Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Little Green Martians and Big White Lies (How science refutes the claims of extra-terrestrial life)

Did you catch the latest headlines? Did you see the big announcement on all the cable news networks? Rating even higher than the exploits of either Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen--"Evidence for Alien Life" mania has once again swept through pop culture.

What's it all about?
NASA and other interested parties have been diligently pursuing evidence, ANY small shred of evidence, that we are not alone in this universe--that life on Earth isn't really so special, and definitely not unique. The official position is that since "life evolved from simple chemicals" billions of years ago, we should easily find life on other "habitable" planets throughout the galaxy and on into the Universe.

The recent media blitz has centered around a study of 34 meteorites found on Earth that most scientists accept as being originally from Mars, based upon their chemical components.( It is alleged that these space rocks were probably ejected from Mars in the distant past (due to some type of comet or asteroid impact) and eventually floated in space until Earth's gravity became one suitor they could no longer turn down. Sounds plausible. (pictured:ALH84001 meteorite was found on December 1984 on Antarctica)
 The Big Announcement (uh, again)

Recently, a NASA scientist asserted to the press and the world that he had found substantial evidence of fossilized Martian "bacteria" deep inside one of these rare meteorites. This game-changing announcement came from Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. He says that electron-microscope scans of the interior of one of the meteorites revealed tiny shapes and figures that closely resemble Earth-bound bacteria.

But...wait a minute. Something sounds strangely familiar here...and it should.  Check out this recent forum post that was written by an anonymous author just a few days after Hoover's big "find":

 This forum post reveals two important issues: (#1) We have heard this same type of claim before (#2) (People have already started to believe that) Extra-terrestrial life has already been proven.

#1 is true, #2 is absolutely false.

Rewind time several years
It made all the headlines, indeed it was the biggest story--bar none. In 1996, a team of intelligent and well-meaning NASA scientists shocked the world with the revelation that they had found conclusive evidence of life (bacterial-type life) while studying ancient Martian meteorites. While these images and announcements met with huge fanfare and were broadcast far and wide, few people can recall the retraction of these findings just a few weeks later. As the details of the study were re-examined by other scientists across the world, the claims were dismantled one by one, and the supposed fossils were shown to be more likely the result of common and natural processes.

Look at the Earth rock to the left. Most people would say that it is a beautiful and well-preserved example of leaf fossils, probably a fern. But in actuality, it is NOT a fossil at all, it is manganese oxide that has crystallized on a flat piece of sandstone. Just because something looks like something else, this has little to do with what it actually is. Regarding the formations on the Mars meteorites, similarly shaped artifacts are found on the Earth and are the by-products of non-biological processes. It's a shame that not a single major newspaper ran this as a cover story: "No evidence for extra-terrestrial bacteria in Martian rocks". I guess that wouldn't sell too many papers or science magazines, would it?

It's Deja Vu, all over again

 The latest "discoveries" by Hoover at NASA have now officially followed the same predictable path:
(1) Huge media blitz
(2) Re-examination by experts
(3) Debunking of the fantastic claim
(4) Little or no coverage of the retraction
(5) General public further convinced that life has been found outside of Earth.

This isn't just my opinion, listen to the experts:

"There's a lot of stuff there, but not a lot of science, I looked at it (the evidence) and shuddered..."
Rosie Redfield (Microbiologist, University of British Columbia) 

"There has been no one in the scientific community, certainly no one in the meteorite analysis community, that has supported (Martian life) conclusions," 
Carl Pilcher (Director, NASA Astrobiology Institute)

In addition to these statements, the Associated Press interviewed at least a dozen scientists, and not even one of them agreed with Hoover's claims. Scientists don't believe it, but it seems that the public sure does.

How and when did all this hype get started?

Believe it or not, this Martian-mania was not born in 2011, and definitely not in 1996--no, no, no. It is much, much older. Wait---lemme guess: in the 1950's or 60's, you know, the Roswell UFO crash, Area 51, little green men, government cover up, right??? Nope. Try again...
................................older. Hmmm....
Rewind the clock back to the mid-to-late 1800's. Yep, the nineteenth century.  Astronomers with new, higher-powered telescopes began to scan the heavens, studying features of planets with greater clarity than ever before. Some astronomers began noticing distinct formations on Mars, curious lines that looked like roads or canals crisscrossing its surface. Enter Percival Lowell. In 1895, Percival published a book (believe it or not named) Mars, he then published Mars and its Canals a few years later. He proposed that the "canals" were the result and evidence of a long-since-gone civilization that once ruled that planet.

