10 March 2011

Science News: Panspermia

There is something new on this subject. But I'm not writing a news report, so I'll bury my lede and begin with some introduction of the topic.

Panspermia, as one can infer from the "seeds-everywhere" etymology, is the theory that the seeds of life are ubiquitous in the cosmos, and that they sporadically land on planets where conditions are propitious for their development.

Panspermia divides naturally into two sorts. One might think the spreading of these seeds a spontaneous or a directed fact.

Directed panspermia is a view associated for example with Francis Crick (no shabby authority, one of the co-founders of modern molecular biology). He believed that the earth is an unlikely place for the development of life out of non-life. He suggested though, that there are more likely planets, and that on one of them life, and even "a higher civilization," might have developed "perhaps eight to 10 billion years ago," and it may deliberately have seeded the universe, using bacteria that can be "stored almost indefinitely at very low temperatures."

Spontaneous panspermia, associated with the almost-equally renowned name of Svante Arrhenius, a chemist who published WORLDS IN THE MAKING more than a century ago, argues that no such direction is necessary -- spores might randomly escape one planet and then travel through space pressed by electromagnetic radiation until captured by the gravity of another.

So: what is the news? The Journal of Cosmology has published a paper by Dr. Richard Hoover, of NASA, which offers evidence for panspermia (of the spontaneous sort). The paper has the formidable title: "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites." It maintains that certain microfossils discovered in the interior of carbonaceous meteorites are "the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons, and other astral bodies." Meteors are, then, a plausible mechanism for the life transfer that spontaneous panspermia requires.

The Journal of Cosmology is a serious peer-reviewed publication and its editor-in-chief is a serious guy, one Dr. Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Schild posted a note with the pre-publication copy of the paper indicating that he has asked 100 experts for critical analysis. and that their responses will be published along with the paper.

I look forward to following a stimulating discussion. Given such important claims, there wil and should be a good deal of skepticism. Still, on philosophical grounds this is a theory to which I for one am inclined to give credence.

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