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Mushrooms on Mars: A “modern Galileo” fights to prove alien life exists

“Our team is advancing science, but those who oppose us are anti-science.”

Debarati Das knows how hard it is to find mushrooms on Earth, let alone on another planet.

So when Das, Mars scientist, Curiosity rover team member, and keen mushroom forager —heard that a team of researchers claim there are mushrooms on Mars, she was skeptical, to say the least.

Here’s the claim: In a new paper, the team use images captured by NASA’s Opportunity rover to show what they say are fungi on Mars — clear evidence of life on another planet. Somewhat incredibly, this paper has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

The paper is the latest in a series by Rhawn Joseph, a self-proclaimed neuroscientist who strongly believes that the proof for life on Mars is right in front of our eyes, despite most other members of the scientific community strongly disagreeing with him.

“Our team is advancing science, but those who oppose us are anti-science,” Joseph tells Inverse.

Das is firmly among the critics. While by day she is a graduate student at McGill University and a member of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team, her foraging hobby gives her a pretty good idea of what it takes to make the right environment for a mushroom. For mushrooms to grow, she tells Inverse, they need to be a very specific temperature, rainfall, and humidity. Mars, for its part, has no rain, and no humidity.

“It's quite complicated to find mushrooms even on Earth, so let alone on a planet that long ago lost its atmospheric water,” Das tells Inverse. “I don't think the mushrooms would like that.”

Which begs the question: Why is a peer-reviewed journal apparently going to publish such spurious claims?

A photo on Rhawn Joseph’s website BrainMind, part of a fleet of his self-publishing ventures.Rhawn Joseph / BrainMind.com

Predatory publishing

Joseph and company’s paper is titled “Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images,” and it is currently available on the preprint server ResearchGate. It has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Microbiology.

Inverse contacted the journal to confirm the paper had been accepted. In response, editorial assistant Zoey Yang expressed surprise that we knew of the paper and its contents. Prior to Inverse's request for comment, the paper had been posted on ResearchGate for all to see, and Joseph had sent it to several media outlets, including Inverse.

Yang said via an email that Joseph’s paper has not been published yet. Yang added that the paper was peer-reviewed and had been accepted for publication, with some revisions.

“At this point, since there are criticisms, we will invite more great reviewers to share their comments,” Yang writes. Yang did not answer Inverse’s request for confirmation of when Joseph’s paper will be published.

“Maybe the journal doesn’t necessarily think that the paper is accurate.”

The journal is published by Scientific Research Publishing, a publishing house based in China. The journal is listed on Beall’s List, a website that tracks specious journals and publishers. Beall’s List designates SRP as a “potential predatory scholarly open‑access publisher.”

In a 2012 article in The Charleston Advisor, a peer-reviewed outlet that “publishes critical reviews of online resources for libraries,” Jeffrey Beall (the man behind the original Beall’s List) makes several damning accusations against SRP. These include:*

  • “[T]he publisher listed some people as members of its editorial boards without their knowledge or permission.”
  • “Scientific Research Publishing is widely known for its use of spam e-mails to solicit article submissions and editorial board service.”
  • “Author fees are on the low side, a strategy that increases article submissions, especially from lower-income countries”
  • “This publisher exists for two reasons. First, it exists to exploit the author-pays Open Access model to generate revenue, and second, it serves as an easy place for foreign (chiefly Chinese) authors to publish overseas and increase their academic status.”
  • “It is really little more than a vanity press.”

(*Above emphasis our own.)

Beall’s paper cites a 2010 Nature article by Katharine Sanderson, which reports SRP also republishes papers previously published elsewhere. Sanderson reports that the first issue of SRP’s Journal of Modern Physics lifts papers in their entirety from the New Journal of Physics, a journal published by the Institute of Physics. The authors of the papers were not notified of the republication, Sanderson reports.

“The world deserves to see that specimens are growing on Mars.”

Sanderson contacted a supposed member of the editorial board of SRP’s Journal of Biophysical Chemistry. The scientist told her that he had joined it somewhat in error, as he had mistaken it for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, a reputable scientific publication.

