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Scientists Offer 'Overwhelming' Evidence Terran Life Began in Space 556

An anonymous reader writes "Using data from recent comet-probing space missions, British scientists are reporting today that the odds of life starting on Earth rather than inside a comet are one trillion trillion (10 to the power of 24) to one against. That is, we're not originally from around here. Radiation in comets could keep water in liquid form for millions of years, they say, which along with the clay and organic molecules found on-board would provide an ideal incubator. 'Professor Wickramasinghe said: "The findings of the comet missions, which surprised many, strengthen the argument for panspermia. We now have a mechanism for how it could have happened. All the necessary elements - clay, organic molecules and water - are there. The longer time scale and the greater mass of comets make it overwhelmingly more likely that life began in space than on earth."'" jamie points out that the author of this paper has many 'fringe' theories. Your mileage may vary.
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Scientists Offer 'Overwhelming' Evidence Terran Life Began in Space

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  • hm.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by UncleWilly ( 1128141 ) * <> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:24PM (#20227663)
    In a manner of speaking, didn't everything start in space?
  • Yeah right (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bytesex ( 112972 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:29PM (#20227737) Homepage
    So the odds of a combination of clay + radiation was only to be found inside comets and the chances of that surviving a fiery impact at many kilometers per second are _higher_ than the same combination occurring naturally, peacefully, here on earth ? Somehow my bullshit meter goes all bananas.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:29PM (#20227759) Journal
    Even if the claim is true, we are just transferring the problem from how life originated on Earth? to How life originated in the universe?.

    Please before you mod me troll, listen. The Theory of evolution does not explain the origin of life, just the origin of species. Most folk who believe in things like ID (I= intelligent or idiotic depending on your perspective) confuse the issue and attack science. Let us not make the same mistake on the science side. Even the most ardent supporters of the Theory of evolution, like Dawkins, have only proposed very tentative speculation about the origin of life. They readily admit that right now science does not have any definitive theories about the Origin of Life.

    This has nothing to do with evolution. Let us keep the discussions straight.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:32PM (#20227811) Journal
    It's much worse than that. Like all panspermia advocates, and like a good many Creationists, they essentially crib the "odds" argument. This looks no different than any other pro-panspermia "study" in that it starts with a strawman of abiogenesis.
  • by Phanatic1a ( 413374 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:35PM (#20227859)
    It's junk science. Wickramasinghe and Hoyle are the same two who concocted the absurd probabilistic "tornado in a junkyard" argument against evolution. Hell, during the SARS outbreak, Wickramasinghe suggested that SARS was an alien virus. Yep, it just happened to have a sequence remarkably similar to other earth-borne viruses, and just happened to fall to earth in a region where similar viruses infected wild animals. Yep, that's the ticket.

    Hoyle at least used to be a real scientist. I'm not sure if Wickramasinghe ever was. He said "
    "The chances that life just occurred are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing 747" in 1982, so he's been a crackpot for a long time. This guy's just one step less crazy than Behe and the other 'intelligent design' crackpots. The only difference is that the intelligent designer posited by Wickramasinghe and Hoyle is a natural one, not a supernatural one; all the other problems with their claims are the same.
  • by First Person ( 51018 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:36PM (#20227863)

    If I understand their argument correctly, the abundance of clay in certain comets provides the template for RNA formation and eventual RNA-based life (with DNA coming later). There may be other factors which are discussed in the actual paper. As such, consider these thoughts preliminary.

    There are several factors that would seem to argue against life starting in comets. First of all, planets have a far greater volume than comets with larger and more diverse areas in which life might form. Comets must not only reach planets but deliver their biologics intact. These biologics must then be suitable for propagation in the environment in which they arrive.

    That last point is quite important. If comets did provide a birthplace for life, it is quite likely that their cargo would be unable to survive such an abrupt transition. Far more likely is that the life started on the planet in the first place.

  • Sheesh (Score:5, Insightful)

    British scientists are reporting today that the odds of life starting on Earth rather than inside a comet are one trillion trillion (10 to the power of 24) to one against.

    That they can even presume to put a number on the probability of life is evidence enough that they have no idea what they're talking about.

    Anyway, the odds of life are totally irrelevent to anything. See: anthropic principle.

  • by SpinyNorman ( 33776 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:41PM (#20227973)
    Bear in mind that this self-validating conclusion comes from Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe who is intimately tied to the theory of panspermia. Let's wait for science to do it's thing and see if everyone else agrees with his conclusions and math (yeah, right)...

    Gotta say that last time I checked the water is liquid right here on planet earth also.
  • Re:No kidding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sunburnt ( 890890 ) * on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:48PM (#20228075)

    Hardly. Adams' writings are more consistent, structured, and believable than Hubbard's.

