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Rob Sheldon: That “sterile exoplanet ocean” paper is bunk!

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drop of water/José Manuel Suárez (CC)

Recently, we pointed to a paper on ocean exoplanets which argued that such ocean planets would have sterile oceansdue to lack of nutrients leached from land.

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon had a look and, well, he disagrees:

This paper is simply bunk.

Firstly, we don’t know how life started, much less evolved, so whether ocean planets are sterile or not is just not knowable. The reason the paper says this, of course, is political: NASA is spending big bucks to look for life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that has a global ocean. If someone can challenge NASA, then at least that person can get funded by NASA to prove himself wrong.

Secondly, we already have counter-examples of life on places that do not have a hydrologic cycle–namely comets. This time we can’t even claim ignorance.

Thirdly, “difficult” for us is not difficult for life. Consider the arsenic-tolerant microbes found in California’s Mono Lake.

The grad student, Felisa Wolf-Simon, who found them, named the bugs GFAJ-1, which stands for “Get Felisa A Job”. Mono Lake is full of arsenic, and she grew them in a nutrient broth that had no phosphorus in it, concluding that they didn’t need phosphorus to grow. Hence the paper.

As it turned out Nature reported 18 months later, these bugs have some really, really good phosphorus scavenging proteins, and could pull phosphorus out of other dead bugs or even the impurities in Felisa’s chemicals. (She didn’t use the ultra-pure chemicals in her experiment because they are prohibitively expensive, and the trace impurities included phosphorus.)

For the record, I went to bat for Felisa, arguing that even though she might not be the most experienced researcher, to the best of her abilities and technique, her bugs were growing without phosphorus. Perhaps she injudiciously made an early pronouncement, but as the editor of Zeitschrift fur Physik said about Stern and Gerlach’s controversial paper on electron spin–they’re young enough to take the risk.

So back to our sterile ocean–if phosphorus is rare, then like GFAJ-1, life will find ways to treasure it. The amazing thing about life, is that it is always so very adaptable. Who knew that bugs can live at 140C, or with metabolism so slow it takes centuries to replicate? The real discovery is not that Mars is sterile or Europa unlikely to have life, but rather that there does not appear to be a single place with liquid water that hasn’t already been colonized by life. And perhaps that is the thing NASA is most afraid of finding.

The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â  11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert]

Rob Sheldon is author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

Exoplanets: Those water worlds would have sterile oceans too… Researchers: An all-ocean planet would be sterile due to lack of nutrients leached from land.

Rob Sheldon: The real reason there is a crisis in cosmology Nearly everything that has failed about the Big Bang model has been added because of bad metaphysics, a refusal to accept the consequences of a beginning. The remaining pieces of the Big Bang model that are failing and which can’t be attributed to bad metaphysics, were added from sheer laziness.

Doubt cast on new “exomoon”: Rob Sheldon explains Sheldon: There are red flags all over this data, but the investigators are standing by their measurement. This is what irreproducible papers look like in physics, and why the same crisis that afflicts other disciplines also afflicts physics.


Rob Sheldon: Here’s why physicists are surprised by the universe’s increased expansion rate The two methods differ in that one is “direct” and the other “indirect”. Clearly one or both of them is making a mistake. Since it is hard to find (and people have looked) a reason why the direct method is failing, the feeling is that the indirect method must have a mistake in its model.

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2 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: That “sterile exoplanet ocean” paper is bunk!

  1. 1
    Bob O'H says:

    Secondly, we already have counter-examples of life on places that do not have a hydrologic cycle–namely comets. This time we can’t even claim ignorance.

    Really? Citation? In know precursor molecules have been found on comets, but not (as far as I’m aware) life. And it’s the sort of news I think I would remember.

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    Yeah, I wondered that too. If life had been discovered on comets, it would have made headlines all over science magazines. Sheldon also appears to overlook the difference between the origin and the diversification of life. Once life has a foothold (however that may happen), it will find its way into every possible niche (probably with some intelligent direction), including many places where it could not have gotten started. Thus, the existence of life on Earth in extreme environments does not mean life could get started anywhere in such environments.

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