These kinds of journals are common — and it becomes a problem in the wider scientific community, especially when it comes to sensational claims with little evidence.

Tanya Harrison, planetary scientist and the director of science strategy for Planet Labs, tells Inverse that papers like Joseph’s article do a disservice to science when they are published.

“I think a lot of times, maybe the journal doesn't necessarily think that the paper is accurate but they're looking for something that will make a big media splash to bring attention to the journal itself, which is unfortunate,” Harrison says.

Fungal fact or fiction?

The paper bases its claims on images collected by NASA’s Opportunity rover. The images show a Martian landscape that the authors claim reveals “fungus-like Martian specimens emerge from the soil and increase in size, including those resembling puffballs.”

“We published this work because the world deserves to see that specimens are growing on Mars,” Joseph tells Inverse. “Debate and discussion of the evidence is the only way to advance science.”

Rwahn Joseph and his colleagues are claiming that these structures on the Martian surface are fungi-like specimen with stalks or shedding white spore-like material.NASA/JPL-Caltech

This isn’t Joseph’s first attempt to have his work published in a journal — he and his colleagues have tried to publish variations of this research in at least three different journals. He tells Inverse that this paper is his last attempt to get what he considers to be the truth out into the world.

Last year, Joseph co-authored a different paper that cited “evidence” of colonies of mushroom-like growths on top of rocks in Mars’ Eagle Crater. At the time, Joseph provided Inverse with an email showing that the paper was accepted for publication in the April 2020 issue of Astrophysics and Space Science, a peer-reviewed journal published by Springer, which also publishes the journal Nature among other high profile journals.

Despite the initial acceptance, Joseph’s study was ultimately not published (you can read our reporting of that saga to get the full story on what went down). The 2020 incident wasn’t Joseph’s first strange run-in with Springer. He sued the company last year over the retraction of a 2019 paper in the same journal. This paper, co-authored by Joseph, claimed evidence of life on Venus.

Joseph, it should be noted, also ran the similarly titled Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews, although the web domain for the journal is now defunct. One surviving paper published in the journal, “Evidence of Life on Mars?,” is listed under his ResearchGate profile.

“NASA does not want the public to see this evidence.”

A Renaissance man

According to Joseph, he is a neuroscientist by training. By his own accounting, Joseph attended Chicago Medical School and Yale Medical School, according to a bio, and claims to have been the first to demonstrate neural plasticity in primates. But around the time he claims to have discovered this, there was already:

  • Evidence of neuroplasticity in rhesus macaques stretching back to the 1920s.
  • Decades of research showing neuroplasticity in rodents, starting around 1964 (and rodents are close cousins of primates).
  • Pioneering research in humans by Eve Marder of Brandeis University, Carla Shatz of Stanford University, and Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco dating to around the same time Joseph claims to have discovered neuroplasticity in primates. Marder, Shatz, and Merzenich won a Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for their work in 2016.

Joseph considers himself the modern equivalent of a Renaissance-era scientist, a polymath who dabbles in different fields.

On the new paper, Joseph lists his academic affiliation as Cosmology.com, a website he owns. A banner on the website homepage offers to sell the domain for $150,000. All proceeds from the sale would be used to “support our research.”

Cosmology.com was once home to the Journal of Cosmology. Joseph tells Inverse he sold the journal in 2011. Cosmology.com is also an outlet for Joseph’s marginal astrobiology papers.

Joseph poses in front of a spiral galaxy for a picture posted on his self-promotional website. BrainMind.com

Joseph has written extensively on the origins of life on Earth and other planets and is a proponent of the theory of panspermia, which suggests that life spreads from one planet to another via interstellar objects like comets and asteroids.

A sampling of recent papers authored by Joseph speaks to his diverse interests:

  • Quantum Physics of God: How Consciousness Became the Universe and Created Itself
  • The Time Machine of Consciousness Quantum Physics and the Time Machine of Consciousness: Past Present Future Exist Simultaneously. Entanglement, Tachyons, Relative Time, Circle of Time, Quantum Time, Dream Time, PreCognition, Retrocausation, Deja Vu, and Premonitions
  • Metazoans on Mars? Statistical Quantitative Morphological Analysis of Fossil-Like Features
  • Extraterrestrial Genetics and the Cambrian Explosion: A Repudiation of “Cause of Cambrian Explosion-Terrestrial or Cosmic?”