    Also, it helps that Douglas Adams wasn't a complete batshit loon.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:52PM (#20228167) Journal
    I can't believe that they really can begin to propose odds like that on life's origin. What if life didn't begin with clays acting as catalysts for chemical reactions but instead required a reducing atmosphere? (Current thinking is that life originally used hydrogen sulfide as an energy source, possibly from undersea "smokers"). Can the comets provide that kind of environment? What would happen when the few nascent life forms that survive the planetary bombardment that they are part of are dumped from their interplanetary cocoons into the tremendously different environment of the early earth? Don't you think that there is a good idea that the life forms that survived that environment were the ones that evolved there?

    Add to that the fact that we really don't have a clue as to how life started here (or anywhere else for that matter) and you really begin to question the judgment of giving odds to this sort of thing.

    I'm not saying they're wrong, I like panspermia theories as well. It's just for people to put some sort of numerical values on this kind of thing when we know so little is just well crazy. And what numerical values! Maybe after if we send out some cometary probes and find them teeming with primitive life could you claim such a thing. Even then do they use DNA or RNA? Any evidence of spectral emission lines of this from any of our flyby probes? (It would be even more earth-shaking if there was DIFFERENT life there!)

    Still I enjoy reading (Daily in fact) It's a great site not like some pseudo New-Scien(tist) kind of site.
  • Re:No kidding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eln ( 21727 ) * on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:54PM (#20228193)
    As a hard core Douglas Adams fan, I prefer to pretend the train wreck that is "Mostly Harmless" was never written, but was instead something I dreamed after a night of poorly made enchiladas and cheap beer. I don't think I'm alone in this.
  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:55PM (#20228203) Journal
    Hoyle's failure was an example of the classic trap that experts fall into. That is that as long as they stay in their own field of knowledge, they tend to be reliable, but the moment they move into another field where their knowledge is, at best, that of a layman, they get themselves into trouble. Unfortunately, scientists like Hoyle can get a lot of mileage by the mere fact that they are experts in some field of inquiry. He was a famous scientist, and when a famous scientist speaks, even when he's right out of his league, people tend to listen.
  • Not even wrong... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LauraLolly ( 229637 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:08PM (#20228437)
    This looks like an exercise in finding data and pulling out numbers to support conclusions that were already reached. If you look at the pattern of papers by NC Wickramasinghe, since the 1980's he's been publishing stuff [] that appears to be conclusion-oriented, rather than data-oriented, all with the conclusion that fully-formed life rained down upon the earth, embedded in comets.

    There's no doubt that comets rain down on the earth. There is considerable controversy [] regarding the frequency, size, and origin of comets raining down upon the earth.

    Wickramasinghe's conclusions appear to be speculation masquerading as science. What he's proposing doesn't appear to be testable. As Wolfgang Pauli said of other proposals that were untestable, "not even wrong."

  • by snarkh ( 118018 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:13PM (#20228521)

    Coming up with such a precise number seems particularly brilliant, considering that we have no
    idea how life really originated.
  • by sgage ( 109086 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:18PM (#20228603)
    It's my opinion that we don't know nearly enough about abiogenesis to go making claims like this. We simply don't know how life/replicators/whatever originated to go assigning goofy probabilities. But it makes for a snappy headline.


  • Re:No kidding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:32PM (#20228821)
    Hardly. Adams' writings are more consistent, structured, and believable than Hubbard's.

    What nonsense. Adams changed the whole story substantially every few years. The radio told one story, then the record told another, then the books told yet another, and then there was the other version of which we do not speak for horror at the memory of the Babel Fish Puzzle, and then there was the TV series...

    Oh wait, hang on. That only qualifies the saga all the more for religious status :-)

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:45PM (#20228953) Journal
    It's a main argument that might have made more sense half a century ago when our best data was limited and our experimental evidence was largely Urey-Miller. The growing body of evidence, while still woefully small, suggests that the kinds of chemical reactions that might be needed to go from prebiotic organic matter to some sort of proto-life may not require all that much time at all. What seems to take a lot of time is moving from more primitive prokaryotic organisms to eukaryotes, and on to the more complex plant, animal and fungal forms that we see today.

    I think the most basic problem with panspermia is that it seeks to solve a problem that we don't even know exists yet. It seems to violate Occam's Razor by adding a good many entities to the abiogenesis argument, and still doesn't really answer the origins issue, merely pushing it back.

    If, and I'll admit at this moment that it is an if (big or little), life requires water (or some liquid capable of dissolving and suspending molecules for more complex organic chemical processes to occur), along with energy, it would seem that the early Earth had both of these in abundance. There are problems with modern abiogenesis theories, there is no doubt about it, but the problem with panspermia models is that they do no better job of answering the real dilemnas than other abiogenesis theories, save perhaps that it adds more time, though in an environment that is extremely hostile to life, particularly over long periods of time.

