“Mushrooms on Mars.” How close was a controversial scientist to academic legitimacy?
“This is a question NASA does not want asked.”
In the ongoing quest to find signs of life outside of our planet, Mars tops the list of places scientists are looking. But some might be getting a little ahead of themselves.
A paper, which according to its author, was set to be published in the April issue of the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, claims to have found complex life on Mars.
The paper cites “evidence” of colonies of mushroom-like Martian specimens on top of rocks in Mars’ Eagle Crater.
But the author of this paper has a mixed reputation in the scientific community, and it remains unclear how he was able to get his most recent work accepted by a prestigious peer-reviewed journal published by the well-known Springer publishers. Inverse received several emails from the author urging it to write about his study. The emails also clearly voiced his concern that the journal, which had promised to publish, was dragging its feet.
That journal is Astrophysics and Space Science and the lead author is Rhawn Joseph, a self-proclaimed neuroscientist driven by the idea there are mushrooms on Mars.
This story, originally published on April 17, 2020, includes an update below:
Shortly after the story was published, the study was published in a different journal, Journal of Astrobiology, on April 19. Established in the year 2002, the Journal of Astrobiology is a peer-reviewed journal published by Cambridge University Press. In order to be approved for publication, the author had to include this disclaimer in the study, “It is important to stress there is as yet no definitive proof these are, or were, living organism.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the journal Astrophysics and Space Science followed up on April 20 with this comment: “The author has declined to allow the paper to be subject to further peer reviews with the journal and has withdrawn his manuscript.”
A spokesperson for the Astrophysics and Space Science journal told Inverse in an email that the author declined to allow the paper to be subject to further peer reviews and withdrew his manuscript.
The original story continues below...
Joseph tells Inverse that the original publication date for his study in Astrophysics and Space Science was April 10, and it was later pushed to April 16. “It's keeping me awake at night,” Joseph told Inverse this week.
Joseph provided Inverse with emails from the journal's editors, showing that the study manuscript was accepted for publication while citing ongoing production delays on the part of Springer.
In the meantime, he was encouraged to publish the manuscript on ResearchGate (he did; it's here) to encourage readership.
For Joseph, having his research published in a prestigious journal like Astrophysics and Space Science would mean the scientific community was finally taking his idea seriously. In many ways, it would be a big break for the scrutinized scientist and provide exactly the sort of legitimacy his idea had been lacking.
While it appears that the study was in fact in the process of being published, it's not clear whether Springer had a change of heart, or if this is simply a bad case of publication bureaucracy, where the process is taking longer than the author had anticipated.
While Joseph contends the brakes have been put on his study, a top editor at the journal couldn't confirm that.
Jeremy Mould, co-editor-in-chief of Astrophysics and Space Science, tells Inverse via email that publishing can take more time than an author would like.
“This paper is not a hot result.”
“Publishing is a slow business. Publishers are now billion-dollar companies with a lot of plumbing and things go round and round and come out somewhere sometime. Authors may be frustrated by this, and one can only sympathize. But remember, this paper is not a hot result from a Mars mission that’s just landed. It’s a reassessment by a group of individuals of data obtained a long time ago.”
One man's ongoing quest — As for the study, the research involved has been Joseph's quest to prove that complex life forms can abound on Mars, and may have been carried there by solar winds traveling through Earth's atmosphere. Joseph has been pursuing this line of thinking for more than five years despite its attracting scrutiny and criticism. It's even resulted in lawsuits with NASA.
The study uses images captured by NASA’s Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004 and tragically lost contact with the space agency in 2010 during a sandstorm.
Joseph had been looking at these images on his personal computer when he noticed mushroom-like specimens with stems and bulbous caps attached to the sides and tops of rocks on Mars through their thin stalks.
“I’m thinking, how come nobody else sees this?” Joseph told Inverse this week. Joseph waited for NASA to make some kind of announcement, but it never came. And so the neuroscientist decided to take matters into his own hands.
For this recent paper, Joseph and his team of researchers analyzed 185 photographs captured by the Opportunity rover over 36 days during its time on Mars. The researchers got really close to the images, zooming in on them by 300 percent. After they visually examined the pictures, the team identified the physical features of mushroom specimens on top of Martian rocks.
“Often, the simplest answer is the right answer,” Joseph says.
According to the paper, the rover had photographed thousands of these mushroom specimens, which were oriented in an upward angle as though engaging in a process of photosynthesis and changing their orientation from one picture to another.
If Joseph is right, the big question is: Why wouldn't NASA announce it? That's because the space agency just doesn't share his view.