It was this hype about Martians that inspired H. G. Wells to create The War of the Worlds (1897), which chronicled the arrival of warlike Martians to the Earth, having fled their own doomed home planet.

Of course, the "canals" were later shown to be nothing more than normal erosion features....but the truth didn't matter. Popular imagination was caught up with the fascination about alien civilizations. This continued into the 20th century, and reached a huge peak after World War II with UFOs sighted near Roswell, New Mexico.

Manned "Flying Saucer" Test
(These aircraft were later shown to be captured Nazi Saucer Plane technology). Once again, the truth didn't matter, public opinion was already strongly in favor of life "out-there". And surely if there is life out-there, they must be light-years ahead of us mere Earthlings in terms of technology, and are probably observing us right now, similar to the way we watch animals in a zoo. Never missing an opportunity to make a quick buck, Hollywood seized this trend and soon a barrage of movies and television shows reflected this other-worldly fascination.

In the 1970's, riding on the wave of the tremendous success of it's Moon missions, NASA sent the Voyager probes and then finally 2 landers to the surface of Mars, in the form of Viking I and Viking II. Their primary mission was to test the Martian soil for evidence of microbial or bacterial life. The tests were overwhelmingly negative, with only a portion of one test showing a possible indication of biological activity. The initial positive-leaning test result has just about been abandoned as most researches are convinced that the findings were more than likely caused by "non-biological chemical reactions" arising from soil that has been highly oxidized due to natural processes.
Follow the money
I'm not asserting this claim, but many of those "in the know" find a curious connection between NASA's desperation for funds and the big "Alien bacteria" claim in 1996.  President Clinton was poised to cut a huge chunk out of the space agency's budget in the late 1990's, but then, in a fabulous burst of media fanfare, NASA announces that they have found real evidence of life on our heavenly neighbor by studying Martian meteorites.. The President was captivated by the possibilities of alien life. He held a press conference and proclaimed:

“I am determined that the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars.”

 NASA, though it did not receive any new huge appropriations, nevertheless did win popular support, greater respect, and experienced a renewed commitment. Soon, plans were drafted to send Mars Rovers to search the red planet for evidence of water, and of life (whether past or present). Several rovers were deployed, some to abysmal failure, others to enormous success in terms of longevity and travel.

Evidence of water? Yes.

Evidence of life? No. Nada.

What's wrong with the idea of extra-terrestrial life?

Many of you, I'm sure, are harboring some deep-seated problems with the apparent leaning of this blog article. "Why so negative about the possibility of alien life, Mac?" "What's wrong with the search for E.T.?"

Rather than embarking upon some Biblically-based litany of reasons for the uniqueness of life on Earth, I want to focus primarily on the scientific, logical, and historical reasons why the search for little green men or even little green microbes is just so much fantasy. I'll admit, it makes for great movies, but it makes for terrible science.

Reason #1--Life is complex, nearly beyond comprehension
I am not willing to turn this blog entry into a creation vs. evolution diatribe, per se, but the issue of alien life cannot be entered into without seriously considering intelligent design as opposed to the panoply of Darwinian models ("Hopeful BACTERIA", anyone?). What do I mean? Simply this--proponents of naturalistic origins, a.k.a. evolution, (usually) assert that life just spontaneously arose from simple chemical reactions on the Earth in the distant past (we'll ignore the "alien-seed" theory for now).

Contrary to known scientific law, they teach that dead chemicals gave birth to living organisms, supposedly single cell creatures at first, which then evolved into multi-cellular life, and eventually into things like plants, fish, birds, and finally into people who read blog articles. Old Charlie Darwin would be proud, except, uh, for one big problem.  Charles Darwin spoke of life being composed (at the most basic level) of SIMPLE CELLS. Simple cells. Really? With the microscope technology of his day, that was about all Chuck could really see. Simple cells, like tiny bags of simple fluids. But was he right? Let's move the calendar forward to the present day and read what one modern biologist had to say in refuting Darwin's naive notions of the simple cell:
Perhaps in no other area of modern biology is the challenge posed by the extreme complexity...in the fascinating...world of the cell … . To grasp the reality...we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter...What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity... On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity.

