On December 29, 2012, a meteorite fell from the heavens to crash into an area near the city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, after having travelled who knows how far across the sea of stars. One of the first to arrive on the scene was Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England, who collected the fallen shard and had it studied. The meteorite was thoroughly scanned and analyzed before the team came to the conclusion that this piece of space rock harbored within it one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in human history – that of life beyond the stars.
After carefully studying the rock with electron microscopes, Wickramasinghe’s team claimed to have found something that had never been seen before. There, embedded in the rock, which he would dub “Polonnaruwa,” were supposedly fossilized phytoplankton of some type, basically microscopic aquatic algae called diatoms, meaning that if these findings were correct then they had found the first solid physical evidence ever of extraterrestrial life. Indeed, the team itself went about boldly proclaiming it to be such, touting the discovery as the first indisputable concrete proof of life beyond the confines of planet Earth, they immediately went about publishing papers on their findings in papers such as the Journal of Cosmology, which were met with quite a lot of speculation and debate. It is interesting to note that Wickramasinghe is a big proponent of the theory of “panspermia,” which entails the seeding of life across solar systems through biological life carried upon comets and meteorites, and he has said of the finding:
We conclude that the identification of fossilized diatoms in the Polonnaruwa meteorite is firmly established and unimpeachable. Since this meteorite is considered to be an extinct cometary fragment, the idea of microbial life carried within comets and the theory of cometary panspermia is thus vindicated.
There was of course plenty of criticism of these findings, such as that of diatom expert Patrick Kociolek, who speculated that the sample had been merely contaminated with regular freshwater here on earth and showed no signs of fossilization. Another evolutionary biologist named PZ Myers pointed out that the “fossils” were remarkably similar to Earth diatoms, and said:
Why a space organism would evolve to look exactly like a species that evolved in a completely different environment, and how it could have converged in all its details on such remarkable similarity to a specific Earthly species? Why, we might even suggest that it clearly looks like contamination.
In response, the team that had found the meteorite defended their position by asserting that the algae were too deeply embedded into the surrounding mineral matrix to be the result of mere contamination, and that any similarities to Earth diatoms was the result of convergent evolution, or the tendency for disparate lifeforms to evolve similarly in response to similar environmental demands. They also pointed out that tests for nitrogen content and oxygen isotope analysis showed that the anomalous fossils originated well off Earth, probably from a passing comet. Yet other scientists have not been so eager to believe it all. Astronomer Phil Plait has been quite vocal about the case, criticizing the methods employed by Wickramasinghe’s crew and saying:
They provide lots of technical data that gives their work a veneer of credibility, but when you look a bit deeper you find they didn’t do a lot of critically necessary tests to establish the veracity of their claims. All the technical stuff obfuscates the fact that they missed the boat in some very basic ways.
Indeed, there are many who have said that it is not even a meteorite at all, but rather just a piece of terrestrial rock that has been misidentified, possibly altered by lighting strikes, which was the verdict handed out by such esteemed research organizations as the Peradeniya University Geology Division, the Department of Forensic Medicine, and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies in Sri Lanka. In the end, it hasn’t even been established if this rock is even a meteorite at all, let alone whether it holds evidence of actual alien life. Phil Plait has said of this:
They examined the rock using various methods, but none of them establish the sample as being a meteorite. Quite the opposite, in fact. One method was an oxygen isotope analysis. Basically, there are different isotopes of stable oxygen—ones with eight, nine, or ten neutrons in the atomic nucleus. In general, the ratios of these isotopes will be different from rocks that have origins in different parts of the solar system. If you collect a bunch of Earth rocks and get the ratio, and compare it to the ratios from rocks from, say, Mars, you’ll get different ratios. This allows you in principle to say that a given rock must not have formed on Earth.
It is pointed out that there are no mentioned efforts or constraints at preventing contamination by earthly sources even if it is a meteorite, and the rock itself was found in a rice field, which would have been in the water and perfectly open to some sort of biological contamination. Wickramasinghe’s team’s claims that the fossils are too deeply embedded into the rock to be this have had holes poked in them with the fact that these small lifeforms can worm their way surprisingly deeply into such a matrix through tiny cracks, bubbles, and fissures. It doesn’t help that there is little elaboration on how the sample was collected at all, and the journals in which the team has published their findings is rather notorious for making sensational claims that have proven to be unsupported by stringent evidence. In the end, Phil Plait says:
Their claims are, down to a one, extraordinary, with pretty underwhelming evidence to support them. So the idea that these are ordinary rocks found in wet conditions under no control that have been sitting around a long time and are therefore loaded with diatoms that evolved here on good ol’ planet Earth seems just a tad more likely to me. In my opinion, Wickramasinghe and his team are not just wrong, they are precisely wrong: Life didn’t crawl from this rock onto the Earth, life crawled into this rock from the Earth.
The debate still rages from those who doubt the original findings and the original team who made it and their believers. Did a meteorite really fall down into this place, and if so did it really hold the answer to the question of whether we are alone in the universe? Is this a genuine groundbreaking discovery or a miscarriage of science and the result of sensationalism? It seems to have not been adequately settled, and is left for the readers to decide for themselves.