ALF? Is that you, ALF?

Did the “red rain” that fell on Kerala contain non-DNA-based life forms?

A physicist named Godfrey Louis, analyzing samples of a mysterious “red rain” that fell over parts of Kerala, reports finding non-DNA-containing, apparently non-nucleated, cell-shaped objects, consisting mostly of carbon and oxygen, that replicate at high temperatures in non-standard culture media.

No, I’m not making this up, though perhaps Louis is. It’s reported in the New Scientist (behind a paywall). Astrophysics and Space Science is going to publish Lewis’s paper, which omits the report that the “cells” replicate. (Louis says he thought that claim might be considered “too extraordinary,” which I’d call a considerable understatement.)

Of course the damned things might just be red blood cells, though no one has a good theory about how fifty tons of animal blood got into rainclouds over a two-month period. True or false, this has to count as the weirdest scientific claim of the last twenty years; cold fusion would have been a minor finding by comparison. It’s not exactly a telegram from the little green men, but a genuine alien life form would be a pretty earth-shattering finding.

“Panspermia” always sounded to me like the name of a disease rather than a theory; I’d be creeped out if it turned out to be true. But this is even odder than panspermia; it suggests the existence of an entirely separate evolutionary tree.

Update A reader who works with red blood cells for a living tosses cold water on the idea:

The light and Scaning Electron Microsope figures in the paper, the size and color of the particles, and the lack of DNA and RNA make these things look a great deal like red blood cells (as you mention). Even in the TEMs, the supposed “cell walls” resemble tubulin bands present in normal RBCs. Other differences could easily result from sample preparation techniques involved in electron microscopy, which typically subject samples to rather harsh conditions (shear forces, vacuum, etc.) that can easily lead to artifactual observations.

So my money’s on these things just being RBCs, until I see firm evidence – any evidence, really – for the “replication” phenomenon.

As for how 50 tons of blood finds its way into the atmosphere, who would know? Maybe 50 tons is an exaggeration – in that case, some odd occasion involving the release of animal blood from airplanes flying over Kerala, for whatever reason, might account for it. Ever read those bits about green popsicles raining from the sky? You don’t want to know what they turned out to be.

Or maybe, as you speculated, Dr. Louis is just having us on. I can’t believe the man could publish those SEM figures and not even mention red blood cells anywhere in the paper or on his website.

Oh, well. Back the drawing board. It was a nice fantasy to entertain, even for a few hours.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “ALF? Is that you, ALF?”

  1. Chubby Rain?

    From Mark Kleiman:A physicist named Godfrey Lewis, analyzing samples of a mysterious red rain that fell over parts of Kerala, reports finding non-DNA-containing, apparently non-nucleated, cell-shaped objects, consisting mostly of carbon and oxygen, tha…

  2. Chubby Rain

    From Mark Kleiman:A physicist named Godfrey Lewis, analyzing samples of a mysterious red rain that fell over parts of Kerala, reports finding non-DNA-containing, apparently non-nucleated, cell-shaped objects, consisting mostly of carbon and oxygen, tha…

  3. Chubby Rain?

    From Mark Kleiman:A physicist named Godfrey Lewis, analyzing samples of a mysterious red rain that fell over parts of Kerala, reports finding non-DNA-containing, apparently non-nucleated, cell-shaped objects, consisting mostly of carbon and oxygen, tha…

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