Have Scientists from Sheffield University Found Life from Outer Space?

A team of scientists from Sheffield University believe that they may have discovered extraterrestrial life. According to this story on MSN News http://news.uk.msn.com/uk/has-life-from-space-just-accidentally-arrived-on-earth/ a group from the University’s department of molecular biology and biotechnology under Professor Milton Wainwright sent a balloon 27 km up into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower. The balloon was launched from Chester and came down near Wakefield. The balloon carried microscope studs, which were set to open between 22 and 27 km above the Earth. To ensure that the results were not contaminated by organisms from the Earth’s surface, the equipment was sterilised before it was launched.

When it returned, it was found that the studs had collected a variety of microscopic organisms. Some were diatoms, a form of algae, along with more unusual life-forms. Prof Wainwright said “It is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere, we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space. Life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here. If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!”

Disease Space

The team’s finding appears to corroborate the highly controversial views of the origin and evolution of life on Earth of the late Sir Fred Hoyle and his colleague, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. Panspermia is the theory that life originated in space and later colonised Earth. It was first put forward in the 19th century by the Swedish astronomer, Svante Aarhenius. In the late 1970s and early ’80s Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote a series of books Lifecloud (London: Dent 1978), Diseases from Space (London: Sphere 1979) and Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent 1981), reviving and expanding the theory. They suggested that not only had life come to Earth from space, but that it was viruses and bacteria continued to arrive from space to infect humans and another creatures here on Earth.

Most controversially, they suggested in the last book that Darwin’s theory of evolution was inadequate to explain the evolution of the Earth’s creatures. They argued that the process of evolution was actually too rapid to be cause by what they viewed as they slow processes of Natural Selection operating on random mutation. They considered instead that evolution was actually driven through viruses and other genetic material entering and mutating terrestrial organisms from space. More speculatively still, they suggested that the seeding of such genetic material on Earth was done deliberately by advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. They suggested that these would artificial, machine intelligences from another cosmos in the multiverse. Their theory that evolution has been consciously directed is extremely similar to Intelligent Design, proposed and supported by the mathematicians and scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe. Most of the supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, and the theory has been severely attacked as a form of Creationism.

Evolution Space

This is not the first time a scientific balloon has returned from the stratosphere containing what was suggested was extraterrestrial microbial life. A few years a balloon sent up by scientists in India returned to Earth with red slime. Like Prof Wainwright, the Indian scientists believed this material had been collected from too high an altitude for it to have come from the Earth. They came to the conclusion that it must therefore have come from space. Fred Hoyle died twenty or so years ago in the 1990s. The media did contact Chandra Wickramasinghe, who was then working at Cardiff University, if I recall correctly. Prof Wickramasinghe was delighted that there was now further evidence to support his and Sir Fred’s theory.

Meanwhile, Prof Wainwright’s team intend to repeat the experiment in October, when there is a meteor shower associated with Halley’s Comet. This will spread further cosmic dust. If the balloon returns again with similar material, it will confirm the team’s theory.

All this is fascinating and highly controversial. I don’t think, however, there’s any remote chance of them finding anything like the horrific extraterrestrial disease in Michael Creighton’s book and film, The Andromeda Strain.

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