by David Tenenbaum
from WhyFiles Website


  • When aliens visit, will they be driving flying saucers?

  • That was the conventional wisdom of the conventional alien movies of the 1950s. But could aliens arrive in a non-cinematic downpour?

That's the startling word from Kerala, India, where physicist Godfrey Louis has studied a peculiar, blood-red rain that fell in 2001.



In summer, 2001, red rain fell in this 150 km by 450 km area of southwestern India.

Data from "The Red Rain Phenomenon..."


Louis, of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, India, told us in a brief email that the red rain fell on his hometown of Kottayam, "and I was immediately interested."


Under a microscope, the rusty-red water contained thick-walled objects that looked like cells. The cells had no nuclei, but they did contain structures that resembled the tiny organelles inside familiar cells.

Most amazing, says Louis, the cells can reproduce under conditions that usually kill life.

"These cells can be cultured at high temperature (about 600 F) and pressure conditions and at high temperature their growth rate (i.e. multiplication) can be very fast."

The details on replication are being submitted to another journal. Louis's study, published in March (see "The Red Rain Phenomenon ..." in the bibliography), also claimed that:

The rainfall averaged 9 million cells per cubic centimeter. At least 50 metric tons of cells fell on Kerala. Most of the rain fell in the first 10 days, but some persisted for two months.

The first red rain occurred hours after local people heard a loud, cracking sound -- possibly the high-altitude explosion of a small meteor. The elliptical pattern of red rainfall resembles the pattern of fragments when a meteor strikes at a low angle -- but no meteor fragments were found.

While rainfall commonly contains desert dust, Louis noted that the cells in the Kerala samples looked nothing like dust.

An electron-microscope photo "clearly shows that these particles are having a fine structure similar to biological cell (sic)," the Louis report said. X-ray absorption analysis revealed high proportions of carbon, oxygen, silicon, aluminum and iron.



Two cells (or is that three?) seem to be forming inside this cell,

taken from the red rains of Kerala.

Courtesy CCAB, Cardiff University


The Louis report tried to answer obvious objections to the alien theory.


For example, why didn't the cells rain out right away? Louis calculated that they would slowly drift down, taking up to 60 days to reach Earth's surface. The idea that one body of air would blanket Kerala for 60 days caught the eye of Ian Goddard, an independent researcher who wrote a debunking of the red-rain-as-aliens.


Goddard wrote us to say,

"One fatal flaw with the 'alien microbe' theory is that the red rains fell sporadically between late July and late September of 2001."

It's "simply preposterous" to argue that these microscopic particles would slowly rain out of the atmosphere for two months, he wrote.

"Even without monsoon winds blowing across the state the whole time such light aerosols released at a high altitude would be blown hundreds or thousands of miles away over that time."

(The Why Files covered long-distance dust.)




The 2006 Louis article also cites a negative test for DNA at the Center for Astrobiology at Cardiff University, United Kingdom that "Strangely ... indicates absence of DNA in these cells." DNA occurs in almost all life on Earth, and its absence was considered strong evidence for an extraterrestrial origin cells.

But there are holes in this amazing claim. As Louis admitted by email,

"This is not an ultimate test for DNA, it may fail due to unknown reasons -- like if the cells have clever mechanisms to hide the DNA from interacting with the dye."

Lynn Rothschild, an associate professor of human biology at Stanford University and editor of the International Journal of Astrobiology, questions the reliability of the Cardiff claims, which should, she say, have been performed under a microscope.

Finally, the Cardiff lab seems to have changed its tune. According to its website:

"Further work in progress has yielded positive for DNA using DAPI staining in the cells and daughters. However, this identification is not yet fully confirmed, and might be considered equivocal."

We emailed Cardiff astrobiology director N.C. Wickramasinghe for clarification, but he never got back to us.




These artist's concepts of comet Tempel 1 simulate optical (left) and infrared views.

This comet is roughly 14 by 4 kilometers. If a comet spread alien cells across India in 2001,

it could have been just 10 meters across.

Images: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech, and T. Pyle (Spitzer Science Center).



To Louis, the red rain seems to bear out a controversial theory of "panspermia" that Wickramasinghe helped develop -- that comets "seeded" the universe with life.

"If the red rain particles are biological cells and are of cometary origin, then this phenomena can be a case of cometary panspermia where comets can breed microorganisms in their radiogenically heated interiors and can act as vehicles for spreading life in the universe."

In other words, radioactive decay may keep the comets warm enough to allow life forms to stay alive - and we could be the descendants of ET.

It's far-fetched. Red rain would be the first evidence for panspermia. To most of us, flying saucers are the typical transport for aliens.


Did aliens reach India on a comet?




