Invasion of the High-Altitude Alien Algae! Or Not

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Alien discovery stories in the tabloid press are a dime a dozen. Claims of flying saucers, strange lights in the sky and close encounters of the third kind are a main staple for conspiracy theorists. But when a scientist goes on the record to say that he and his team has discovered basic alien lifeforms floating high in the atmosphere over the UK, suddenly there seems to be an air of legitimacy.

Unfortunately, despite all the PhDs and reputable host universities, a recent claim of airborne alien microbes fails on its first challenge — where’s the extraordinary evidence that proves these high-altitude samples came from outer space? Well, there isn’t any.

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The online press is currently getting excited about this claim made by Milton Wainwright, a professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, and his team who flew a high-altitude balloon 17 miles over Chester in northwest England during the Perseid meteor shower on July 31. The balloon was carrying a sample capture system that opened for a few minutes and grabbed any aerosols floating around in the stratosphere.

On returning to Earth, Wainwright’s team (including scientists from Buckingham University) analyzed what was stuck to the sampling apparatus. What they discovered was, according to Wainwright, “revolutionary.”

In a series of papers published in the Journal of Cosmology (yes, the Journal of Cosmology. Alarm bells ringing much?), details of these high-altitude “diatoms” are discussed.

Diatoms are basic forms of algae when found on Earth, but should these basic forms of biology be found hitching a ride on, say, a meteorite, it could signify that life exists beyond Earth and the hypothetical mechanism of panspermia is real. Earlier this year, another group of researchers published their findings (of course, in the Journal of Cosmology) of diatoms hitching a ride inside a freshly fallen meteorite. But, like the atmospheric diatoms described in this research, these meteoric diatoms lacked any skeptical thought.

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However, as Wainwright rightfully says, should diatoms be found to come from outer space, the discovery would “completely change our view of biology and evolution.” And the team of researchers think they have discovered something quite profound.

“Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth,” said Wainwright. “But it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip.

“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.” (Emphasis added.)

So the logic is as follows: We can’t explain it, therefore… aliens.

It’s funny, in the conclusions of the team’s paper, they seem to work through this logical knot, saying: “Of course the standard mode of rebuttal to a space origin for the fragment is to assert that Occam’s razor informs us that there must be a mechanism for lofting particles of this size from Earth to the stratosphere and that our findings are proof of the existence of such an unknown mechanism, the search for which must now begin.”

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This sounds reasonable enough. Barring any contamination of the high-altitude sampling mechanism (which, the researchers claim, isn’t a possibility), these diatoms had to have come from somewhere, so maybe this biological evidence traveled on some previously unknown mechanism from the Earth’s biosphere into a region of the atmosphere that should be lifeless. Unfortunately, this is the only portion of the paper that urges an ounce of skepticism.

As there is no known mechanism that could carry these diatoms to such a high altitude (such as a volcanic eruption, for example), “the diatom fragment … must most plausibly have come from space.” In other words: we don’t know where they came from… therefore, you know… aliens!

Taking a lead from Wainwright’s own advice, Occam’s Razor urges us to look for the simplest explanation (as it’s usually the correct one). The simplest explanation is that life from Earth (as Earth is KNOWN to be abundant in life) somehow found a way into Earth’s stratosphere. The simplest explanation isn’t that life came from deep space — a place that is, according to our current state of knowledge, lifeless.

We know that microscopic lifeforms exist in Earth’s atmosphere at lower altitudes and some forms of airborne fungi are thought to be complicit in cloud formation. But at stratospheric altitudes as sampled by Wainwright’s team, the atmosphere isn’t thought to sustain any kind of life. The diatoms collected by the researchers appear to be fragments of diatoms, so the idea that these diatom traces hitched a ride on the tiny particles of the Perseid meteor shower seems very attractive.

Unfortunately, it’s research like this that will always grab the headlines, despite the fact that it is published in the Journal of Cosmology, a publication with a questionable publishing record. Wainwright’s team may have found evidence of alien biology, but coming to such grand, extraordinary conclusions without the supporting extraordinary evidence and repeated, verified experiments, is a front to the scientific method. This is, apparently, one single flight of a high-altitude balloon over one single location on Earth. To arrive at the “alien conclusion” surely global, repeated tests are needed? And if there were any basis for the claim of a diatomic alien invader, why didn’t a reputable journal pick it up?

Sadly, the Journal of Cosmology will publish it anyway and the mainstream press will report on it.

You can usually write off alien stories like this as 95 percent bunk, but it’s that remaining 5 percent of doubt that keeps them in the headlines.

Image: From the Wainwright’s paper: “A collapsed balloon-like biological entity sampled from the stratosphere. Note the “proboscis” to the left, with nose-like openings and the “sphincter” present at the top of the organism.” OK then! Credit: Journal of Cosmology