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Claim of alien cells in rain may fit historical accounts: study

Jan. 22, 2008
Special to World Science  

A con­tro­ver­sial the­o­ry, that strange red rains in In­dia six years ago might have con­tained mi­crobes from out­er space, has­n’t died. 

In fact, things might be get­ting even weirder.

A new study sug­gests the claimed con­nec­tion be­tween scar­let rain and ti­ny ce­les­tial vis­i­tors may be con­sist­ent with his­tor­i­cal ac­counts link­ing col­ored rain to me­te­or pass­ings. These would seem to ech­o the In­dia case, in which or­gan­isms are pro­posed to have fall­en out of a break­ing me­te­or.

The red rain particles magnified about 1,000 times. (Courtesy Godfrey Louis)


“Some of these [past] ac­counts may have been ex­ag­ger­at­ed,” cau­tioned the new stu­dy’s au­thor in re­port­ing his find­ings, adding that con­si­der­able prob­lems also dog the alien-cell pro­po­sal. 

Yet the his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis, he con­clud­ed, shows the ques­tion is “much more com­plex than one might have ex­pect­ed” and “should be in­ves­t­i­gated with eve­ry sci­en­tif­ic re­source” avail­a­ble. 

The stu­dy, by doc­tor­al stu­dent Pat­rick Mc­Caf­ferty of Queen’s Un­ivers­ity Bel­fast, is pub­lished in the ad­vance on­line edi­tion of the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy

Mc­Caf­ferty an­a­lyzed, as he wrote, “80 ac­counts of red rain, an­oth­er 20 ref­er­ences to lakes and riv­ers turn­ing blood-red, and 68 ex­am­ples of oth­er phe­nom­e­na such as col­oured rain, black rain, milk, bricks, or hon­ey fall­ing from the sky.”

Six­ty of these events, or 36 per­cent, “were linked to me­te­oritic or com­et­ary ac­ti­vity,” he went on. But not al­ways strongly. Some­times, “the fall of red rain seems to have oc­curred af­ter an air­burst,” as from a me­te­or ex­plod­ing in air; oth­er times the odd rain­fall “is merely recorded in the same year as a stone-fall or the ap­pear­ance of a comet.”

The phe­nom­e­na were recorded in times and places as var­ied as Clas­si­cal Rome, me­di­e­val Ire­land, Nor­man Brit­ain and 19th cen­tu­ry Cal­i­for­nia, not­ed Mc­Caf­ferty, who has a mas­ter’s de­gree in ar­chae­o­lo­gy and stud­ies Irish myth and as­tron­o­my. Mc­Caf­ferty added that ta­les sug­ges­tive of red rain-me­te­or links al­so crop up in myth. 

With wit­nesses to past events all long dead, Mc­Caf­ferty wrote that probably no his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis will ev­er set­tle the de­bate over the 2001 rain­falls in In­dia.

Re­search claim­ing to con­nect these rains to ex­tra­ter­res­tri­al life pro­voked dis­be­lief when they were first re­ported wide­ly, in World Sci­ence. “I real­ly, really don’t think they are from a me­te­or!” wrote Har­vard Un­ivers­ity bi­ol­o­gist Jack Szos­tak, re­fer­ring to cell-like par­t­i­cles that had been re­ported to per­me­ate the col­lect­ed rain­wa­ter.

The cu­ri­ous events be­gan on July 25, 2001, when res­i­dents of Ker­a­la, a re­gion in south­west­ern In­dia, started see­ing scar­let rain in some ar­eas. It per­sisted on-and-off for some weeks, even two months. Sci­en­tists could­n’t iden­ti­fy the cell-like specks that gave the wa­ter its scar­let hue. Specula­t­ion of pos­si­ble ex­tra­ter­res­tri­al ori­gins be­gan.

Two In­di­an sci­en­tists lat­er pub­lished a chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal anal­y­sis sug­gest­ing, they said, that the specks might in­deed be lit­tle aliens. They “have much si­m­i­lar­ity with bi­o­log­i­cal cells” but with­out DNA, wrote the re­search­ers, God­frey Lou­is and A. San­thosh Ku­mar of In­di­a’s Ma­hat­ma Gan­dhi Un­ivers­ity. “Are these cell-like par­t­i­cles a kind of al­ter­nate life from space?”

They cit­ed news­pa­per re­ports that a me­te­or broke up in the at­mos­phere hours be­fore the red rain. Lou­is and Ku­mar’s re­search pa­per ap­peared in the April 4, 2006 on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal As­t­ro­phys­ics and Space Sci­ence. In pre­vi­ous, un­pub­lished pa­pers, the pa­ir al­so claimed the par­t­i­cles could re­pro­duce in ex­treme heat.