Before accepting such an extraordinary extraterrestrial claim, we beat the bushes for contrary opinions.


Goddard pointed us to a 2001 report from India (see "Coloured Rain: ..." in the bibliography), which noted that red rain had previously fallen in Kerala. The report concluded that the rainfall contained spores of a lichen-forming alga in the genus Trentepohlia.


Lichen are symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. The spores of both organisms can survive harsh environments like deserts, frigid polar regions, and alpine rocks, where they are bathed in powerful ultraviolet light.

The same 2001 report noted that shortly after the first red rain, scientists who visited the area found,

"that almost all the trees, rocks and even lamp posts in the region were full of lichens. Samples were collected ... and ... observed under the microscope and confirmed the identity as Trentepohlia with orange-red pigment, haematochromes, inside the cells."

When these samples were grown in culture,

"Trentepohlia was seen in the cultures... Sporangia with spores were also noticed... It was therefore concluded that the algal spores found in the coloured rainwater from Changanacherry [Kerala] were of local origin."

The 2006 Louis report did mention the above article, but mischaracterized it slightly as the discovery of "fungal spores," not algal spores.


However, Louis ignored a 2002 report from India's Centre for Earth Science Studies (see "Colored Rain Falls in Kerala..." in the bibliography), which also concluded that the red color came from algae. In general, scientists who make new claims must discuss and refute existing claims that they disagree with.



When Indian scientists placed cells from the red rain on a growth medium, they identified a lichen-forming alga.

Photos: Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, India (see "Coloured Rain..." in the bibliography).




Another scientific fraud?

The red rain story reminds us of the "yellow rain" ... detected in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan during the 1970s and '80s, which supposedly showed that the Soviet Union had sprayed biological or chemical weapons on its client states.


Although the samples were too old to be definitive, that claim is now largely discredited; some scientists suggested the yellow tint came from bee dung.

Red rain also reminds us of the 1996 "discovery" of evidence for ancient Martian life in an Antarctic meteorite. After a massive investigation and a vigorous scientific wrangle, the claim remains unproven.

Unfortunately, red rain also recalls the disastrous stem-cell flim-flam uncovered in December, 2005.


Eventually, Science, the premier American scientific journal, had to yank two fraudulent articles on major stem-cell advances.



In 1996, a furor arose after a scientist claimed these "Martian fossils" were evidence of life on Mars.

Nobody knows for sure, but the rock apparently did come from Mars.

Did a comet carry life to Earth -- in the deep past or in 2001?

Photo: NASA.


The claims for life on Mars and life-saving advances in stem cells appeared in prestigious scientific journals. Likewise, Louis's 2006 article was published in a "prestigious peer-reviewed journal," as CNN described it.

Although Astrophysics and Space Science is not on a par with Science, the question remains: Can we trust peer-reviewed scientific journals to always get it right? No, says Deborah Blum, a professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison and past president of the National Association of Science Writers.


In peer review, outside scientists gauge an article's accuracy before publication. Articles that survive peer review are deemed the "gold standard" of science, even though the claims about Martian life, stem cells, and alien red rain all passed peer review.

"When you see something like that," Blum says, "what does it say about the ever-hallowed process of peer review, which has never been quite as pure as some people like to claim."



Revealed - Scientists are humans, too!

Science, Blum adds, is "an entirely human process," and human drives like ambition and competition, glory and greed can always play a role.


And thus Blum suggests this straightforward rule for evaluating an outlandish scientific claim:

"Reader, journalist, scientist beware. You have to put it through your common-sense filtering process. If you accept only one source, you are getting yourself in trouble."

For our part, call us flying-saucer traditionalists, but we remain skeptical that red rain is carrying aliens. The claim would be sturdier if it had passed a deluge of skepticism and study that greeted the Martian meteorite.

When in doubt, scientists often pick up Occam's razor. This scientific scalpel says that all other things being equal, a simpler explanation beats a complicated one: a red alga that is common in Kerala beats a red extra-terrestrial that is not.

As astronomer Carl Sagan used to say,

"extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Where is the extraordinary evidence for alien red rain?




The Red Rain Phenomenon of Kerala and its Possible Extraterrestrial Origin, Godfrey Louis and A. Santhosh Kumar, Astrophysics and Space Science, 21 Jan. 2006.

Indian National Report for IUGG 2003, Indian National Science Academy.

Coloured Rain: A Report on the Phenomenon, S. Sampath, T.K. Abraham, V. Sasi Kumar and C.N. Mohanan, Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram 695031, India, Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Pacha, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram, India, November 2001.

Colored Rain Falls in Kerala, India, Kumar, V.S., Sampath, S., Mohanan, C.N., & Abraham, T.K. (2002). Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 8 (31), 335.