05 January 2006

Hold the Fort

ArXiv is where every physicist goes first thing in the morning. Originally hosted at Los Alamos, and now at Cornell, arXiv posts electronic versions of preprints in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, and quantitative biology. There’s a lot that could be said about the whole issue of electronic publication and prepublication (pre peer review) distribution; there are some good discussions about this already posted at arXiv itself. The Wikipedia-ish aspect that I want to highlight here is that submissions are essentially unedited. Only the most obviously crazy stuff is weeded out; the more sublimely insane is there for all to read.

On Tuesday morning, there appeared astro-ph/0601022, “The red rain phenomenon of Kerala and its possible extraterrestrial origin”, by Godfrey Louis and A. S. Kumar, of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, India. The manuscript says it has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, which is one of the many Springer Science+Business Media scientific journals. I quote the abstract in full:
A red rain phenomenon occurred in Kerala, India starting from 25th July 2001, in which the rainwater appeared coloured in various localized places that are spread over a few hundred kilometers in Kerala. Maximum cases were reported during the first 10 days and isolated cases were found to occur for about 2 months. The striking red colouration of the rainwater was found to be due to the suspension of microscopic red particles having the appearance of biological cells. These particles have no similarity with usual desert dust. An estimated minimum quantity of 50,000 kg of red particles has fallen from the sky through red rain. An analysis of this strange phenomenon further shows that the conventional atmospheric transport processes like dust storms etc. cannot explain this phenomenon. The electron microscopic study of the red particles shows fine cell structure indicating their biological cell like nature. EDAX analysis shows that the major elements present in these cell like particles are carbon and oxygen. Strangely, a test for DNA using Ethidium Bromide dye fluorescence technique indicates absence of DNA in these cells. In the context of a suspected link between a meteor airburst event and the red rain, the possibility for the extraterrestrial origin of these particles from cometary fragments is discussed.

I know that Charles Fort is not forgotten, because Wikipedia, as usual, has an excellent article on him. I first encountered him via his great work Lo!, originally published in 1931. He had been a journalist of sorts and an almost entirely unpublished novelist, but his fame rests on the results of his spending the last 30-odd years of his life in the British Museum and the New York Public Library, collecting odd reports from newspapers and journals. These reports were of such things as a shower of frogs in Nevada; a shower of eels in Alabama; a rain of brown worms in Indiana and, ten days later, a rain of red worms in Massachusetts; a shower of snails in Cornwall; a rain of blood California; deluges of nails in Texas and of periwinkles in Worcester. And so forth.

Fort seemed to be having fun, irritating what he felt were the humorless and dogmatic priests of science with his casual attitude toward verification and the outlandishness of his hypotheses. For example, he suggested that rains of toads and such came from a vast “Sargasso Sea of space.” Not surprisingly, alas, he gained adherents, like Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, and Tiffany Thayer. Thayer (also a novelist) formed the Fortean Society so that, after Fort’s death, his fans could become the same kind of earnest, humorless drones that he’d lampooned. One of the Fortean Society’s better known members was Kenneth Arnold. Remember? 1947? Flying ‘saucers’?

So red rain is pretty much worth a footnote in Fort’s book. In fact, it may well have been. At least, William Corliss, who has carried on the Fortean project, notes a report of a red rain in Naples, Italy, that occurred in 1818. (Sorry, his 1974 book Strange Phenomena is out of print.)

The original reports of the Kerala red rain appeared mostly in the Indian press, although the BBC carried one story. Interestingly, the BBC reported that rains of other colors (green, yellow, brown, black) followed the red rains. The Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) at Thiruvananthapuram first suggested that a bolide (a meteor exploding in the upper atmosphere) triggered the rain. Then, after analyzing samples of the rainwater, they reported that a filtered precipitate showed various elements — including carbon, silicon, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, iron, sodium and potassium, as well as significant traces (in parts per million) of phosphorus, titanium, chromium, manganese, copper and nickel – and more surprisingly, a red-colored cell structure that they tentatively identified as spores of some species of fungus.

Louis and Kumar took it from there. They produced two papers in 2003 (here and here, again with thanks to arXiv) that the precipitate was composed of the resting spores of an extreme hyperthermophilic microbe, which had been delivered by comet to the stratosphere above Kerala. They argued that the spores were similar to those identified in interstellar clouds by Chandra Wickramasinghe and colleagues.

Wickramasinghe has been in the news off and on, perhaps most prominently because of his testimony at the 1981 Arkansas creationism trial. For some reason, he was called as a creationist witness, even though it was his belief that life was not created on earth but rather deposited from space (the venerable panspermia concept). He and Fred Hoyle wrote a book in 1981 called Evolution From Space (also out of print), in which they argued that influenza epidemics were triggered by cometary depositions. (A good library may have the March 1999 issue of Astrophysics and Space Science, vol. 268, pp. 1-382, which is devoted to papers on the Hoyle and Wickramasinghe panspermia hypothesis.) Some of their evidence involved apparent similarities of infrared and ultraviolet spectra of microbial spores to spectra measured towards objects in interstellar clouds. This was very thoroughly debunked at the time; I have the references in a box somewhere.