    Panspermia seems to commit essentially the same error as Intelligent Design, by insisting, with really no evidence at all, that there is something so inherently complex in life that the time between the formation of our planet and the cooling stabilization of the surface was insufficient to produce life. The problem here is largely in what these arguments tend to think of as life and what abiogenesis researchers are referring to. There seems to be this attitude that life must have, under terrestial abiogenesis theories, sprung up pretty close to being recognizably modern, when in fact, it seems far more likely that there was a progression from some sort of primitive self-replicating molecule through a number of evolutionary stages until we end up with the first primitive cells (which might not, other than being bags to isolate internal chemistry for the external environment) necessarily resemble modern life at all.

    We do know that there was plentiful amounts of energy on the Earth at that time, and if energy is ultimately the major engine driving the evolution of life from organic molecules into forms we could confidently call living organisms, then time may not be that much of an issue at all. We're still talking about about a hundred million years or more here, and if life couldn't form in a hundred million years, how does increasing that by a factor of five make it that much more likely.

    I won't even get into the really goofy trans-stellar or trans-galactic versions of panspermia, which are even harder to defend.
  • by saskboy ( 600063 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @03:45PM (#20228963) Homepage Journal
    Canadian comedy taught me that there's a 50/50 chance to everything. Either is happens, or it doesn't ;-)
  • Panspermia (Score:2, Insightful)

    by YetAnotherBob ( 988800 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @04:05PM (#20229263)
    This is just a restating of a theory that has been around since the 1960's. The author of this is one of the origional authors. The problem it has always had is that there is no real proof. There can't be until we have the ability to go out and survey a large number of comets. Not going to happen real soon.

    The origional authors were Sir Fred Hoyle, an astronomer, and Mr. Wickramasinge, a mathematician. Both were major level scholars in thier respective fields. Mr. Hoyle also did not believe in the Big Bang or universal exspansion. The evidence was not all in at that time. It seems to be now.

    The panspemia theory was that comets or large meteorites could harbor some forms of primitive life, and that the life forms carried could survive intact in some impact events. Life then would be 'seeded' in new planets by debris from other star systems. In this view, most of the planets that could harbor life forms, will have (or have had) at least simple bacteria. Everything more complex was explained by evolution.

    It was origionally a way to get from non-life to life, by effectivly doubling the time available. At the time (and to a large extent even today), the jump from non-life to bacteria is larger than the jump from bacteria to us.

    The theory was rejected in the 1960's by most scientists because they knew that no life form could survive in space. They also knew that while collision events can expel tons of surface debris into space, that no life form could survive being blasted off the earth, and even if it did, that it couldn't survive the impact of landing on a planet.

    We now know that all of the objections were wrong. Fungus has survuved for a decade or more in space with vacuum, radiation and extreems of heat and cold. Some bacteria is millions of times more resistant than we are to radiation, and frozen/dried out bacteria are known to have survived for many millions of years entomed in amber, only to come 'back to life' when the conditions are right. Bacteria have also survived earth re-entry on space junk. So, all of the conditions for panspermia CAN be met.

    At this point it is near certain that earth and Mars had at least the potential to exchange life forms early in thier history, probably both ways several times. There should have been bacteria ladened rocks hitting some of the moons of the outer planets too. A few rocks would have been exchanged with passing stars, so even if we weren't origionally seeded from elsewhere, we have probably seeded some other stars.

    Still that's a lot of if's. All of that doesn't really prove anything, and it would take visiting and analyzing DNA on site to determine if there is any relationship between any earth life and any life (present or past) on another planet.

    As an Idea, panspermia will not die, but it also can not be accepted as true by main stream science. It's just not able to be proven. I don't expect to live long enough to see that change. I don't think you will either.
  • Right and wrong (Score:4, Insightful)

    by RealProgrammer ( 723725 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @04:12PM (#20229329) Homepage Journal
    Or perhaps it depends on how you look at it. But the problem is easier to understand as a False Dilemma, not a Straw Man. Since we don't know exactly how long life takes to evolve, because it's a random process that we've never watched happen, it could be that it evolved independently on Earth, in comets, and all over the place. It could also have come solely from the planet Krypton. Even finding actual life in a comet would not show that it evolved there, rather evolving or being created by God on Krypton. That's a metaphor.

    The good professors should embrace, as they say, the healing power of 'and'.
  • by Phanatic1a ( 413374 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @04:21PM (#20229477)
    In other words, it's still a strawman.

