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The meteorites are following me… 7 March, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Uncategorized.
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After having spent an entire semester blogging about Martian meteorite ALH84001, and whether or not it showed evidence of Martian micro-organisms, it seems like I have to talk about meteorites again.

Richard Hoover from NASA claims that three meteorites he has studied show signs of fossilised bacteria, and his paper has set off a firestorm of criticism. Actually I’m not even sure if this counts as a controversy, because there seems to be almost universal condemnation of his research – some responses here, here and here.

The Journal of Cosmology, which published the paper, has been attracting as much attention as the research. JoC is an free online journal (but still peer-reviewed) that has a decidedly alternative view of space science (and, I feel obliged to warn you, a hideous website). In addition, it has announced that it is ceasing publication in May of this year – that link takes you to a bizarre, bitter, conspiracy-filled press release.

If we’re going to judge the research by where it gets published, it’s not looking good for Dr Hoover. It goes to show that peer-review on its own is not enough to make research credible.

My favourite angle on this story, though, is that one of the meteorites Dr Hoover studied is the Orgueil meteorite, which landed in France in 1864. This is not the first time that Orgueil has been involved in controversial claims of alien life….

Up and running 4 March, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Site news.
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Welcome to my new blog! I’m going to be looking at controversies in science – areas where there are real disputes about how to interpret new discoveries, about whether experiments were done properly, or how to decide between competing theories.

I’m taking this approach because the ‘new discovery of the week’ view of science that is common in the media always strikes me as a being bit dry, and not representative of how science actually works. When you get into areas of controversy you usually see personality clashes, grudges, and other all-too-human behaviours; but sometimes this is a clue that something important is at stake, and that’s what I’m interested in.

The Martian meteorite ALH84001 got me started down this track, and I’ll keep an eye out for developments in that story. Some other controversial science stories that have caught my eye recently include NASA’s announcement in December about arsenic-based life, and research published in a mainstream science journal that suggests ESP might be real.

Just to get started, I’ll point you to Jonah Lehrer’s take on the ESP research here. The original paper, published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, can be found here.