What’s in your stratosphere? And how did they get there?

New finding suggestive of life from space is hitting the mainstream news.

Alien life found living in Earth’s atmosphere, claims scientist – Telegraph.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Buckingham University claim to have found evidence for microscopic organisms living 16 miles up in the atmosphere between Chester and Wakefield.

The scientists used a specially designed balloon to gather samples in the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower.

They found the fragments of single celled algae known as a diatom.

They argue that this could be the first evidence to show how life may have arrived on Earth from space, perhaps carried here by meteorites.

It is not the first time organisms have been found in the atmosphere and indeed the skies are thought to be teeming with microscopic life.

This idea is called panspermia: “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, comets and planetoids”.

Note the word “hypothesis”. These experiments and results are attempting to gather evidence for that. It’s not been all that successful so far since there are still many problems and questions with the idea. But it’s not impossible. Here is the new paper in its entirety. [PDF] Additional experiments are ongoing.

Their argument is that the captured organism is too large/heavy to have made it up that high from earth and must have come from space. This is supposedly evidence that life on earth was seeded from space.

Chandra Wickramasinghe, one of the authors, is one of the influential figures in promoting this idea for decades and some really far out ideas (that the outbreaks of illness on the earth is caused by extraterrestrial bacteria). The evidence has never really stood up to scrutiny and the idea is not widely accepted. But as more experiments continue, we should come to a clearer picture on this hypothesis.

This current research along with Wickramasinghe’s other results have been published in a less than reputable journal, the Journal of Cosmology. While that does not negate the findings, it does weaken the claim since the review for the journal appear less rigorous as quite “flaky” papers are allowed in.

This is a complicated subject and I withhold judgement on the new findings until more expert people weigh in on it. Feel free to add your comments to round out the discussion below. What should the average person think about this panspermia idea? Or is the finding of these microbes contamination or a new find of earth organism transport into the upper atmosphere? Lots of potential for questions here.

Scientists already calling it “codswallop”. Release the HOUNDS…

Proof of alien life? You need a lot more evidence than that.

Bad science…luckily not my own…’alien life forms in space dust’…. | Dr. Natalie Starkey.

Has alien life been found in a meteorite? Or the sky? Or [Insert Location Here]? | The Thought Stash.

Invasion of the High-Altitude Alien Algae! Or Not : Discovery News.

ET: Claims of alien life in Earth's atmosphere are unfounded..

Tip: Lots of people. Thanks.

  27 comments for “What’s in your stratosphere? And how did they get there?

  1. Chris Howard
    September 20, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    I’m guessing this is an organism that has been transported from earth into the stratosphere.

    But, man, I really, REALLY want this to be true!

  2. drwfishesman
    September 20, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Huge stretch in their conclusions IMO. Organisms can be novel and undiscovered but not alien.

  3. September 20, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    It pained me to have to write this post this AM. But it certainly qualifies as Doubtful and it needed to be called out as such. But, man, I am sick of writing about anything associated with Wickramasinghe.

  4. September 20, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Before we have proof, surely we have a modicum of common sense? We are aware that the Solar System is just one tiny entity in our galaxy, we also know that the Milky Way is just one unremarkable galaxy among billions in a vast Universe. Perhaps the Universe, in turn , is part of a Multiverse. Just because we evolved into creatures with brains, it must be ridiculous to suggest that self-reproducing life only exists of Earth.

  5. Jim
    September 20, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    If Saharan sand can be transported hundreds of miles over the ocean, I bet algae can be lifted thousands of feet in the air. I’m not a big fan of the panspermia idea, because it doesn’t answer the question, it just moves it.

  6. Kitty Lapin Agile
    September 20, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    It’s possible, but the hype needs to kept under control. Sure, crackpots discover stuff at times, but let’s not forget, it’s not that far away from our home….full of life everywhere, and quite far from the I am sure very real life out there on other planets. still, check it out, but with very limited science budgets, let’s make sure it’s worth checking out and not yet another cry of “wolf!”. I think it’s difficult for people to understand that funding for really great legitimate science that needs to be done (to save lives and help with global warming) is underfunded. Could be true, but you have to look at where the information is coming from, and also if other scientists get on board.(who would love this to be true! Talk about funding falling into your lap if it is alien life!)

