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On the Value of a (teensy, weensy) Photograph

Paul Kohlmiller


The author of the article "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites" mentioned in Akkana Peck's article, Richard Hoover, gave an exclusive interview with the SJAA Ephemeris as quoted in the September 2010 issue. At the time it was clear that Hoover was looking at bacteria in meteorites as evidence of life outside of Earth.

Hoover has written about bacterial fossils before. He presented a paper titled “Microfossils of Cyanobacteria in the Orgueil Carbonaceous Meteorite“ on July 12, 2007. More on this paper below but if you want to read it go to

There have been other claims of ET life detection. Mars is most often the site of these claims. First was the claims of canals, actually a mistranslation of the Italian word “canali” meaning “channels”.

Then the Viking probe in 1976 (Levin & Straat) included a test that was supposed to detect life and the experiment returned positive results. Those results are not generally held to be valid forms of life. The evidence dropped over time suggesting a chemical reaction rather than the reaction of ongoing life.

More recently a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 was found to be from Mars and contained what looked like bacterial fossils (David McKay et. al. 1996). That was not convincing because the shapes that are that small are just not convincing. Why not?

Take the current case as presented by Hoover (and please, check my math). He starts with a meteorite that is roughly the size of a 10 centimeter cube. That's a cube that is 10-1 meters on a side or a volume of 10-3 meters. The shapes that are being considered are 1 micron in length which is 10-6 meters and a micron cube would be 10-18 meters. Am I right so far? That means there are 1015 potential samples. That's 1 quadrillion chances to see something that looks like a bacterial fossil or anything else. When you see a dinosaur bone the shape is compelling evidence that it is related to life of some kind but a shape that is about 1 micron is not. At least, not yet.

Consider a few other items in this case. As noted earlier, Richard Hoover made much the same case 3 and half years ago. But this time he got hold of a technology called FESEM (Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy). His previous paper used just ordinary SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy - you know - the kind you have in your kitchen). FESEM may be up to 6 times better than SEM with resolution down to the nanometer (according to

Consider the journal where this paper is published. At a recent talk at Foothill College, Christopher McKay (who calls himself a friend of his fellow NASA colleague Richard Hoover) called that journal “sketchy”. It is interesting that the journals Nature and Science both declined to publish this paper.

It does not appear that Hoover’s detractors are people who don’t want to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. The biggest detractors are those who do! Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute says “It looks very, very doubtful.” A lot is based on how swayed you are by a picture. The pictures on the right show an optical illusion. Did the first picture fool you? If you are viewing this in HTML, see the video version at: What’s the point? Well, if a “macro” picture can fool you then what about a microphotograph?

If the photograph doesn’t persuade you then should the fact that Richard Hoover is a highly regarded NASA scientist be compelling? Well, it isn’t to NASA itself. Paul Hertz of NASA (he has the title of Chief Scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington) put out a statement on March 7 that says in part “NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 ...” The statement goes on to say that the peer review was not completed but others say it was completed and the paper was rejected. Still, that 2007 paper is still out on the web.


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