Life on Venus and the interplanetary alteration of biota from Earth.”
The 18-page certificate proposes that Russia’s Venera 13 lander, which spent 127 account on the credible of Venus in 1982 afore accedence to acute heat, had photographed images of bacilli akin lichen and fungi. Like his Mars work, Joseph’s assay provides “evidence” of activity via chapped agenda images stretched, circumscribed and zoomed to oblivion, but addendum “similarities in analysis are not affidavit of life.”
It’s the aboriginal and alone archetype of a cardboard by Joseph to be appear in a legitimate, peer-reviewed account in the aftermost decade. But afterward the altercation over the Mars paper, Joseph asked Astrophysics & Amplitude Science to abjure his Venus assay and acquittance all advertisement costs, claiming that it publishes “fake articles.” Afterwards I aloft questions about the paper, Springer Nature said the Venus cardboard “will be anxiously advised afterward publishing best practice.” It’s still accessible online and has been cited in at atomic one added accurate cardboard in a key amplitude science journal. On June 23, afterwards adopting added questions about the paper, an editor’s agenda was added.
I feel like these guys accept aloof berserk the accomplished field.
Over the aftermost decade, Joseph and JOC accept mostly been abandoned by NASA and by the accurate community. Very few scientists booty the conflicting fungi claims seriously, but Joseph’s assignment has been accent in UK tabloids, RT and abounding well-meaning science account sites aback February 2019. Some accept accustomed Joseph’s websites as “scientific journals” and alike abashed Joseph’s vanity website with legitimate, analogously called journals. One corrective Joseph as addition aggravating to “defy the odds.”
And that’s area the crisis lies.
Astrobiology, the chase for and abstraction of exoteric life, is a austere accurate endeavor. NASA has an astrobiology program, and analytic for activity is a analytical allotment of its Mars analysis program. And although the accessible seems aggressive to absurd claims of fungal spores on Mars or lichen on Venus, they haven’t gone away. If anything, amusing media seems to accept fabricated us added gullible. As crank, binding theories alpha to accumulate beef in honest peer-reviewed journals, the public’s acumen of astrobiology can bound be muddied.
“I feel like these guys accept aloof berserk the accomplished field,” says Myers.
Gil Levin, the scientist on Viking’s LR experiment, feels similarly. He appear in Joseph’s JOC in 2010 and has a history with Joseph, who nominated the assignment for a Nobel prize. But in contempo years, Levin has distanced himself. “He got to be so aberrant that I was abashed to be associated with his work,” he says.
Joseph maintains that NASA has been infiltrated and is “controlled by religious fanatics” against to analytic for exoteric life. He claims he has concluded his career “by advertent and documenting the accessible affirmation of activity on Mars” and says he can alone delay for China to investigate the planet because NASA will “never acquaint the truth.”
An angel taken by the Venera 13 lander from the credible of Venus.
Luther Beegle, a all-embracing scientist at NASA’s JPL, believes the accuracy is simple: Viking didn’t acquisition activity on Mars. But he does say there’s an altercation to be fabricated that NASA got the adjustment of the abstracts all wrong.
“They did Viking and got a agglomeration of after-effects they didn’t understand,” says Beegle. He explains how Viking was advised as a assay agreement — but the amplitude bureau didn’t accept a close compassionate of the Martian clay or atmosphere. It should accept done cartography and allure first. The cryptic after-effects from Viking’s LR agreement had a ample appulse on NASA’s analysis the red planet.
That basically chock-full the accomplished Mars affairs for 20 years.
Beegle is allotment of JPL’s science analysis and has overseen assignment performed by the Curiosity departer aback it accustomed on Mars in 2012. The abutting Mars mission will see him become a modern-day Arthur Conan Doyle — alone his Sherlock Holmes is a 10-pound apparatus army on the automatic arm of Perseverance, NASA’s next-gen Mars rover.
“Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals” or Sherloc, as the apparatus is affectionately known, will chase for signs of activity on the red planet, about 50 years afterwards Viking’s aboriginal experiments, aback it launches to Mars in July. The instrument, and its accompaniment camera (nicknamed Watson), is able of demography diminutive images of Mars and allegory them. Equipped with a laser it can blaze at the surface, Sherloc is able to admeasurement chemicals present in the clay and bedrock application a address accustomed as spectroscopy.
“We do two types of spectroscopy application the aforementioned laser,” Beegle explains. “The aboriginal spectroscopy is Raman spectroscopy, area we get atomic fingerprints.”
The Raman spectrometer is able to ascertain molecules like salts, hydrocarbons and alike nucleotides — the actinic compounds that anatomy RNA and DNA. The added spectrometer detects fluorescence and, Beegle says, is advised to attending primarily for ambrosial organics, awful abiding molecules accustomed to be important in biochemical processes.
If activity did abide on Mars, Perseverance should be able to acquisition it.
Perseverance above-mentioned to barrage at NASA’s JPL
In February 2021, the departer is appointed to blow bottomward in Jezero Crater, a arena that was already the armpit of a abiding Martian lake. It contains layers of debris that may authority the clue signs that activity already thrived there. Sherloc will map the credible of the atrium at the diminutive level, inch by inch, and the abstracts it gathers will accommodate a window into the past.
And Perseverance is tasked with the aboriginal date of a sample accretion mission. The departer is accustomed to booty amount samples of the Martian clay during its time at the surface. “We’re activity to put them in sample tubes to allowance them up, and again we’re activity to leave them on the surface,” Beegle notes.
In 2026, a sample-return mission will barrage with the aim of nabbing the alone samples and agreement them on a rocket to Martian apogee and eventually aback to Earth.
The actuality of abyssal breach worms was extraordinary afore van Andel and a aggregation of undersea campaign credible them, acceptable in the balmy amnion of Earth’s hydrothermal aperture system.
And while seeing them advancing at the basal of the ocean is affirmation abundant of the array of means activity can exist, what makes the worms absolutely arresting is airy to the animal eye.
The worms accept no aperture and no gut. They can’t coursing for food. Instead, as Colleen Cavanaugh credible in 1981, trillions of bacilli abide their bodies, converting hydrogen sulfide and oxygen into energy, a action accustomed as “chemosynthesis.” The worms depend on the bacilli to survive.
The assay of chemosynthesis in the breach bastard helped change our perceptions of not aloof the ocean floor, but the creation itself. A 2017 Nature cardboard declared microfossils, up to 4.3 billion years old, present in debris from age-old hydrothermal vents. If bacilli did appear and survive beneath such conditions, why couldn’t they accept done so beneath the credible of Mars? Or in the abysm beneath the icy carapace of Jupiter’s moon Europa? Conceivably activity could alike booty advantage of the hydrocarbon lakes present on the credible of Titan. Those theories are yet to be anxiously tested.
We begin activity advancing in places we never accustomed about 50 years ago. We can still be surprised. So we can’t, and shouldn’t, address off the approach of panspermia outright. We can’t put a band through the abstraction that activity is ambuscade beneath Mars’ arid exterior. The affirmation suggests it’s awful unlikely, but we can’t be certain.
On the added hand, acceptance discredited and alien claims of mushrooms on Mars or fungi on Venus to be appear in accepted bookish journals puts us on a glace slope. Misinformation spreads bound and easily. It can actively abuse honest, rational astrobiology research.
There is no NASA conspiracy. We landed on the moon. The Earth is not flat. Coronavirus didn’t appear from alien space. There are no fungi on Venus.
And Mars is not home to mushrooms.
Originally appear June 30
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