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The strange story of fossils in a Sri Lankan meteorite

By Hamish Johnston

Finding the fossilized remains of extraterrestrial life in a meteorite would surely be the biggest scientific discovery of the century. That’s what appears to be reported in a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology and available on the arXiv preprint server.

The meteorite is said to have landed in a field in Sri Lanka in December 2012 and several fragments recovered at the site have been studied by scientists based there and in the UK and US. Their paper contains several electron microscope images of what the authors describe as “highly carbonaceous fossilized biological structures”.

The team also published a paper (PDF) in January in which it claimed that fossils of diatom-like organisms were found in the meteorite.

So why isn’t this front-page news in every media outlet in the world? I am not qualified to answer that question – but the astronomer and sceptic Phil Plait has some rather strong opinions on the discovery.

For the other side of the story, see the video press conference above.

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  1. Derrell Durrett

    Interesting. I’m not sure that’s really the biggest discovery in any time (OK, maybe since the Higgs).

    We now know enough about the Universe to understand we are not ‘alone’ in the sense of ‘nothing remotely conscious has ever lived before’. We shall no doubt be surprised by details of that story, when it happens, but the fact that there is life outside of Earth isn’t a question of ‘if’, only of ‘what’.

  2. Hamish Johnston

    Thanks for the comment. The same could be said of a Standard-Model Higgs — we were certain it was out there and it was just a matter of when it would be found.

    • M. Asghar

      The universe like the Earth is full of hydrogen, carbon and othe elements to create bio-hydrates and other compounds, if the thermodynamical condions are right. Considering the vastness and the stellar population of this universe, there has to be – yes, has to be (Fermi paradox) around there – even some wayward Hamish Johnston vagabonding around with a note book for the coming Planck revelations!

  3. JJE Herrera

    “So why isn’t this front-page news in every media outlet in the world? I am not qualified to answer that question…?”

    Because there’s a strong sense of dèjá vu in this note…

  4. Matthias MM Meier

    That is coming from a meteoriticist: If that were a “real” scientific work published in a real journal, it would have the following structure:

    1) A detailed report on the fall of the meteorite, with information on where the fragments have been found (e.g., a map) and a clear demonstration that they are indeed meteorites (comparison with known classes, convincing pictures showing fusion crust etc.). A sample of the meteorite would have been handed in, and approved by the Meteoritical Society.
    2) Proof that the collected meteorite fragments are indeed derived from the observed meteor, e.g. with shortlived radio-nuclides (important because that would exclude terrestrial contamination)
    3) Description and discussion of the “fossils”, also to exclude contamination

    If that had all been achieved, it would be a world-changing discovery, which would have been published in Nature or Science instead of a fringe journal. But that did not happen because none of the above steps was carried out in the careful and professional ways that are the hallmark of good science.


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