Sheffield Science: An out of this world interview with Professor Milton Wainwright

Humanity has always had the deepest fixation with the origins of life. Throughout all of history every civilisation that has ever lived has had a theory about how life began and the minds of every person on earth have at some point pondered the humble beginnings of mankind. Panspermia is the idea that life came from space and literally translates from Greek as “seeds everywhere”. It would be an understatement to call this theory controversial, and the debate has been raging even more intensely than that of the blue & black/white & gold dress.

Bearing this in mind, when the charismatic Professor Milton Wainwright of Sheffield University announced his discovery of a microscopic metal ball oozing life in the stratosphere (figure 1), it caused literal uproar in the scientific community. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Wainwright about his work, something which he is immensely keen to share and discuss. A longstanding believer in panspermia, Professor Wainwright has devoted many years of his life to sampling the microorganisms of the stratosphere, which is done, in his own words, with what basically boils down to a ‘balloon’ and a ‘CD drawer’ (figure 2). Though this sounds like something produced on Scrapheap Challenge, the sampling method was originally more complex, involving a piece of apparatus called a cryosampler.

Before discussing Professor Wainwright’s findings, it is important to note that physics tells us there is a barrier to the upwards movement of any particle found at around 17km up called the tropopause, which is essentially a transitional layer between the troposphere and the stratosphere. This layer prevents particles larger than 5μm from getting into the stratosphere by mechanisms such as wind and air currents. Therefore, ‘the ball cannot have come from earth’ as it has a diameter of around 30μm. This works like a sieve but the other way round, with only small particles making it up into the stratosphere from earth.

After the balloon has been collected, the samples are coated in gold and visualised by engineers through electron microscopy. When Professor Wainwright first saw the sample, he admits his initial thoughts consisted mainly of profanity, as upon first glance it appears to be a particle of pollen. A pollen sample would throw a spanner into the works when it comes to panspermia, as it would suggest the existence of some mechanism by which large particles can get into the stratosphere from earth. However, when the sample was assayed through a technique called energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), which essentially uses X-rays to obtain the chemical content of a sample, it became clear that the metal sphere was in fact comprised of titanium and vanadium and that the ‘ooze’ coming out of the side of it was ‘biological’, consisting of carbon and oxygen. In an ideal world the sample would be assayed for the presence of DNA, however this type of analysis is very difficult with such ‘single particles’ as a larger amount of DNA is required for any meaningful technique.

The evidence that the ball came from space comes from the crater that it has left in the sampler, which becomes clearly visible when it is manoeuvred away from the impact site (figure 3). This crater suggests the sample has ‘come in at speed’ after having been slowed down significantly by the atmosphere.

It is easy to dismiss panspermia for the simple reason that ‘it really is unbelievable’, something that Professor Wainwright is all too happy to admit, but he insists the ‘science is 100%’. When working with scientific hypotheses the simplest idea is most often assumed to be correct. However, it is wise to remember that every new theory begins in obscurity, such as Pythagoras’ proposal of a spherical earth. In my opinion the theory lacks evidence and more data must be collected before meaningful conclusions can be drawn. However, I welcome the presence of a theory that conflicts my own views and despite much thought, I cannot fault in the work. History has shown that science works best when hypotheses are in conflict, and scientists should remain critical but open minded to even the most controversial new ideas of their peers. Whatever your views, we can all agree that, in Professor Wainwrights own words ‘the scientific establishment hasn’t accepted panspermia, however It certainly makes for great stories, good for a couple of pints and to impress chicks’. Amen to that.

#RobertDixon #Biology #Panspermia #Wainwright #SheffieldScience

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