By Senior science writer
updated 3/15/2004 4:04:06 PM ET 2004-03-15T21:04:06

Astronomer Philip Plait is tired of radio personality Richard Hoagland's claims. He's had enough of Hoagland's assertions that NASA is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial life, that the infamous Face on Mars was built by sentient aliens and, of late, that otherworldly machine parts are embedded in the red planet's dirt.

And then there's the mile-long translucent Martian worm.

On Hoagland's web site, there are several images from various space probes said to possibly show evidence for ET. Recent Mars rover photos include not just rocks, Hoagland and other contributors maintain, but common objects that might tell of alien civilization — a bowl, a stove, a piston.

Hoagland has since 1983, he says, led "an outside scientific team in a critically acclaimed independent analysis of possible intelligently-designed artifacts" on other worlds, using spacecraft data from NASA and other missions.

Plait, author of "Bad Astronomy," which debunks space myths and common factual misconceptions, had for years not countered Hoagland directly, because he did not want to give a man he calls a "pseudoscientist" the "air time that he so desperately seeks."

But last week Plait took his intellectual gloves off.

Shapes in the clouds
Plait has two words for the latest claims of alien objects on Mars. The first is "garbage." The second and more scientific word is "pareidolia." This is the same phenomenon that makes us see animals or other familiar objects in clouds.

"It's pretty common," Plait said of pareidolia. "Just a few months ago, a water spot on my shower curtain took on the uncanny form of the face of Vladimir Lenin." Plait took a picture of the liquid Lenin and uses it illustrate his contention that, though objects on the surface of Mars can sometimes take on interesting shapes, they are just a bunch of rocks.

"Hoagland's claims irritate me because he is promoting uncritical thinking," Plait told SPACE.com. "He doesn't want you to think about what you're seeing. He's trying to bamboozle you into believing what he's saying."

Critical thinking is the foundation of science, but Plait thinks it's also an important skill for anyone trying to navigate modern society. "Hoagland is eroding away at that ability."

Hoagland says the names given to objects shown on his web site are nicknames, just as the rover scientists came up with "blueberries" to describe small spherical objects on Mars.

"We are not saying there are stoves or pistons on Mars," Hoagland said in a telephone interview. "Absolutely not. When we began looking at these objects, what struck us was how remarkably symmetrical, how remarkably designed-looking, how remarkably manufactured some of these things looked."

Hoagland's web site, however, does not make this distinction with many rover images. A headline on the home page flatly states that some objects on Mars are non-natural: "Spirit Sees (and Still Ignores) More Artificial Junk." And the caption to one reads, plainly, "an Unmistakable Machined Fitting." Another caption reads: "When is a Rock Not a Rock? When They Come in pairs!" And another: "A Collection of Mechanical Bits."

Hoagland said he suggested to scientists on the rover team that they go study the objects up close to determine their composition. "NASA chose not to," he said. "So we have a hanging mystery. We don't know what these things are. We'll never know what these things are."

Hoagland is routinely critical of Stephen Squyres, a Cornell University astronomer who is mission manager for the Mars rover mission. Squyres did not respond to a SPACE.com query regarding Hoagland's claims.

It should be pointed out that NASA is not in the practice of commanding its rovers based on suggestions from people outside the agency or from beyond the Spirit and Opportunity science teams, which together include dozens of leading geologists and other scientists from inside the agency and from universities around the country.

'Pseudoscience'
Philip Plait is an astronomer who develops space-related classroom materials at Sonoma State University in California and also works in public outreach on various NASA missions. He spends his spare time working to right the cosmic wrongs — big and small — promulgated by the popular media and around the Internet. He is frequently invited to talk to large gatherings of astronomers, who appreciate his efforts to correct mistakes in the popular media.

Lately, Plait has heard Hoagland explain his views frequently on the late-night Coast to Coast AM radio show, which is heard on hundreds of stations. Meanwhile, a phenomenal flow of images from NASA's Mars rovers has created a cottage industry in scientific speculation about the red planet, at Hoagland's web site and elsewhere.

"I've let this fester long enough," Plait wrote recently on his web site, badastronomy.com. "This kind of pseudoscience is like a virus. At low levels, it's no big deal, but when it reaches a certain threshold it becomes sickening."

Plait works to debunk several specific alien-related claims made on Hoagland's web site, enterprisemission.com. (Not all of the scenarios are suggested by Hoagland himself.)

Here are snapshots of two arguments:

  • An image from the Mars Global Surveyor is said on Hoagland's site to be a gargantuan, glass-like worm that's a mile long. Plain as a pig in the clouds, the image does indeed evoke the shape and features of a worm at the bottom of a canyon. Evenly spaced arcs even resemble ribs. Plait says the most likely explanation for the rib-like features is that they're sand dunes, created by wind blowing through the valley.
  • An apparent bit of spacecraft debris from the rover mission, photographed by Spirit, was dubbed a "bunny" by some. Hoagland later said the bunny had been optically removed by NASA. Plait points out that NASA scientists said the object appeared to be lightweight, and thinks "it is far more likely it simply blew away in the Martian wind."

Credentials questioned
Plait and other scientists question Hoagland's credentials and say he is prone to inflating his accomplishments.

Hoagland did not graduate from college. "I didn't actually get a degree," he said last week. He says he was "possibly the youngest museum curator in the country" in the mid-1960s at age 19. He is a science writer with a keen interest in space.