Some re­search­ers, in­clud­ing Chan­dra Wick­ra­mas­inghe, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy at Car­diff Un­ivers­ity, U.K., have said that Lou­is and Ku­mar’s idea may well be cor­rect. He and oth­er sup­port­ers point­ed to the con­sist­en­cy of the alien-cell hy­poth­e­sis with the pop­u­lar “pansper­mia” the­o­ry, which holds that me­te­ors and comets might have seeded life through­out many plan­ets.

But oth­er sci­en­tists have cit­ed prob­lems with the the­o­ry, in­clud­ing a lack of clear ev­i­dence for any me­te­or, and the knot­ty ques­tion of how mi­cro-aliens might have stayed aloft for months af­ter burst­ing out of a me­te­or.

“With­out con­clu­sive ev­i­dence such as me­te­oritic dust mixed with red rain, it is dif­fi­cult to say an­ything spe­cif­ic about Ker­a­la’s red rain,” Mc­Caf­ferty wrote. But in his­to­ry, he added, “there ap­pears to be a strong link be­tween some re­ported events [like it] and me­te­oritic ac­ti­vity. The re­ported airburst just be­fore the fall of red rain in Ker­a­la fits a fa­mil­iar pat­tern, and can­not be dis­missed so easily as an un­re­lat­ed co­in­ci­dence.”


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A controversial theory, suggesting a strange red rain in India six years ago might have contained microbes from outer space, hasn’t died. In fact, things might be getting even weirder. A new study suggests the claimed connection between scarlet rain and tiny celestial visitors may be consistent with historical accounts linking colored rain to meteor passings. That would echo the India case, in which some scientists believe the organisms might have fallen out of a breaking meteor. “Some of these [past] accounts may have been exaggerated,” cautioned the new study’s author in reporting his findings, adding that considerable problems dog the alien-cell hypothesis. Yet the historical analysis, he concluded, shows the question is “much more complex than one might have expected” and “should be investigated with every scientific resource” available. The study, by doctoral student Patrick McCafferty of Queen’s University Belfast, is published in the early online edition of the International Journal of Astrobiology. McCafferty analyzed, he wrote, “80 accounts of red rain, another 20 references to lakes and rivers turning blood-red, and 68 examples of other phenomena such as coloured rain, black rain, milk, bricks, or honey falling from the sky.” Sixty of these events, or 36 percent, “were linked to meteoritic or cometary activity,” he went on. But not always strongly. Sometimes, “the fall of red rain seems to have occurred after an airburst,” as from a meteor exploding in air; other times the odd rainfall “is merely recorded in the same year as a stone-fall or the appearance of a comet.” The phenomena were recorded in times and places as varied as Classical Rome, medieval Ireland, Norman Britain and 19th century California, noted McCafferty, who has a master’s degree in archaeology and studies Irish myth and astronomy. McCafferty added that tales suggestive of red rain-meteor links also crop up in myth. With eyewitnesses to past events all long dead, McCafferty wrote that probably no historical analysis will ever settle the debate over the 2001 rainfalls in India. Research claiming to connect these to extraterrestrial life provoked disbelief when they were first reported widely, in World Science. “I really, really don’t think they are from a meteor!” wrote Harvard University biologist Jack Szostak, referring to cell-like particles that had been reported to permeate the collected rainwater. The curious events began on July 25, 2001, when residents of Kerala, a region in southwestern India, started seeing scarlet rain in some areas. It persisted on-and-off for some weeks, even two months. Newspaper reports noted that scientists couldn’t identify the cell-like specks that gave the water its scarlet hue. Speculation of possible extraterrestrial origins began. Two Indian scientists later published a chemical and biological analysis suggesting, they said, that the specks might indeed be little aliens. They “have much similarity with biological cells” but without DNA, wrote the researchers, Godfrey Louis and A. Santhosh Kumar of India’s Mahatma Gandhi University. “Are these cell-like particles a kind of alternate life from space?” They cited newspaper reports that a meteor broke up in the atmosphere hours before the red rain. Louis and Kumar’s research paper appeared in the April 4, 2006 online edition of the research journal Astrophysics and Space Science. In previous, unpublished papers, the pair also claimed the particles could reproduce in extreme heat. Some researchers, including Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Centre for Astrobiology at Cardiff University, U.K., have said that Louis and Kumar’s idea may well be correct. He and other supporters pointed to the consistency of the alien-cell hypothesis with the popular “panspermia” theory, which holds that meteors and comets might have seeded life throughout many planets. But other scientists have noted problems with the theory, including a lack of clear evidence for any meteor, and the knotty question of how “cells” might have stayed airborne for months after bursting out of a meteor. “Without conclusive evidence such as meteoritic dust mixed with red rain, it is difficult to say anything specific about Kerala’s red rain,” McCafferty wrote. But in history, he added, “there appears to be a strong link between some reported events [like it] and meteoritic activity. The reported airburst just before the fall of red rain in Kerala fits a familiar pattern, and cannot be dismissed so easily as an unrelated coincidence.”