Yet despite these varied pursuits, proving there is life on Mars may be Joseph’s most passionate project. Joseph strongly believes NASA is deliberately suppressing the evidence for life on the Red Planet, and he alleges that the agency has ignored the possibility of life on other planets.

“NASA does not want the public to see this evidence,” Joseph tells Inverse. “NASA refuses to acknowledge the possibility of life, they refuse to examine any specimens for life, they refuse to acknowledge any evidence for life.”

In 2014, Joseph sued NASA, alleging the agency had failed to investigate his claim that a rock on Mars encountered by the Opportunity rover was actually a living thing. (Joseph withdrew the suit before it went to court.)

Planetary scientist Tanya Harrison tells Inverse that the idea NASA would suppress evidence of life in space is antithetical to the agency’s philosophy and purpose.

“If anything, if we found evidence of life, it would be a huge boost to funding for NASA,” Harrison says. “So they would publicize the heck out of it.”

According to Joseph, the evidence of life on Mars is not limited to fungi. He has recently self-published papers with supposed evidence of tubeworms and other various primitive animals, algae, and lichen on Mars.

Joseph compares himself to the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei or Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus. Both of these pioneering scientists are now recognized as geniuses, but in their lifetimes, both men were persecuted by religious and social leaders because their ideas somewhat contradicted the dominant Christian traditions and beliefs.

“Yes, I have been attacked by the torches and pitchforks crowd who come lumbering forth, hooting and grunting in fear, seeking to destroy what frightens them and what they don't understand,” Joseph says.

The Perseverance rover, seen in this illustration, is looking for life in Jezero Crater on Mars. NASA / JPL-Caltech

The case for life on Mars

Mounting evidence suggests that Mars may have hosted life during its early history.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is equipped to search for evidence of Mars’ past habitability, collecting rock samples from the Red Planet and stowing them away for a future sample return mission to Earth.

But most scientists agree that if there were life on Mars, it would take more than a few images to make this huge claim.

“Unless we find someone walking on Mars, which is highly unlikely because Mars still has very inhospitable conditions, then we need a lot of things for the kind of life forms that we imagine here on Earth,” Das says. “And we don't really have that, so to expect something like that is a little unrealistic.”

Earlier examinations of the Red Planet suggest the “mushroom” forms identified in the pictures are actually hematite, a mineral that covers the Martian surface and helps give the planet its scarlet hue.

“In the paper, they’re mostly looking at photographs,” Harrison says. “But we have spectral measurements of those features as well from Opportunity and so we know that they're made up of iron.”

“It's why we sent Opportunity there in the first place: so we can take all these different pieces of data to put them together to tell the story, but just looking at the images isn't enough to tell the story,” she adds.

Joseph’s claims aren’t the only example of a scientist reporting evidence of life on Mars.

In November 2019, William Romoser, an emeritus professor of arbovirology at the University of Ohio, claimed evidence of reptiles and insect-like creatures crawling on the surface of Mars. He presented his findings at a meeting of the Entomological Society of America, but they were widely discredited.

Claims of life on Mars — spurious or no — are generally hot topics of public conversation, Das says.

“Mars is really sort of trendy right now because that's the closest opportunity to know whether we are alone in the universe and that's quite an exciting question and we all want to know,” Das says.

“Some people just think that if ‘I'm the person who discovered life on Mars for the first time, I'm going to be super famous’ but that’s not how it works.”

As these claims garner publicity from news outlets and scientific journals, they may discredit good evidence for life on Mars.

“I think the biggest effect is probably just with the general public,” Harrison says. “If we do ever find life on Mars, the reaction might be, ‘Oh, we've heard this story before and it wasn’t true.’”

Note: Rhawn Joseph is not the current editor-in-chief, CEO, or publisher of the Journal of Cosmology, having sold the journal in 2011. We apologize and are happy to correct the error.

We have also clarified Debarati Das’ affiliation with the Mars Science Laboratory in the intro.

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