Neither of the 2003 papers was apparently published, but their latest variation has, as we have seen, finally gotten through the referees – in the same journal that featured Hoyle and Wickramasinghe. This is a little surprising, as there has been general agreement elsewhere that the phenomenon was due to nothing more than an admixture of dust from the Arabian Gulf region. (Kerala is on the coast of the Arabian Sea.) The possibility of such an explanation was raised almost immediately by other scientists on the scene, such as seismologist V. K. Gaur. Later studies of satellite and lidar data, carried out by folks from the Vikram Sarabai Space Centre, also in Thiruvananthapuram, confirmed that the cause was a dust cloud that originated in the gulf countries. They published this result in the January 2004 issue of Aerosol Science and Technology.

Louis and Kumar dispute this interpretation, mostly because of their analysis of the particles in the rainwater samples. The particles show little structure reminiscent of biological cells – they have very thick outer layers, no nuclei, and only show disorganized internal clutter under electron microscopy. They show no evidence of DNA. Yet Louis and Kumar insist that they look like cells, and so that must trump the rest of the evidence. The reader can check for herself; their preprint includes lots of images from their tests.

Of course, there was little to no control over the taking of the rain samples. Dr. Gaur, who was in the region studying the collapse of a number of wells to check for possible seismic activity, addressed that point when asked about wells that were supposedly yielding red water.
I can only speculate on what has happened in these regions where the wells have opened up, but I think my speculation maybe quite accurate. There must have been a topsoil of laterite [an iron oxide]. Below it, there is soluble material that has gone down and formed clay. If you go deeper and deeper, you will find other materials… Rainwater would have flowed easily down through the laterite layers until it encountered the clay layer, where it would have got blocked. This accumulation of water over the years would have created a great pressure, weakened those walls… There is so much human activity that can also cause [weakening]. People use laterite for bricks. If the clay layer is exposed, the clay layer itself may crumble and cave in. It may look like a well.

This is all pure speculation. To be sure that this is exactly what happened, somebody must give us exact data. This question was also asked in the committee that I head to study earthquake management. I told them that there was nothing much we could make out because all the evidence we had been given so far was purely anecdotal.

If we had even a clear soil profile, we could have come up with some conclusions. We could have put some numbers on it if we had had a good sample of the soil. We could have put these numbers together and said how much pressure had built up. But this was not done. I think this was most irresponsible.

There are so many competent people in Kerala. The government could have asked any of them to do this. This should be done before we draw any conclusions. Instead you have someone coming up with a bucket of soil saying that he collected it from a red well. You do not know what else was in that bucket before the soil went into it. How can you draw any scientific conclusions? You can only speculate.

As usual, we are left with Tom Paine’s question: “is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie?” What is more likely: That Louis and Kumar are at least overrunning the evidence, treating their rain samples as uncompromised and incontestable data, and that the red rain was just contaminated by windblown desert dust? Or that space bugs fell on Kerala?

In assessing the probabilities, one might want to note that the impact of desert dust blown over long distances has been addressed for some time, at least since Charles Darwin’s 1846 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (vol. 2, p. 26). An article in the April 10, 1902, issue of Nature, applies this explanation to a variety of red rains in Europe. As quoted 99 years later in the April 11, 2001, issue (3 months before the Kerala red rain!):
The “red rain” which fell in many parts of Italy and extended as far as Vienna and other central European stations on the evening of March 10, 1901, has been subsequently studied by Prof. N. Passerini, and an account of the phenomena is now given by him in the Bolletino mensuale of the Italian Meteorological Society. The phenomenon appears to have travelled slowly from south to north… Prof. Passerini found that the precipitation of the earthy substance was accompanied with very little rain, and a rough analysis showed it to contain about 44 per cent. of fine sand, 32 per cent. of argillaceous matter, 12 per cent. of calcareous matter and about 10 per cent. of organic and volatile substances destroyed by calcination. The red colour was probably due to ferric hydrate… It is suggested that the material deposited in this and other so-called “rains of blood” that have occurred at different times in Italy may probably have been transported by a cyclonic disturbance, and may have had its origin in the equatorial regions of Africa or America.
Other episodes of red rain (and red snow), similarly analyzed, are discussed in Clement et al., 1972, La Météorologie (Paris) (vol. 24, p. 65); Bücher and Lucas, 1975, La Météorologie (Paris) ( vol. 33, p. 53); and Prodi and Fea 1979, Journal of Geophysical Research C (vol. 84, p. 6951). None of these authors found evidence of extraterrestrial microbes.

One closing thought. Charles Fort was always good for a quote; his Wikipedia entry includes a fun question to toss into the intelligent design ‘debate’:

If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?


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