    The laws dictating how different elements and ions react and combine with one another are not random. Chemistry is not random, it's stochastic. You don't combust hydrogen and oxygen on different days and get water on Monday and aluminum file cabinets on Wednesday. Nobody, but nobody other than creationists and other folks engaged in trying to misrepresent the position they're arguing against holds that DNA or anything else "randomly" assembled itself from a preexisting mix of chemicals.
  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @04:32PM (#20229609) Journal
    I never got why panspermia was such a compelling theory. It just pushes the real question, "how did life begin", back a little. Maybe life on earth started from genetic material on a comet. That genetic material had to come from somewhere, so that just means that abiogenesis occurred on a planet other than earth. Why is abiogenesis elsewhere more likely than abiogenesis here?
  • Oh right. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FatSean ( 18753 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @04:58PM (#20229965) Homepage Journal
    It's the 'separation from god' that really scares the suckers. I'm sure if 'hell' were a bottomless pit of fluffy pillows, there would be just as many believers.
  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @05:11PM (#20230105) Journal
    The thing to keep in mind here is what Creationists do when they come up with this "bazillion to one against x happening" claim is that they're usually trying to argue for the occurence of an entire novel feature out of some base system (ie. bacteria from an organic soup). Well of course, that's so unlikely as to be impossible (though I still think one should demand to see the work behind even this kind of claim). But that is nothing more than pushing over a strawman of what abiogenesis theories state. No modern theory claims that anything like a modern cell popped out of the first abiogenesis event. Quite the opposite, the basic notion is that the first products of such an event probably wouldn't even be considered life. They were replicating organic molecules. Abiogenesis wasn't one giant leap, but a series of intermediate steps that ended with something approaching what we would view as a cell.

    In short, these great big statistical arguments against abiogenesis aren't even arguments against any hypothesis that scientists are putting forth.
  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @06:00PM (#20230599)

    I never got why panspermia was such a compelling theory. It just pushes the real question, "how did life begin", back a little.

    The conditions of early Earth can be determined to some degree, and the time between Earth forming and the earliest known signs of life can also be determined. Any theory which states that life began on Earth has to explain how said conditions lead to life in said timeframe. This far none has.

    Panspermia, on the other hand, claims that life was born somewhere else at some point after the Big Bang and earliest signs of life on Earth. "Somewhere else" doesn't constrain the possible set of circumstances nearly as much as "on Earth", and the timeframe is far longer too. It is also impossible to prove false.

    Given the choice between lots of time-consuming chemistry reasearch and a hypothesis which is impossible to falsify or really even research but allows a lot of poetic pseudo-philosophical nonsense in the vein of "we are children of the stars", "cosmic bortherhood", and "the thrut is out there", which do you think people will choose ?

  • Re:Oh right. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @06:16PM (#20230757)
    Quite right. Hell is referred to as "the outer darkness" or "the outside" much more often. Essentially, Christians fear the separation from God because communion with God is seen as the ultimate goal. I suppose a Buddhist would look at that and say "desire for heaven is what makes separation from God into Hell"
  • Even if the claim is true, we are just transferring the problem from how life originated on Earth? to How life originated in the universe?.

    That makes a big difference, though. It's a question of probability. If life cannot spread through space, then it must have begun here of its own accord, and so we're looking for a theory that allows good odds that life will start on any planet chemically and environmentally favourable for it to do so.

    That's the trick though - you don't actually need good odds at all. All you need is for the event to not be impossible even though it may be improbable.
    Keep in mind - when you have the entire surface of the Earth (with all it's wildly varying conditions) to work with, you have a giant MIMD [] chemical paralell processor. Even if the event is improbable (per try), the odds of it happening at all go sharply up when you are trying millions (billions? googol?) of times per minute across millions of years. How this seems to generate (in the minds of some people) impossible odds - while accepting that it was a) not only possible somewhere else, and b) transferred to Earth by an even more unlikely event, escapes me.
  • Re:Others? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geobeck ( 924637 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @06:31PM (#20230891) Homepage

    ...what are the chances that those planets have an atmosphere in which these organisms can: 1) survive? 2) evolve?

    Life doesn't need a perfect atmosphere; it creates its own. The only reason Earth's atmosphere has free oxygen is because of life. In fact, life is also responsible for all of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, even what we're releasing; after all, coal and oil came from prehistoric plants and animals.

    Having a temperature range that allows liquid water to exist for at least part of the year is more important than atmospheric composition.

  • Re:Others? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digitalchinky ( 650880 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:10PM (#20232057)
    That would be why the moon is perfectly smooth and fully dent free then yes?
  • Re:hm.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by l0b0 ( 803611 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2007 @04:05AM (#20233917) Homepage
    Mine [] will (yeah, I wish)

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