Is it really credible that
random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which—a functional protein or gene—is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man? Alongside the level of ingenuity and complexity exhibited by the molecular machinery of life, even our most advanced artifacts appear clumsy …     (Michael Denton, Molecular Biologist)
Simple cell? We can forgive Mr. Darwin, for he could not possibly have known about the precisely orchestrated cellular machines such as the Endoplasmic Reticulum, Golgi apparatus, Mitochondria, Ribosomes, and Vacuoles. He couldn't have conceived of the truth of the nucleus, with the double-stranded DNA helix,  RNA, precise protein synthesis, complex DNA duplication procedures, and it's hyper-accurate nuclear error-correction subroutines (known to be as accurate as only ONE error per one BILLION copies). Wow.
So the complexity of life, even at the cellular level, is so hard to even fathom, that to say that life will just somehow magically occur as long as the chemical and physical conditions are right does a great disservice to modern biology, biochemistry, and as we will see in a moment, to mathematics.

Reason #2--DNA-it's a language and a message

The DNA Double Helix
 At the heart of most cells is the nucleus, which primarily holds the master instruction plan for not only the creation of the cell, but also for its continuing function. It's called DNA. DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, or DNA, is the blueprint, the architect's plans, if you will, that holds all the information needed to recreate and govern the function of all life on planet Earth. A computer recently analyzed the incredibly efficient and precise method of storage that DNA employs and found it to be IDEAL (read: we cannot find a better way to do it--pretty well perfect). One engineer said this:

 "The coding system used for living beings is optimal from an engineering standpoint. This fact strengthens the argument that it was a case of purposeful design rather than a [lucky] chance"
                                          Werner Gitt (Professor, Information Systems

Recently, the seventh International Conference on the Origins of Life met in concert with the fourth congress of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) in Germany. To sum up the conclusion of this esteemed collection of information and genetic experts from across the globe, they found that:

There is no known law of nature, no known process or sequence of events which can cause information to originate in matter.

The precise and tightly-governed mathematical behavior of DNA is nearly identical to human languages, and even better. It has genetic letters, words, punctuations, rules of grammar, syntax, purpose, and meaning. It contains built-in error correction that rivals the best man-made systems. One scientist recently noted that:

"No man-made language has this kind of precise mathematical structure. DNA is a tightly woven, highly efficient language that follows extremely specific rules. Its alphabet, grammar and overall structure are ordered by a beautiful set of mathematical functions."

DNA is so complex, that it has taken us decades, using super computers and thousands of the world's brightest scientists, to even scratch the surface of it's genius and precision. So, please, pardon me if I am not ready to jump on the "life is the basic result of the right chemicals being mixed together, it evolved here, surely it evolves wherever the conditions are right." Nonsense of the highest order. Talk like that is expected in childhood fairy tales where a frog can turn into a prince by a kiss, but to magically say that given the right amount of time the frog will naturally evolve into a prince is a fantasy too far-fetched for even Mother Goose.

Famous British atheist, Anthony Flew was puzzled. He had been studying DNA and mathematics and information theory. Finally, he shocked the world, when he took the podium at a science symposium. Flew announced that he had abandoned atheism and had embraced a belief in God because of developments in DNA research. Flew (who authored the book, Darwinian Evolution) commented:

"What I think the DNA material has done is show that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements together. The enormous complexity by which the results were achieved look to me like the work of intelligence."
Even if one believes that life arose through evolution, (therefore there must be life on whatever planet has the right conditions) listen to what to eminent researchers have to say about this illusion:

"Hence, we realize that for there to be time to construct the constituents of living beings, the universe must be more than a billion years old and consequently, more than a billion light years in size. The universe would have to be just as large as it is to support even ONE lonely outpost of life."
                                                   John D. Barrow & Joseph A. Silk

Response from critic: "But the Universe is SOOO big, I mean, life just had to happen somewhere else, think about the odds!"

