SCIENCE -- September 20, 2013 at 4:56 PM ET
UPDATE: Claims of alien life called into question
Updated Sept. 20 at 4:45 EDT: It's looking more and more likely that the 'biological material' the scientists found probably didn't come from outer space. Phil Plait, writing in Slate, calls the findings into question:
"There are a lot of reasons to think this claim is unfounded, but one is right in their very paper. The diatom ... appears clean, even pristine. As they themselves say: It is noticeable that the diatom fragment is remarkably clean and free of soil or other solid material ... which would be incredibly unlikely if it did come from a comet or a meteoroid."
Plait also queries the idea that a microorganism from Earth couldn't be held aloft by wind and turbulence for a long amount of time, which is key to the University of Sheffield scientists' theory. As of now, the answer to the question "are we alone?" is most likely a "so far."
Scientists from the University of Sheffield claim they have discovered proof of extraterrestrial life. Their evidence? The team launched a balloon 16 miles into the stratosphere, and it came back carrying small biological organisms. Professor Milton Wainwright, who led the team, is 95 percent sure that these unusual biological entities are not from our planet.
"Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27 kilometers."
However, this claim should certainly be treated with some skepticism, as the scientists have not fully analyzed their findings. Indeed, a similar study, published in the same journal, claimed that life was found in a meteorite, and it was widely discredited. One of the scientists who led the research, N.C. Wickramasinghe, is an avid booster of the theory of panspermia, which according to Slate's Phil Plait, could affect his research. (Panspermia is the theory that life came to Earth via meteorites.)
"Wickramasinghe jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it's from outer space, so I think there's a case to be made for a bias on his part," Plait wrote.
The scientists still have one more test to perform --"isotope fractionation"--which will determine whether the ratio of certain isotopes is consistent with that of organisms from earth. Professor Milton Wainwright is confident that they won't be.
"If we're right, it means that there's life in space, and it's coming to earth. It means that life on earth probably originated in space."