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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May Be Alien Bacteria

Air Date: Week of March 11, 2011

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Neil deGrasse Tyson with the tools of his trade. (Photo by David Gamble, 2008 courtesy of the Hayden Plaentarium.)

A NASA scientist claims to have found alien microcrobial life in a meteor that landed on Earth. But director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson is skeptical of the science. He tells host Bruce Gellerman, his concerns with the research as well as his concerns about funding to continue the exploration of space.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Little green men they're not, but according to a top NASA scientist, the marks on some rare meteorites are fossil evidence of extraterrestrial life. But the U. S. space agency quickly distanced itself from the announcement, and the claim was disputed by some scientists.

Well, when things turn ET, we don't phone home”¦we call astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Hi Dr. T!

DeGRASSE TYSON: Well, thanks for having me back on!

GELLERMAN: So this wasn't just any NASA scientist - this was a senior astrobiologist Richard Hoover who claims that he found fossil evidence in a meteorite that was found in 1800-and-something in France.

DeGRASSE TYSON: Okay, so here's the problem. The problem is not that he didn't find these little creature-looking-things that he said he found - that's not the issue here. The issue is whether these creatures have an origin that is extraterrestrial, or whether it is in fact a contamination from Earth organisms after the asteroid had landed.

To a biologist - to mainstream biologists - he has not convinced anyone that his creatures are of extraterrestrial origin. Microbial life is not out of the question. It, in fact, is considered more likely than any other kind. So that's not the issue - can you convince me of this extraordinary result? Well I need extraordinary evidence in support of this extraordinary result. And in spite of the attempts of the author, it was not successfully placed in a mainstream journal.

GELLERMAN: So this one was published in the Journal of Cosmology - I guess it's an online journal”¦

DeGRASSE TYSON: It's an online journal - nothing in principle wrong with an online journal - except that this paper was originally submitted to more reputable journals, print journals, and was not accepted at the peer-review level. Not all journals are created equal. And by the way, this particular journal has published other papers that were, sort of, charitable to the idea that life.. the panspermia idea, that life may have started somewhere else, traveled through space, and then landed on Earth.

GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Tyson, would you be surprised if there was fossil evidence of extraterrestrial life, or if there wasn't evidence of extraterrestrial life?


Neil deGrasse Tyson with the tools of his trade. (David Gamble, 2008 courtesy of the Hayden Plaentarium.)

DeGRASSE TYSON: Anyone who's studied the size of the universe and how long the universe has been around and the richness of the chemistry that pervades all star systems - no one is denying the likelihood of there being life, especially of a microbial nature. You may remember in the 1990s, there was a report of possible life found on a Mars meteorite.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, President Clinton got on the White House lawn and he said, ”˜You know, this may be life from outer space.'

DeGRASSE TYSON: You remember that! And that may have been the first time the President got involved in a NASA press release. That research paper survived peer-review at the time and was published in the American Journal of Science. The lead author is still on board with his original results. And I've read the critiques of it, so the critiques are strong - they're not completely airtight, but they're strong. And so I would say that - last I had checked and followed this - that the jury is still out.

GELLERMAN: Well, we know for sure there is life in outer space, and that's”¦us.

DeGRASSE TYSON: That's us. Well that's inner space (Laughs). So there's life ”˜in space,' yes - and that would be life on Earth, for sure.

GELLERMAN: Well, there's also life in outer space - for 30 years, we've had, you know, shuttle missions going into outer space. I guess the whole program shuts down in June, we've just had the”¦

DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, the entire shuttle program is winding down, that's right.

GELLERMAN: There were high expectations back in 1981 when the first mission went up - they were supposed to launch, like, once a week!

DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, so, with the manned program, critics of that - who are the most extreme of the space zealots, and others - criticized it for being a mission to nowhere. I've even publicly said, ”˜We've been boldly going where hundreds have gone before.' And so if you want to think of NASA as a frontier space agency, low earth orbit - which is where the shuttle and the space station are - does not count as a frontier.

It's certainly an engineering frontier - the space station is an engineering marvel, no question about it. But I don't think anyone would count it as the space frontier we all imagined for ourselves as we here are getting more deeply into the 21st century.

GELLERMAN: Well, what is the future of manned space flight? It doesn't look like it's got a bold future?

DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, I'm kind of on the fence on this - because I hear the speeches by President Obama, and he talks about a vibrant future for NASA where he's investing money in launch architecture that would get us to Mars - except that time horizon is longer than his tenure as President, even if he's a two-term President.

So the promises that he's making have slightly less”¦fewer teeth in them than the promise that Kennedy made in 1961 when he said we're going to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade is out. So for Obama to say we'll go to Mars by 2035, I don't know what that means really.

GELLERMAN: And his latest budget actually slices NASA's budget.

DeGRASSE TYSON: I understand the state of mind that would lead you to that - you say to yourself, ”˜There's money up there, but we have real problems down here.' And I understand, I understand. But what it neglects is considering how little NASA's funding actually is. NASA's actual budget is one half of one penny on a tax dollar. When people learn that, they say, ”˜Oh, I didn't know that.'

That pays for the space shuttles, the space stations, the rovers, the Hubble telescope, all the NASA centers, all the astronauts, Kennedy Space Center, all of it. And to go find this one half of one percent and somehow blame the woes of the country on the money being spent there, that's some”¦if you make that statement, it means you haven't actually scrutinized the budget of this nation to see where the real money is spent. And so, I gave a speech one time, and I ended it by saying, you know, ”˜How much is the universe worth to you?' We're a wealthy nation, so we should be able to do it all.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. T, it's always a great pleasure, thank you very much.

DeGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me! It's been like months! I feel like, you know, you don't call, you don't write. (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

DeGRASSE TYSON: But it's great, always great talking to you guys up there at Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, Planet Earth.

 

Links

The Journal of Cosmology is an online publication founded by a Harvard Astrophysicist

 

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