Alien cells in rain? Study revisits bizarre theory
Feb 01,2008 00:00 by 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 GodfreyLouis)

“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 colored 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 Cen­ter 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.”

Courtesy World-science