Life Found in a Meteorite? Not So Much.

The entire universe in blog form
April 14 2014 11:09 AM

No, Scientists Have NOT Found Life in a Meteorite. Again.

meteorite
Did scientists find living microscopic beasties in this space rock? No. No, they didn't.

Image via World News Daily and, it turns out, the University of Toronto/Ray Jayawardhana

Hey, look! This again. An article claiming scientists have found microscopic life in a meteorite. I’ve been getting emails from folks (mostly via Facebook) asking whether this is real.

OK, let’s put this in context: For as long as humans have looked at the stars, we’ve wondered if there is life in space. Once science and technology caught up with our imagination we started using radio telescopes to listen for alien signals, we built giant telescopes on space and on the ground to search for other planets, and spent billions of dollars sending missions to Mars to looks for signs that there was once water flowing there, and even just the potential for life.

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So if scientists found actual microbes—living bacteria, as claimed in this case—inside a meteorite that fell from space, I think it might make somewhat bigger news than being reported on some random news-like website you saw linked from Facebook.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

And I say "news-like" website because the site in question, World News Daily, is satirical. It has articles with headlines like, “Former Pope Warns of Vatican Alien Agenda” and “Arctic Penguins Now Extinct” (think about it…).

And if the site is being serious, then its scholarly levels make the Daily Mail look like the New York Times.

The article itself is a clever mix of reality and outright crackpottery. It mentions real scientists, like Peter Brown, who is in fact a meteoriticist. The meteorite discussed in the article is claimed to come from a fireball that occurred on March 18, 2014 over southern Ontario; a real event (though, to my knowledge, no meteorites from it have yet been found).

The article also mentions Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator. The quote has a, um, key tell in it:

The general director of NASA, Charles F. Bolden, saluted the discovery and praised the canadian university for it’s exceptional contribution to the world’s astrological knowledge.

Emphasis mine. But I hope you see the point (not to mention the two grammatical errors).

meteorites
Separated at Earth? The claimed Ontarian rock (left), and one found a few years ago in Antarctica (right). Hmmm.

Photo from World News Daily and the University of Toronto/Ray Jayawardhana

Also, on a hunch, I did a reverse image search on Google using the picture of the meteorite shown in the article. It turns out to be one found in Antarctica a few years back. That’s a bit of a walk from Ontario.

So yeah, to be clear: This article is 100 percent bovine excrement, fertilizer, baloney, nonsense, hokum, and fish-wrappery.

Got it?

I can understand it spreading, though, especially on social media. It only takes one person to post about it (either missing the signs it was satire and taking it seriously, or sharing it as a joke) to get things started. People tend not to read past headlines—did you see the NPR April Fools’ Day joke that proved this?—or in general they just skim an article like this. And even if they do a quick check of the facts by, say, looking up the Ontario fireball event or the names of the scientists, they’ll find they’re real (though I suspect the number of people who would go that far is negligible).

Making it worse is that actual scientists have been making similar claims about life in meteorites lately, all of which have been utterly wrong (see Related Posts below for more about them). Those claims were just plain old bad science, but people half-remember them, and so it's no surprise to me that a joke article can wind up getting taken seriously.

Remember folks, put stuff in context! If the news is this big, you would’ve heard about it sooner and in a more reliable venue. And even that doesn’t make it true; you have to do a little work, dig a little deeper, to get to the truth.

Before hitting that button to send something to all your friends, remember: If you care enough to share, you should care enough to beware.

OK, wow, that was an awful aphorism. How about this: Before you share, use a skeptical glare.

Yeah, that’s worse. Whatever. All I ask is that you hesitate a moment before sharing a story like this one so you can think it over. Does it make sense? Is there another place I can look for more info (cough cough)? Is there a chance this is a joke/hoax/fake/wrong?

If you do that, then you’re well on your way to making the world a more real place. And I thank you for it.

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