They never meant to cause you any sorrow
They never meant to cause you any pain
They only wanted one time to see you laughing
They only want to see you laughing in the red Kerala rain
Red Kerala Rain, Red Kerala Rain!
Maybe it’s not as catchy as Prince’s legendary song that was the climactic culmination of his musical film of the same name, but the real-life instances of red rain falling in the Indian state of Kerala in the summer of 2001 was in many ways just as bizarrely brilliant and entertaining. First beginning on Christmas in July (July 25), residents of Kerala watched in wonder, horror, and confusion as the sky poured open with rain the color of blood. The strange phenomenon occurred after a loud booming noise that did not seem to be thunder as it wasn’t preceded by lightning. Was it a message from the gods? Was it a surreal scientific happening? Or was it something that validated the craziest sounding idea for the beginnings of life on Earth?
“Blood rain” is nothing new. It is an odd yet fairly common occurrence where red colored rain falls instead of the regular, more expected clear rain we’re used to kissing an upside-down hanging Spider-Man in. Blood rain is never actually blood (although some locals in Kerala in 2001 believed that exploding bats were the cause) but rather a mix of colored solid particles that fall with the rain that give it its strange signature appearance. More often than not it is reddish colored sand from a desert such as the Sahara or Gobi that gets swept up into the clouds and blown over to anywhere the wind drops it off. Such events have happened before in London, various parts of India, and pretty much everywhere in between. There are even some recorded instances of fish being whirled up by a storm system in the North Sea and dropped onto an unsuspecting England! Nevertheless, Kerala did not experience anything like that. The red rain that fell from late July to late September was not the typical “blood rain” scientists were used to seeing, but an anomaly that led to many questions and even more answers, each more outlandish than the others.
A physicist by the name of Godfrey Louis from the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, checked out some samples of the red rain and was surprised to find the source of the red color wasn’t dust or dirt, but living cells. Transparent living cells that looked a lot like blood cells in almost every respect except for the fact that they didn’t test positive for blood cells. Louis and his colleague Santhosh Kumar could not find any DNA present in the cells either, but they did make the startling discovery that the cells could not only stand up to, but best replicated at temperatures around 300 °C (572 °F). Holy Four-Armed Vishnu! That’s fucking hot! Believe it or not, it gets crazier. Louis and Kumar added up the evidence they had and felt it pointed at one conclusion: the red cells that rained down upon Kerala were extraterrestrial cells that were attached to a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere and caused the colored cells to fall as rain. It all sounds quite farfetched, and in a moment I’ll provide the reasons why it is, but I’ll also explain why the weirdest sounding part of it all is actually a valid hypothesis for how life began on Earth, and could begin or might have begun on other worlds.
Louis and Kumar stumbled upon something unique for sure, but as experienced as they were in one scientific field (Physics), their lack of experience in another (Biology) led them to a conclusion jump that was a bit too bold. They admitted that they were not experts on finding DNA in cells – an admirable admission for scientists who had hoped to have made the greatest discovery of humanity’s lifetime – and they sent off the samples to other scientists more experienced in doing so. All of these biologists determined the presence of DNA. This doesn’t seem to completely discredit the duo, but it does weaken their authority on a hypothesis that claims the existence of alien lifeforms. Furthermore, they didn’t account for the effect that wind and weather would have had on a meteor that had debris scatter from the sky onto the same area for two months. Nor did they submit any of their reports on their findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. You may recall my emphasis on the importance of the peer-reviewed journal process from a few blogs back, but suffice it to say that if you put a paper out there with your research findings and don’t submit it through a review process from other scientists in the field, it’s comparable to a poorly made horror movie not giving film critics a preview: it’s not going to go down in the annals of history for a good reason.
Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Kerala took a look at the red rain samples and discovered its true colors. They determined that the living cells were most likely of this world and were algal spores from the genus Trentepohlia which is fairly common in the Kerala region. Not to mention that this is not the first nor last occurrence of red rain which has wet the land of Kerala; one fell as recently as 2012. Moreover, the findings by Louis and Kumar of the extreme temperature surviving abilities of the cells was unsubstantiated by anyone outside of themselves.
This is not to say that cells and living organisms cannot endure extreme conditions. Extremophiles are organisms (usually microorganisms) that live quite comfortably in places that organisms like us most certainly cannot. Places like thermal vents well over 100°C, deserts that are harsh and unyielding, and potentially in the icy crags of rocks whizzing through space. If such hardy organisms can survive in the freezing vacuum of space, then they can travel on asteroids, comets, and other objects in space, including artificial satellites, and could possibly take up new residence on planets that their cosmic carrier crashes into. It is possible that the first lifeforms that arose on Earth came from the far reaches of deep space in just such a way. This planetary “seeding” of life is what is proposed by the hypothesis known as panspermia. Greek for “all seed”, panspermia is analogous to the beginnings of life in animals like us where a sperm fertilizes an egg to begin development of new life. Just consider this happening on a much, much larger scale where a meteoroid (that is soon to be a meteorite; the sperm in this instance) carrying extremophile microorganisms crashes into a planet (the egg) and those lifeforms take hold on their new homeworld and evolve so that over time there are many new species that have developed from the original lifeform(s). The question of where the first life in the universe developed is still unanswered, but it is exciting to consider that we may have been Martians before Earthlings somewhere in our evolutionary past.
It is important to remember that panspermia is not a scientific theory as it has not yet had enough evidence to back it up (as in really any). Louis and Kumar have made adjustments on their original findings from their research on the red rain of Kerala but still maintain the position that the cells are extraterrestrial and proof of panspermia in action. It seems unlikely in this instance, but that doesn’t kill the panspermia hypothesis. We have to keep pressing on with an open mind and an objective resolve to try to decipher the answer to how our planet first became lively, and when we’ve got that figured out we can hitch a ride on our success en route to uncover the next great mystery of why things are the way they are.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to drizzle on back here next week for the second State of the Season! It’ll only be a couple of weeks late of the President’s State of the Union, for what that’s worth. Any questions, queries, qualms, or comments can be directed below or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to send me any ideas for future topics; I’ll at least read them all. Be nice to everybody you see on the street in the meantime. Yes, even Todd from high school. I know he was a douche then and it’s still lingering a bit now, but he’s trying, and it’s not nice to laugh at the fat guy on the treadmill who’s making an effort. Besides, we’re all lucky to be we where are anyway.
Your Cosmic Character,