WASHINGTON — The gaps and stringy fibers in these space rocks sure look like bacteria, and a NASA researcher has caused a stir with claims that they're fossils of alien life. But as NASA found 15 years ago, looks can be deceiving.
Top scientists in different disciplines immediately found pitfalls in a newly published examination of three meteorites that went viral on the Internet over the weekend. NASA and its top scientists disavowed the work by noon Monday.
Biologists said just because it looks as though the holes were made by bacteria doesn't make them fossils of extraterrestrial microbes. The meteorites could be riddled with Earthly contamination. And both astronomers and biologists complained that the study was not truly reviewed by peers.
There are questions about the credentials of the study's author, Richard Hoover. And the work appeared in an online journal that raises eyebrows because even its editor acknowledges it may have to shut down in June and that one reason for publishing the controversial claim was to help find a buyer.
"There's a lot of stuff there, but not a lot of science," said Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, who publicly dissected the paper over the weekend. "I looked at it and shuddered."
The Associated Press talked to a dozen scientists, and none of them agreed with the findings. There was none of the excitement that surrounded a similar claim that NASA announced with fanfare in 1996 — but was forced to back away from later — that a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica showed evidence of alien life.
"There has been no one in the scientific community, certainly no one in the meteorite analysis community, that has supported these conclusions," NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher said Monday of the latest work.
Hoover, of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., claims he found fossils that look like remnants of bacteria in a handful of meteorites. His research, published online Friday in the Journal of Cosmology, concludes these must have come from outer space. It is based on three specimens of a rare type of meteorite — thought to come from comets — found in France in 1806 and 1864 and Tanzania in 1938.
Hoover's pictures look like microscopic versions of flattened tubes and tangled strings.
Hoover didn't return phone calls or e-mails from the AP.
Rudy Schild, a Harvard astronomer and editor-in-chief of the journal, said the study was reviewed by scientists, but he wouldn't identify them. Schild said the idea was to garner attention and generate debate, which happened after it was first reported over the weekend by FoxNews.com.
"We thought the purpose of the exercise here is having it released and having it discussed," Schild told the AP. He acknowledged the journal's imminent demise was "a factor in play, but there are other factors as well" in the decision to publish Hoover's research.
The year-and-a-half-old journal champions a disputed theory that life started elsewhere in the universe and was seeded on Earth by asteroids and comets.
Schild said criticisms of Hoover's paper "are legitimate" but that he agrees with Hoover's conclusion.
Other scientists say Hoover, who has worked for NASA in solar physics but now bills himself as an astrobiologist, doesn't have the proper expertise. "Anyone can call himself an astrobiologist. That doesn't make it so," said Pilcher, the astrobiology institute director.
And while Hoover's paper in the journal lists him as a "Ph.D.," NASA's solar physics website does not mention a doctorate. A colleague of Hoover's said he acknowledges that he doesn't have the advanced degree. Schild said someone at the journal — he doesn't know who — may have inadvertently listed Hoover with the doctorate title.
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