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Space Sri-Lankan Scientists Reopen Extraterrestrial Algae Invasion Debate

Sri-Lankan Scientists Reopen Extraterrestrial Algae Invasion Debate

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First Posted: Mar 12, 2013 03:03 PM EDT

Picture of a fossilized diatom. (Twitter)

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Picture of a fossilized diatom. (Twitter)

December 29, 2012, is a day Sri Lankans will remember for several years to come. In that day many reported have seen a fireball lit up the skies over the province of Polonnaruwa, pulverizing sparkling fragments across the countryside.

When the scientists at the Sri Lankan Medical Research Institute of the Ministry of Health got their hands on samples of the rock that fell from the sky, that’s when the real bomb exploded. Results of tests, researchers announced at the time, showed beyond the shadow of doubt that the stones contained fossilized biological structures fused into the rock matrix.

They said their tests had revealed the rocks contained diatoms—a type of algae, microscopic plant life, that have hard outer shells made of silica and come in a variety of shapes and forms. They also claimed to be sure that their tests ruled out any possibility of terrestrial contamination.

When a paper by Chandra Wickramasinghe on the issue was published online in the Journal of Cosmology, it went viral.

The possibility that the cosmos had FeDex’d us a sample of extraterrestrial life was, at very least, interesting – and the news certainly drummed its share of attention.

However, soon enough researchers started finding incoherencies both in the popular accounts of the event and the results proposed by Wickramasinghe, which resulted in a growing skepticism around Wickramasinghe’s paper.

For instance, in the wake of the meteorite shower, there were many claims of people getting burned and smelling noxious fumes. Researchers have found it hard to take in the claims involving burns and such, since most meteorites are cold upon impact. They spend a lot of time in deep space (where it’s cold) and are only heated briefly (like, for a few seconds at most) as they plow through the atmosphere.

Futhermore, to many scholars it was not clear how Wickramasinghe’s team had eliminate the possibility of Earth’s contamination; that is, diatoms could have gotten into the samples because those rocks were sitting on the Earth where diatoms are everywhere. After all, of the hundreds samples of rocks handed in to the Sri Lankan scientists by police and popular efforts, only three were considered genuine meteorites.

Finally – probably Wickramasinghe's biggest blow – he and his team didn’t consult with outside experts (including those in the fields of meteorites and diatoms); they didn’t get independent confirmation from an outside lab, and they published in a journal that is, um, somewhat outside the mainstream of science.

In other words, it wasn’t weeks before Wickramasinghe’s paper and claims were thrown into oblivion by international scientific community.

And seemed back to normal. That is until now. A recent paper, again by Wickramasinghe’s team has been published, furthering the claims, and it’s getting picked up by mainstream media.

Let’s see what they’re getting into this time around.

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