First, did you not read that last quote? You did? Researchers say that even if evolution were possible, it would still probably take a Universe of our size to even have the chance for it to happen ONE TIME (which actually still isnt true--the odds are way, way against it)

Ok, how about a mathematical example to once-and-for-all put to bed this idea that "given enough time" and "given enough places" that life will just---happen.

Look at mathematics.
There are about 10
70 atoms in the known universe.
The probability of forming the smallest replicating protein molecule by chance is 1 in 10
The probability of forming proteins and DNA for the smallest self-replicating entity is 1 in 10

Mathematicians consider events in nature with a probability of less than 1 in 10
50 to have a zero probability, meaning they are impossible regardless of how
much time is available. So, if someone believes in evolution, they are doing so in spite of the evidence of science and math, not because of it. Mathematics and probability show that evolution CANNOT happen.

Let's put this into perspective using cute little monkeys and a bunch of keyboards. Pretend that the simplest protein necessary for life would be represented by 23 letters and spaces, let's represent this protein by the words "Encyclopedia Britannica" (23 letters and spaces represent the 23 amino acids used to make up the protein). If you had a bunch of monkeys typing away at one letter per second, what are the odds that one of them would randomly, accidentally type the words: Encyclopedia Britannica (our simple protein)? Here goes--

 If we gave each monkey a keyboard that had 48 keys on it, the chance that one would get an "e" followed by an "n" is 1:48 x 1:48 or 1 chance in 2,304. To get a "c" next that would be 1:48 x 1:2,304, or 1 chance in 110,592.  The odds of a monkey typing just the words "Encyclopedia Britannica" is 1 chance in 4.7x1038! But, just how big is that? That would be 1 monkey on every square foot of the earth stacked 77 miles high, typing once a second for 20 billion years!
  • Challenge: Randomly type the phrase "encyclopedia britannica" with 48-key keyboard.
  • Actual odds: 4823=4.7x1038.
  • 1:470,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (470 undecillion) chance.
  • 630,000,000,000,000,000 seconds in 20 billion year old universe.
  • 740,000,000,000,000,000,000 (740 quintillion) monkeys required at 1 keystroke per second for 20 billion years.
  • Odds are that only ONE monkey will get it right in 20 billion years.
  • Surface area of Earth, approx: 5,500,000,000,000,000 ft2.
  • With one monkey per ft2 they would be stacked 135,000 monkeys high.
  • 3 ft tall monkeys (while sitting) equals a stack 77 miles high covering the entire Earth.

Proteins in Action
Returning to base here, having put all the monkeys to bed (where would you find enough bananas?!), we see that even constructing something as simple as a protein made up of 23 amino acids is almost impossible. Now,
the simplest protein used for life is 123 amino acids (that's right-100 more than the monkey example). It would be like them accidentally typing:

"Encyclopedia Britannica is my favorite source of  knowledge, images and interesting facts. I recommend it to everyone else."

Most proteins used in life contain not hundreds but THOUSANDS of amino acids--now evolving them, that ain't happening, no matter how much time, how many monkeys. Ever. In a gadzillionplex universes. When one considers the complexity of DNA, and since we can demonstrate that it is both a language and a message, one conclusion is inescapable: DNA was intelligently designed. Did you know that we have never discovered a language system that was created WITHOUT intelligence? Intelligence is required to construct a language. Since DNA is a language (and not only that, but a hyper-accurate and super-precise language) then to assert that DNA is the product of evolution is to deny mathematics and biochemistry. Pretty UN-scientific. As one book author stated when confronted with this type of evidence: "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist."

Reason #3--Every supposed Extra-Terrestrial "fossil" claim has been seriously challenged
(This has been thoroughly dealt with earlier, no need to rehash it here)

Reason #4--Supposed evidence of biochemical processes in Martian meteorites can be attributed to Earth contamination.