A controversial figure — Despite having a focus in neuroscience and behavioral biology, Joseph has written extensively on the origins of life on Earth and other planets, and is a big proponent of the theory of panspermia, which suggests that life is transported from one planet to another via interstellar objects traveling through space.
Joseph likens himself to the scientists of the Renaissance era, interested in a wide range of scientific fields. “It's just a natural curiosity I've had since I was a child,” he says. “I have a wide variety of interests, and of course I'm interested in Mars.”
Joseph has made these types of claims about Mars before. In 2014, Joseph sued NASA for failing to investigate a claim he had made regarding a rock on Mars encountered by the Opportunity rover, which he believed to be a living thing. (He later withdrew the case.)
Joseph is as contentious as he is persistent. Although he is a self-proclaimed, groundbreaking scientist who has made major discoveries in the fields of neuroscience, genetics, quantum physics, and astrobiology (according to his website), other scientists in those fields are more than skeptical.
Prior to this study, Joseph mainly published his work in the Journal of Cosmology, of which he is the founder, publisher, CEO, and editor-in-chief. In 2010, Joseph published a paper titled “Sex on Mars,” where he tried to mitigate the sexual tension that would arise between male and female astronauts as they fly to Mars, suggesting they may need to fly in separate spacecraft.
“Performance of the sex act during a journey to Mars, may require potentially complex sexual gymnastics,” the paper reads. “On the other hand, any difficulties associated with sexual intercourse in space may turn out to be an easily solved problem of docking and entry as human are notorious for inventing ways of having sex despite all manner of logistical impediments.”
But his wholehearted belief in the existence of life on Mars is rooted in an inspirational notion: nothing is impossible.
“There are always people telling us that things are impossible. The way we make progress is by not letting the impossibles block the way," Joseph says. “If we listen to all the impossibles, we’d still be living in caves without fire because some caveman expert would’ve said, ‘making fire is impossible.’”
Joseph believes that throughout the history of science, the greatest figures of our time have been told that what they were trying to achieve is impossible.
The most recent study suggests the mushroom specimens were transported to Mars from Earth through solar winds, and that our planet has been seeding Mars and other planets in the Solar System with life for billions of years.
“The real surprise would be if there is no life on Mars,” says Joseph. “The fact is, these specimens look exactly like lichens on Earth.”
Inverse contacted NASA’s communication office for comment, but it was not aware of the study and dismissed the likeliness of the results: “NASA does not comment on other people’s studies, we rely on the science community and the peer review process to evaluate the science,” a NASA public affairs officer told Inverse in an email.
“Current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life.”
“The consensus of the majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life,” according to NASA headquarters.
Joseph believes, however, that NASA is trying to hinder the discovery of life on other planets and discredit those who do find evidence of life in the process.
“This is a question NASA does not want asked.”
“This is a question NASA does not want asked, and they do not want any answers,” Joseph says.
It is the mother of all conspiracy theories — higher powers trying to hide alien life from the public.
Instead, Joseph told me during a phone call this week that he compares NASA to a beautiful woman he had gone to the museum with once, who would take one picture of the art and swiftly move on to the next piece. Essentially, in Joseph's view, NASA is good-looking but kind of dumb. By sending up Mars rovers to the Red Planet to capture images, NASA is merely skimming the surface by not studying them closely enough.
NASA is scheduled to launch its latest Perseverance rover to Mars in July-August, where it will look for signs of habitability on the Martian surface and past microbial life, collecting samples of rocks and soil and setting them aside for a future mission to return them back to Earth.
Earlier examinations of the Red Planet suggests these mushroom specimens identified in the pictures are actually hematite, a gray mineral that covers the Martian surface and helps give the planet its famous red-colored hue.
As you might expect, Joseph's new study refutes the hematite hypothesis, claiming the mineral does not have a mushroom shape or stem and it does not grow outwards from rocks.
“That’s all unfortunate silly stuff that was promoted without any solid evidence to back it up,” Joseph says.
This isn’t the first time a self-proclaimed scientist claims to have found life on Mars, and the answer almost always is, “it’s not aliens.”
In November 2019, William Romoser, a professor of arbovirology at the University of Ohio, claimed to find reptiles and insect-like creatures crawling on the surface of Mars in pictures captured by NASA’s rover. He presented his findings at the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America.
But again, it was not aliens. (It's also very likely that Romoser was actually looking at ... “rocks,” as ScienceAlert observed at the time.)
The good news is there have been other studies with substantial evidence that are inching us closer to finding signs of life on Mars. But it will likely take more than squinting at a number of images taken by a robot.
Still, Joseph is willing to defy the odds.
“All this evidence of life, and sure, people are gonna say it’s impossible,” he says. “Well, is it?”
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