Hard panspermism – it’ll take more than a lifetime

Panspermia is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the cosmos, and is distributed by meteoroids, comets and interplanetary dust. As hypotheses go on the origin of life, panspermia is a perfectly reasonable one, and over the years it has received backing from a number of respected scientists. The idea has a number of variants, and is taken seriously as a means by which life became established. And if it wasn’t whole biological organisms that were transported to Earth across the void, the chemical building blocks of life may have been.

Every so often, the hard panspermians who endure on the fringes of the scientific community publish what they claim is further indisputable evidence that life on Earth came from space. If you are familiar with the name Chandra Wickramasinghe, you will know what I mean. The evidence usually comes in the form of biological particles found high in the atmosphere, together with an almost complete lack of understanding of basic experimental statistics.

Back in the day when I was an academic research scientist working in the space and upper atmosphere physics field, I would use such studies as a test of whether my undergraduate students were awake. They are certainly illustrative, and it’s not rocket science.

The latest evidence presented by the provisional wing of the panspermia movement landed this morning in my email inbox. Or rather I was sent a press release trumpeting the findings of Sheffield University biologist Milton Wainwright and his associates, who include one NC Wickramasinghe.

During the recent Perseid meteor shower, Wainwright’s team sent a balloon into the stratosphere above Chester in northern England. With an instrument carried by the balloon, they claim to have found traces of biological particles at an altitude of 27 kilometres.

According to Wainwright…

“Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip.

“In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving at Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”

Wainwright goes on to say that his results are revolutionary, and will require that the biology textbooks be rewritten. This will certainly be good news for textbook writers, but already I can hear a collective groan from those who know a thing or two about atmospheric dynamics.

In his press release comment, Wainwright refers to no violent volcanic eruptions having occurred within three years of the Chester balloon experiment. Now three years is the typical stratospheric ‘lifetime’ of volcanic ash particles, and I presume that this is what Wainwright is talking about. It isn’t stated explicitly in the release.

An atmospheric particle lifetime is defined as the time taken for an initial amount to decrease by two-thirds, in which case traces of volcanic particles are to be expected more than three years following an eruption. Particle lifetime is a statistical concept that describes idealised masses of particles, in the same way that population averages are just that: averages. Stratospheric particle lifetimes vary considerably, depending on type, size and location. They are, for example, greater at high latitudes, owing to the different atmospheric dynamics that prevail nearer the poles.

Even if Wainwright is able to correlate his detection of biological particles in the stratosphere with another meteorite shower, as he has plans to do, this will not on its own be enough to deal with the atmospheric dynamics objection presented here.

I recommend that Dr Wainwright spend a little less time sounding off in blogs about how Darwinism is wrong, and more perusing a few entry-level textbooks on statistics.