This cannot be overstated. Since these meteorites are found on the surface of the Earth, and may have laid there for many thousands of years, then the evidence has been contaminated, tainted, by its contact with the Earth and its plentiful supply of bio-molecules. Detectives at a crime scene appreciate the value of protecting the integrity of the evidence that exists there. Special gloves and even breath masks are worn to prevent the infiltration of non-crime scene material from "infecting" or contaminating the original scene. Now imagine a rock from Mars, landing on Earth soil (some land on the ice fields of the polar regions and are a little bit less contaminated) and laying there for hundreds or thousands of years. Soil contamination, ground water, rain water loaded with dissolved bio-molecules falls down upon it. Maybe a few random animals even lick it, who knows? The fact is, once it enters our atmosphere, then the evidence is tainted, spoiled by its contact with our bio-rich environment.

Reason #5- Fossils on Earth are RARE, what would be the odds of finding fossils from Mars in a few meteorites?
Really stop and let that sink in. Go out in your yard, or your park, or drive 100 miles. Pick up about 30 rocks randomly. Examine them for fossils. Chances are that none of them will have a fossil. You could probably pick up thousands of rocks without finding a single fossil (unless you went somewhere that you already knew was good for fossil hunting--but that would be cheating!) Think about it--life is EVERYWHERE on the Earth. From plants to people, life is everywhere---and yet fossils are fairly rare. I am an amateur geologist and I go out and "hunt" for fossils--and I know what kind of strata and locations to look for, and sometimes I come home empty handed.

Wow. That's ON THE EARTH. Now, think about our collection of Martian meteorites. NASA has documented about 30 of them.

Over the years, NASA researchers have claimed that at least THREE of them (about 10%) contain Martian fossils (later debunked).

3 out of 30.

You couldn't hardly do that on the Earth, with Earth rocks, even if you were trained. 10% is pretty high. Now, I don't know about you, but I know when I'm being sold something, and to claim that 10% of the rocks from Mars just happen to have fossils in them--well, let's just say that I'll pass on Miracle Max's Martian Rock Fossil Snake Oil, I've got plenty. But thanks anyway...

Reason #6- Fossils would probably be destroyed in an explosion large enough to send meteorites from Mars to the Earth.

 It takes an incredible, and I do mean an INCREDIBLE explosion on the surface of a planet to eject rocks out into space. The rocks would have to leave the planet at such a high rate of speed and momentum that they could escape the planet's gravitational field and then to find their way to the Earth. To create an explosion of that magnitude would require probably a huge impact from another meteor, or an asteroid, maybe a comet. Now think of the immense heat, pressure, and energy released in that kind of explosion. It would make all of the nuclear bombs on the Earth look small by comparison. Now, imagine (and you have to "imagine") a Martian rock that had fossils on it (this is pretend). Now, here comes an asteroid----whoosh---BAM! Explosion. Fire. Molten rock. Pressure. Cracking. More heat. More pressure. Shattering. Launch----away it goes--now leaving Mars, next stop, planet Earth.

But the problem for preserving these tiny fossils ain't over yet, no, not by a long shot. Now that same ejected rock has to survive the intense and violent passage through our atmosphere. The temperatures of this entry will exceed thousands of degrees, so hot in fact, that parts of the rock are turned into liquid and burn away. But, the problems of preserving Martian fossils still ain't over yet. Now it has to survive the rapid cooling as it drops through the atmosphere and impacts the ground, many times causing another huge explosion. More fire, intense heat, pressure, cracking, cooling. Would someone please tell us about the odds of those tiny, fragile fossils to survive at least one, if not three "nuclear holocausts"? How do you spell zero again? What, oh, I just did.

I think it would be an insult to any reader's intelligence for me to try to draw the conclusions from these points. What did Jefferson say: "These truths are self-evident..."? It's time that we let science, mathematics, biochemistry, and probabilities guide our thinking about this emotionally-charged issue.  Regardless of what we want to believe, or that we hope is true, the facts of math and science trump any wishful thinking.

Well-intentioned scientists and scholars with admitted agendas to prove evolution, continue to bypass the evidence and truth. I guess that the end (to many of them) justifies the means. If the goal is to convince the world that evolution must be true, life isn't unique to Earth, and that it will just "pop up" whenever the ingredients are thrown into a planet's mixing bowl, then I guess a big white lie won't hurt, will it?

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