  7. One Eyed Jack
    September 20, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    Andromeda Strain anyone?

  8. Tom
    September 20, 2013 at 2:02 PM

    I’ve always had my suspicions about that patch of air between Chester and Wakefield. We British have a nose for this sort of thing!

  9. September 20, 2013 at 2:06 PM

    Michael: It does not follow that life elsewhere in the universe has found its way here. Those are completely different claims. Consider how organisms could travel and survive such a journey.

    Science is not common sense. It’s logic and reason applied to evidence. That’s rather uncommon.

    We must consider more plausible explanations before jumping to extraterrestrial conclusions.

  10. September 20, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    Much easier to believe they travelled 16 miles into the stratosphere, than to believe they travelled millions of miles through space. No doubt there’s life out there somewhere, but not likely these diatoms.

  11. September 20, 2013 at 3:45 PM

    And, of course, their specially designed balloon was later mistaken for a UFO by hundreds of local residents…

  12. September 20, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    Life – yes, weird life not classifiable as terrestrial in origin – no.

    It’ll take one big balloon to catch a shantak.

  13. September 21, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I agree with what you say idoubtit, my comment was not constructive. Any organisms in the stratosphere most likely come from Earth, but could come from other bodies in our own star system. Distances from other stars would seem to be too great. We still need to find organic life on Mars, to prove to the doubters that life must be commonplace in the Universe. I doubt, however, if that knowledge will change religious belief.

  14. Brian
    September 21, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    2 words as to how those organisms ended up there:

    Water Spout. A type of tornado over water that most likely sucked the water and the critters up, and then the jet stream, air currents, and clouds kept them afloat.

    If they can ID the things, they didn’t come from space!

  15. September 21, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    Do water spouts pick things up? I’m not sure this is true.

  16. Dave Bailey
    September 21, 2013 at 9:54 AM

    Let’s see, the stuff was collected 16 miles from the surface of a planet that we know has life, and millions of miles from the next possible life-bearing planet. Occam’s razor says NO!

  17. One Eyed Jack
    September 21, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    Do water spouts pick things up?

    They pick up water. 😉

  18. September 21, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Though not as strong as tornadoes, it is believed waterspouts can suck up small aquatic creatures:


  19. Brian
    September 21, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    I got to see one wreck a navy boat, and yank what I think was antenna parts, and anything else not nailed down off it.. ship had to turn around and go back to port from the damage. granted, it was big stuff and looked more like a large kid was just ripping stuff and tossing it.

    The researchers found microscopic stuff you see in a microscope in a drop of water type organisms. And since a water spout picks up water and probably flings droplets better than it does lager stuff, I am sure some organisms have been having quite a trip thru the air.

    Hey, it’s a better theory than ‘they came from space!’ Give it time, some scientist will do some research in that direction….

  20. gewsin
    September 21, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    The presumption that these diatoms are extraterrestrial is the logical fallacy of “argument from incredulity.” That argument goes like this: I can’t imagine how Process A could have given rise to this result, therefore Process A cannot be the cause of this result. Further, since Process A cannot be true, anything else I dream up is even more likely than Process A. This is the fallacy involved in the “irreducible complexity” argument of creationism. Or, more recently, “The tide comes in; the tide goes out. You can’t explain that.”
    This does not mean that her conclusion is wrong (I hope it is right, but I suspect it is wrong.), but it does mean that her reasoning is faulty.

  21. September 21, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    Todd: This has not been demonstrated very well that it actually occurs. Water vapor, yes, but to break water tension, I’m not convinced.

  22. September 21, 2013 at 4:13 PM

    I’m a little confused about what the article says. Did they find living organisms, or just fragments of deceased organisms. If living, I would assume the chances of arriving from space would be zero. Fragments, I’m still doubtful, but seems a little more plausible. I still vote for earth creatures either way.

  23. eddi
    September 22, 2013 at 5:45 AM

    @lagaya1 One fragment from a diatom shell (maybe, they never asked a marine biologist specializing to look at it). Was it Shakespeare who noted a solo swallow isn’t a reliable indicator of seasonal change?

