HOUSTON, TEXAS—Planetary scientists gathered here for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference are greeting news of life in a meteorite with dismay. Dismay because they fear that for the third time in 50 years they are being dragged into a dubious controversy that will do science little good. Whether they have closely examined the paper by astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center or only heard about it in the hallways, the reaction is the same: not again.
In perhaps the most infamous earlier episode, a group of researchers at a 1996 NASA press conference showed photomicrographs of squiggly, wormlike objects that they had found in a meteorite from Mars. The wormy objects drew immediate criticism and soon turned out to be nothing more than suggestively shaped minerals viewed with an exceptionally powerful microscope. The researchers' carefully worked out chemical and mineralogical evidence of signs of past life in the same meteorite, which they published in Science, drew more careful attention from other scientists, but ultimately these suggestions of life also failed to pan out.
Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois, recalls an earlier episode of intriguingly lifelike objects in a meteorite. In the early 1960s, the late chemist Bartholomew Nagy claimed to have found fossil organisms in a meteorite. Anders and he commenced an exchange in the pages of Nature and Science. It ended with general agreement in the meteoritical community that Anders and others could show that the most intriguing objects were pollen grains that had infiltrated the meteorite after it had been found and were blown up into fascinating shapes by Nagy's analytical pretreatment.
Anders can't say what Hoover's objects are, but he sees no reason to think they are biological. The filaments are too simple to even hint at a biological origin, Anders e-mails from his home in Burlingame, California. "Despite [Hoover's] generous sprinkling of fancy names, these structures are in a morphological no man's land," Anders says. Their shapes could easily have been generated by nonliving chemical reactions, he says.
The latest brouhaha over curious shapes in meteorites will be short-lived if reactions here are any indication. Rather than taking a look themselves, researchers have other things in mind. One leading scientist half-jokingly suggested hanging Hoover in effigy in the conference center lobby.