Bugs from Mars

This is a collection of images that appear on a graphic display that explained and visualized OU professor emeritus William Romoser’s talk on the question, “Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth?” (about potential life on Mars) that he presented Nov. 19 at a conference in St. Louis. Other than two images of a terrestrial pit viper head (for comparison purposes), the images show the objects Romoser argues are some sort of life form.

 

If it’s true, it’s the biggest story since the discovery of the New World. Not everyone believes it’s true.

An Ohio University entomologist who wrote a standard textbook on the subject says images from NASA’s Mars rovers provide compelling evidence of complex life forms resembling insects and reptiles on our planetary neighbor.

Following presentation of his findings at an entomology convention, many others were quick to disagree, though the OU professor emeritus William Romoser as of Monday was standing by his findings.

It started Nov. 19 with a news release from OU that began, “As scientists scramble to determine whether there is life on Mars, Ohio University Professor Emeritus William Romoser’s research shows that we already have the evidence, courtesy of photographs from various Mars rovers.”

The release described a talk that Romoser, a longtime entomology professor at OU and founder of the school’s Tropical Disease Institute, gave that day at “Entomology 2019.” That’s the annual national meeting of the Entomological Society of America in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the presentation, Romoser, who retired from OU in 2010, made a stark assertion: “There has been and still is life on Mars. There is apparent diversity among the Martian insect-like fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects that are interpreted as advanced groups – for example, the presence of wings, wing flexion, agile gliding/flight, and variously structured leg elements.”

The professor pointed to photographs made by NASA’s Mars rovers that he said show a bee-like insect on the Martian surface. He also offered a collection of images that he said supports his thesis. The images show insect-shaped objects, though skeptics say they might be rocks or something else.

From the OU release, quoting Romoser:

“The presence of higher metazoan organisms on Mars implies the presence of nutrient/energy sources and processes, food chains and webs, and water as elements functioning in a viable, if extreme, ecological setting sufficient to sustain life.”

Previous theories of the possible presence of life on Mars have concentrated on basic, microscopic organisms, even then probably long extinct due to the extremely harsh environment and sparse atmosphere of the red planet. But research often produces surprises, such as recent discoveries of methane and, just last week, variability in the amount of oxygen in the Martian air. No life has been proved to exist there, now or ever.

THE PRESENTATION DREWvigorous, though not especially positive, response in the popular press that covers scientific developments.

“The collective general opinion of the large majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life,” Alana Johnson, NASA's public affairs officer, said in a statement to Fox News.”

“Insect-like creatures on Mars? Ohio entomologist cites NASA photos as proof of life on Red Planet; experts say it's all an illusion” was the headline at meaww.com.

“An Ohio scientist claims to have found photographic proof of ‘insect and reptile-like’ life on Mars. But, as always, it's not aliens, other researchers say,” led the story in space.com’s coverage of the presentation.

The story gained international attention. “AN ALIEN-HUNTING scientist from Ohio University claims to have found undeniable proof of life on Mars in these NASA Curiosity rover photos,” declared the United Kingdom’s Express newspaper.

Reported London’s Daily Mail: “William S. Romoser, Ph.D, who has 45 years of experience studying insects, has also spent years analysing NASA photographs of the Martian world and claims there are numerous examples of insect-like forms. The Emeritus Professor of Medical Entomology at Ohio University believes the images show exoskeletons and jointed appendages of these 'living creatures,’ and are enough evidence to identify these organisms as insect-like.”

“Scientist claims to spot insects on Mars, but I think they're just rocks – An entomologist believes he found evidence of alien life on the Red Planet. I'm not buying it,” said cnet.com.

Some writers cited a long history of errors and hoaxes involving the red planet, from astronomer Percival Lowell’s observation of “canals on Mars,” to the the 1938 broadcastof the H.G. Wells story “The War of the Worlds,” the speculation surrounding what appeared to be a giant stone face on Mars, to the hoax photographs from 2012 in which it was claimed that Mardi Gras beads had been discovered on Mars.

Just as the reportage and commentary on Dr. Romoser’s talk reached its peak, the news release disappeared from the Ohio University website. The school, which had been promoting the story earlier, went entirely silent on the topic. The release was removed from the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and that of Science Codex.

“[Prof. Romoser] opted not to engage with media on the topic,” said Jim Sabin, media relations manager at OU’s Communications and Marketing department, the source of the original release. “You can’t get in touch with him through us. If you find him on your own, that’s up to you. He’s opted not to engage with media, so we’ve removed the story.”

Carly Leatherwood, senior director of communication services at OU, said the release had been removed because professor Romoser didn’t want to do interviews.

IN THE UNIVERSITY RELEASE, THE emeritus professor elaborated on his discovery. “I have observed instances suggestive of standing water or small water courses with evident meander and with the expected blurring of small submerged rocks, larger emergent rocks at the atmosphere/water interface, a moist bank area, and a drier area beyond the moist area,” he said. “Water on Mars has been reported a number of times, including surface water detected by instrumentation on Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix, and Curiosity.”

In an interview with The Athens NEWS Monday afternoon, Romoser described his findings and the reaction to them. He said he continues to stand by his research and conclusions.

“A lot of my work in my 45 years at Ohio University was visual,” he said. “After a time you can see what’s there, what you might have missed earlier. A lot of the criticism said what I saw was due to pareidolia, which is the phenomenon in which you see what you want to see – the face of Jesus in a biscuit or a piece of cheese. But the word has a second usage, which is finally seeing what’s there. I came to these images de novo, with fresh eyes.”

Professor Romoser said he was as surprised as anyone by what he believes he found. “So here were what appear to be insects, and you say, but that place has crappy atmosphere – what’s going on here?” Still, he added, every biologist is astonished by the adaptability of organisms. He pointed out the number of living things found in recent years in places everyone was sure could not support life.

He described the St. Louis presentation on possible “Mars bugs,” as some of the media have dubbed them, as “satisfying and a lot of fun.

“There was skepticism, but it was good-natured,” Romoser recalled. “And that’s all I’m asking for, that people fairly consider it and weigh it. Much of the reaction afterwards did that, while some didn’t.”

He noted that on websites catering to scientists and researchers, the discussion has been spirited and mostly professional. Skepticism, he said, is a crucial part of science.

“I’m not a hack. I’m not crazy or senile,” he added with a laugh.

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