  24. September 22, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    A Facebook friend (to distinguish from other kinds of friends!) posted this Mashable link and I had to come and see if it was covered on Doubtful News:
    Is This Our First Alien Encounter?
    And indeed it’s the same story, with the same “alien”-something-in-“fetal”-position pic. See my comment at the end on Mashable missing an incredibly important word in its article.

    Here’s a pertinent, and I think highly misleading, quote:
    “The studs came back loaded with “biomorphs” — tiny organisms never before seen on Earth, and too large to be thrown into the atmosphere via anything short of a violent volcano eruption. There have been no major volcanoes in the past half-decade. ”

    Yeah, to the general topic, there MAY be life elsewhere unrelated to that on Earth, but I think the Drake Equation (the first and so far only attempt to quantify the probability of ET life – I recall Carl Sagan harping on it) has too many variables, and they vary too much to make any sense of it. I wouldn’t hazard a guess any more specific than something between “surely they MUST exist” and “surely they CAN’T exist,” which of course is no guess at all. Fortunately, science is NOT decided in the court of public opinion. It’ll be an open question until the next LGM crawls out of a flying saucer on the White House lawn.

    From Wikipedia (I looked, prompted by none other than idoutit’s doubts): “Waterspouts do not suck up water; the water seen in the main funnel cloud is actually water droplets formed by condensation.” Well, damn. I somehow thought they did, and I’m guessing that’s a common misconception. Certainly in the pics and videos I’ve seen,the water on the surface around waterspouts is Remarkably Calm for a column of water being sucked into the sky.

    On the other hand, I have no problem believing that microscopic organisms can be sent high into the atmosphere through natural means. The word microscopic is used FOUR TIMES in the Telegraph article, at least giving a gross idea of scale – if only the Mashable article had used it even once! (insert RANT emoticon here)

  25. September 22, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    I was at first a little disappointed to see this site (kurzweilai.net is owned by forward-thinker Ray Kurzweil who is on the “bleeding edge” of the future – people differ strongly about how far out his ideas are, specifically his book “The Singularity Is Near”) carried the story:

    Scientists claim discovery of life coming to Earth from space [UPDATED]

    But at least it is “updated” with an opinion by a scientist who brings lots of things into question, and links to that opinion piece on the very same site. It’s rather short (hardly longer than my previous post), and for anyone interested in debunking bad science (anyone here like that?), it’s a MUST READ:

    Critique of a claimed discovery of a diatom from outer space

  26. Massachusetts
    September 22, 2013 at 9:42 PM

    I’m coming to the sad conclusion, based on the water spout dialog here, that the beloved Sharknado effect isn’t even possible. Alas… 🙁

    On a more serious note, could the critters in question have been blasted into the atmosphere a long time ago, like many hundreds of millions of years perhaps, and they have been actually living up there as extremophiles? It does seem unlikely, since they would need to eat and reproduce and that would probably be tricky in the stratosphere. But would it be impossible? Maybe they photosynthesize and reproduce by asexual means?

    If this were possible, then perhaps one of the major planetary impacts of yore blasted them into the stratosphere ages ago. An asteroid strike or comet strike would probably possess the power to do so. I’m speculating wildly I know. Well, hopefully they can do DNA analysis on these little fellows and get some definitive data. They sure do look strange.

    Whether old or new, I think it’s reasonable to assume that it’s much more likely they are from earth. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them and verify that of course. But the extraordinary claim of extraterrestrial origin must be proved through further study of the evidence. I agree that we can’t say definitively that it’s impossible that these organisms could attain such altitudes from earth via natural processes, so it doesn’t follow that they could only have an extraterrestrial origin. That does seem like a logical flaw to me.

  27. Massachusetts
    September 22, 2013 at 9:47 PM

    Also, how would we differentiate an extraterrestrial organism from one blasted up from earth somehow? If we were seeded from these comet critters, presumably we would have a similar biochemistry? How could we be sure they weren’t from earth more recently (even a few hundred million years ago)? Presumably they’d be looking for similarities and differences in the DNA, and after a certain number of differences they would likely be non terrestrial? Does anyone have an idea of how this work would be done and this determination made?

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