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So I'm getting ready for bed last Wednesday evening when the phone rings. It's the managing producer of Coast-to-Coast AM, the biggest all-night radio show on planet Earth (or so I'm told). Could I be on in 8 hours time talking about red rain and DNA? Now here's a tricky one. Do I say "no" and get a good night's rest or "yes" and talk to 6+ million listeners at 6:15 am (Dundee time) on a subject I'm going to have to spend the wee hours researching? My brain screamed the former but my mouth, inexplicably and to my brain's horror, freely volunteered its services.
Actually, I jest. Coast-to-Coast is a must for "mid-list" authors like myself ever hungry for a morsel of publicity. And it's always great fun. George Noory, the host, does a first-rate job of steering the interview and there's that edginess and unpredictability of doing it live. The show kicks off in the late evening in Los Angeles which means it's early breakfast time here in the UK. There's a slightly unreal feel to talking on the phone to an audience about as big as the population of Sweden (if you throw in the webcast listeners) in your bathrobe sipping coffee. Used to be that I did the show from Minnesota (midnight to 3 am, yikes) – still in my bathrobe but sipping red wine. Fortunately, it's radio!
"Red rain" and "DNA." Ring any bells? For a quick orientation, check out my web page.
The red rain is what fell on the state of Kerala, India, in 2001. The DNA is what one lab in Britain claims to have found in the specks of red stuff recovered from the rain. It's a bizarre story and no one yet knows for sure how it will end. One day in the summer of 2001, showers of the colored droplets started to fall from the sky. People collected it in buckets - blood red it was in some cases. It stained their clothes and withered the leaves of trees. And it continued to rain red, in patches, on and off, for the next two months. The first explanation that sprang to mind was that the coloration was due to sand blown in from Arabia. But under the microscope the red particles in the rainwater were obviously not sand grains. On the contrary, they looked an awful lot like cells – biological cells with thick walls and an internal structure. How could that possibly be?
An Indian government study concluded that the red particles were cells of algae that had somehow been wafted up into the air and later deposited as rain. It's true to say that this is still basically the mainstream theory: cells or spores of some locally growing algae or perhaps fungus got sucked up into the atmosphere and ended up in rain clouds. But there are a couple of problems with this idea. First, there's no obvious historical precedent for it. And second, there's the sheer quantity of stuff that came down - more than 50 tons of the red particles between July and September of 2001. That's a vast amount of algal cells to grow and be lifted up at one time.
A radically different theory has come from a scientist at a university in Kerala who also investigated the mysterious red rain. Godfrey Louis (his website) is convinced the stuff came from outer space. He and one of his students collected samples from all over the region and interviewed eyewitnesses. Just hours before the first red rain fell, it turned out, some people heard a loud boom and saw a bright flash. Louis thinks the cause was a large meteorite that speared over the Indian coast at supersonic speed. It came, he suspects from a comet, and carried with it the cells that later fell to Earth.
That's a pretty astonishing claim. But the basic idea behind it – that of panspermia (see my web page on this) or the spread of life from one world to another – is no longer laughed at in scientific circles. We've got meteorites here on Earth that were blasted off the surface of Mars. Doubtless Mars has been gifted some fragments of Earth. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest that bacterial spores could survive a journey, even one of many thousands of years, from one planet to another. So the theory isn't crazy. It's just that most scientists find it hard to accept that the red rain was extraterrestrial.
Enter Chandra Wickramasinghe (website) of the University of Cardiff, Wales. Chandra W. was a long-time colleague of the late Fred Hoyle (see my webpage). The two were the most prominent backers of the panspermia hypothesis from the 1970s on, at a time when it was far from being in fashion. Hoyle may be gone but CW, and his colleagues at Cardiff, continue their crusade to convince the world that life not only came from space but continues to arrive in Earth's atmosphere on a regular basis. There are alien bugs in the stratosphere, the Cardiff team claim. The red rain of Kerala, they suspect, is just the latest in a long line of evidence that points to an influx of extraterrestrial fauna. CW's lab at Cardiff has said recently it's found preliminary signs of DNA in the Kerala fallout. Hence the Coast-to-Coast story and my late-night summons.
So it's 4 am - a couple of hours before the studio call to say I'm on – and I'm listening to Pink Floyd while reading the latest about red rain. C2C want me to talk about the DNA and its significance. But what is the significance? Strangely enough, when you really think about it, if the Kerala cells do contain DNA that sort of argues against the alien-origin hypothesis. Look at it this way. The conventional view is that the red stuff in the rain was cells swept up from the ground. If that's the case, you'd expect it to contain DNA, because all (well, nearly all) terrestrial cells do. If the cells aren't of this world they might have DNA, if DNA is a cosmic universal, or they might not. We just don't know. But what would be really exciting is if the red rain cells – and everyone is pretty well agreed that they are cells or very cell-like structures - didn't have DNA. A once-living cell without DNA would be suspiciously alien-looking. The one obvious exception is red blood cells. Erthrocytes, to give them their proper name, lack nuclei and DNA. Hmm ... the red rain cells do, oddly enough, look quite like red blood cells in their shape and size. In fact, one scientist (surely with tongue in cheek) suggested that perhaps the meteorite (if it was a meteorite) struck a flock of bats, causing a bloody downpour. However, it stretches the imagination to breaking point that the carnage could have been so great as to result in 50 tons of blood yet no other associated bat bits on the ground!
OK, so forget the red blood cells. (I mentioned them during the interview and George Noory laughingly suggested the explosion of a space monster!) Let's get back to the DNA. Chandra W. at Cardiff thinks he may have found it. But another UK lab, headed by microbiologist Milton Wainwright, which is also currently examining the Kerala particles has failed to detect DNA. Wainwright has commented on the general similarity between the red rain cells and those of some algae and fungi. So he seems to favor the orthodox view that the cells somehow got swirled up from the ground. But then why hasn't he found DNA?
What strikes me is how difficult it's proving to get to the bottom of these kind of puzzles. Every time there's some evidence of extraterrestrial microbes - from the Viking probes, the supposed meteorite fossils, the stratospheric samples, the red rain – a controversy blows up and despite the best efforts of the most up-to-date labs in the world, we can't seem to achieve a resolution. Here we've got a recent bunch of apparently biological samples and not only can't we decide if they're terrestrial or not, we can't even agree on whether they contain DNA! It just goes to show what a challenge astrobiologists face when working at the nitty gritty level of life.
As for intelligent life in the universe, the question is yet more wide open. And here I must take you clear across the spectrum of media coverage, from Coast-to-Coast AM to that most skeptical of skeptical publications – the Skeptical Inquirer. In the May/June 2006 issue you'll find three rebuttals to a piece written by retired political scientist Peter Schenkel suggesting that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) needs to downsize its expectations. The counter-arguments come from Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, David Morrison of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and myself. Soon I hope to be able to give details of a new project I'm working on with a professional astrobiogist in the States to provide strong evidence that we've already found extraterrestrial life. Watch this space!