Hoagland lists among his awards having received the Angstrom Medal for Excellence in Science. But there's a catch.

Uppsala University in Sweden, with approval from Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, gives out the Angstrom Prize, which includes a medal and a cash award, given in the honor of 18th Century Swedish scientist Anders-Jonas Angstrom. Hoagland's medal, however, came from the separate Angstrom Foundation Aktiebolag (AFAB). This is a privately-owned company with no connection to Uppsala University or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

"There were no scientists involved in that decision," says Ralph Greenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington. Others who have researched Hoagland's medal say it carries little if any merit and was not awarded by scientists or a scientific organization.

Greenberg began looking into Hoagland's background for another reason.

In a January 1980 article in the popular magazine Star & Sky, Hoagland wrote of the possibility of an ocean of water under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa and that life might have arisen there. Hoagland says today that the article presented "a radical new theory," and his web site states Hoagland "is the originator of this remarkable idea." The web site also states Hoagland "became the first to propose ... the possible existence of deep ocean life under the global ice shield perpetually surrounding the enigmatic moon of Jupiter, Europa."

Greenberg heard Hoagland's claim and did a review of scientific literature (Star & Sky, now defunct, was not a scientific journal) and other writings and lectures. Greenberg found that the ideas of water and life under Europa had both been put forth before January 1980.

The first known suggestion that Europa might harbor a liquid ocean was in a 1971 paper by John S. Lewis in the widely respected science journal Icarus. The idea was discussed in other papers in the mid-1970s by Lewis and by other scientists.

The possibility of that Europa's hypothesized ocean could support life was discussed in June 1979 — six months before Hoagland's article — by Benton Clark at a conference at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"It's clear that [Hoagland] deserves no credit for proposing an ocean under the ice on Europa," Greenberg told SPACE.com. And regarding the notion of life: "Others before him wrote on the same topic with more merit."

Greenberg says Hoagland deserves some credit for helping to popularize the Europa ideas. But he is bothered that Hoagland does not make an effort to set the record straight.

"He never made it quite clear that this was not his original idea in any sense," Greenberg said. "I think it's really shameful that he hasn't been willing to make it crystal clear."

Greenberg continues: "I don't think [Hoagland] really has any scientific credentials. He's not a trained scientist in any sense. He knows some facts. I don't think he has any depth of knowledge. But he's a good talker, and maybe gives the impression that he knows more and understands more than he really does."

Hoagland said Greenberg's comments "are obviously being viciously spun for the blatant political purpose of destroying my credibility at this key moment — when our criticisms of NASA and the current rover mission are gaining legs. This is what someone is apparently quite concerned about."

Hoagland said via e-mail over the weekend that his claim to an ocean at Europa was the first to be based on Voyager 1 and 2 imagery of Europa, from flybys in March and July 1979, and that his 1980 article was specifically referring to a previous paper that said any water on Europa had likely become frozen.

"The question of who's first is tricky," Hoagland said. "Clearly, I was not the first (nor have I ever claimed to be) to propose an original liquid ocean for Europa. But I do maintain I was the first to recognize in the new Voyager data that it might still be liquid."

Greenberg points to the astronomer Carl Sagan as someone who had discussed the Europa ideas with other scientists in the mid-1970s. "But, I knew Carl — and worked with him — for decades," Hoagland says. "And he never once told me I was trespassing on his turf, even after the Star & Sky piece was published." Hoagland also says the author Arthur C. Clarke has mentioned him as the originator of the life-on-Europa idea.

The Face on Mars
Hoagland is perhaps best known for promoting the Viking Orbiter's "Face on Mars" image as evidence for an alien civilization. Interestingly it was NASA that started discussion over the face-like features. Here's how NASA's original caption read when the image was released in 1976: "Shadows in the rock formation give the illusion of a nose and mouth. Planetary geologists attribute the origin of the formation to purely natural processes."

Hoagland finds interest in much more than the Face itself. He maintains that drawing lines between features in the Cydonia region around the face creates angles that involve complex mathematical formulas and geometric relationships that could only point to intelligent construction.

His web site's mission statement argues that the Face is surrounded by "crumbling high tech pyramids ... possible former environmental arcologies left by someone who tried to make Mars home... long before our fleeting, recent visits." The statement then says there is disturbing evidence "of a profound, deliberately politically-motivated cover-up of this important data by both major spacefaring nations."

Plait analyzes the math and methodology. He says the precision of angles and distances that Hoagland claims is greater than is possible given the images from which Hoagland works. Moreover, Plait wonders why Hoagland picks certain hills to include in his diagrams instead of other nearby hills that appear indistinguishable. Hoagland could be benefiting, he says, by picking the points that, through random chance, indeed form patterns.

"Any random set of numbers, when played with as Hoagland did, will yield many coincidental mathematical relationships," Plait says. "His mathematical analysis is so full of holes, flaws, and misdirection that it is completely worthless."

Hoagland, in response, said Plait should talk with others who have checked the math and shown it to be solid.

"There is a reasonable hypothesis that there could have been an ancient civilization on Mars," Hoagland said, adding that the idea has a lot of adherents around the world. "At no point has NASA chosen to address this scientifically."

His beef with NASA is that the space agency should conduct systematic studies — based on standards that he would be involved in setting — to answer the questions he poses.

Hoagland says that as his group's effort has come closer to figuring out "the truth regarding the science and politics of 'extraterrestrial artifacts in the solar system,'" the opposition has become "rabid and relentless."

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