by Adrian Chen
There’s a way in which science can be viewed as the business of publishing very serious and boring magazines. Every discipline has dozens of scientific journals filled with the latest research alongside ads for cool equipment that scientists will tear out and pester their university administrations to buy for them. A scientist’s career depends on publishing research papers in these journals. And like anything having to do with media, there’s a hierarchy: The average scientist wouldn’t dream of submitting her paper to Nature any more than the average freelance writer would pitch The New Yorker. Chances are she’ll be realistic and aim low: maybe submitting to the Canadian Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences.
But even the jankiest scientific journal puts applicants through the sacred winnowing of peer review. Papers get rejected. And what do people do if they can’t get their stuff published? They start a blog. In October 2009, a group of eccentric scientists launched the online-only Journal of Cosmology. Simply put, the JOC publishes research that, in all likelihood, would never be accepted by more “mainstream” journals. In 14 volumes, covering everything from colonizing Mars to mass extinctions on Earth, this fringe publication has kicked up outsized scandal and hand-wringing in the usually staid realm of knowledge production.
The most recent controversy was over aliens. Earlier this month, the JOC published a paper by NASA engineer Richard B. Hoover, in which he claimed to have discovered fossilized alien microbes in a meteorite. If true, this discovery would have huge implications: Not only would it prove alien life existed on other planets, it would also strongly support the hypothesis of Panspermia, which suggests life initially came to Earth riding a meteorite. (The JOC is a champion of the theory.)
Predictably, the alien microbe story blew up on the Internet over a slow weekend. That Fox News was the first to report the “discovery” should have been a warning to the many other outlets that picked it up. The Journal of Cosmology’s own website should have been another. With its dizzying background of tiled deep-space imagery and faux-beveled menus, it’s a looping Star Trek .midi file away from your 1997 Geocities page. Its front page boasts: “14 million hits in March.” As one charitable observer put it, the website “does not inspire confidence.”
Sure enough, the alien microbe paper was met with pained howls from other scientists and sparked a full-on blog smackdown — or, as it’s called in science, a “debate.” Biologist PZ Myers called out obvious methodological errors in Hoover’s research but saved his most scathing words for the Journal of Cosmology:
“It isn’t a real science journal at all, but… the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.”
Even NASA distanced itself from Hoover’s work with a curt statement.
The journal hit back at its critics through a series of bombastic open letters with titles like, “Have the terrorists won?” If this means that Hoover’s paper is bullshit, then, yes, the terrorists have won in this case. Hoover didn’t discover aliens.
The JOC isn’t a “real” journal, but it’s not a fraud, either. It’s the National Enquirer of scientific journals. There’s a peer-review process — but just barely, so weird stuff gets through. In its pages, the JOC sneakily bestows doctorates on contributors who haven’t earned them, yet it boasts an editorial board full of real Ph.D.s who work for NASA, Harvard, Oxford. The JOC’s editor-in-chief, Harvard astrophysicist Rudolph M. Schild, has “authored or contributed to over two hundred and fifty papers,” as his Wikipedia page is at pains to points out. Schild’s bona fides are solid.
But Schild, like the JOC, isn’t afraid to let his freak flag fly. His Harvard website features an entire page devoted to his green 1960 Morgan roadster. In one photo we see a bearded, bandanna-ed Schild headed along a country road in the thing looking like he’s on the way to an all-night acid party hosted by the Hell’s Angels. Schild entertains the idea of UFOs and openly complains that his Harvard colleagues won’t too. As he told the blog De Void, “We’ve got 300 scientists here studying everything you can think of. Everything but UFOs. I’ve developed a schizoid personality. There’s Rudolph M. Schild, and then there’s the UFO Rudy Schild.”
UFO Rudy Schild publishes The Journal of Cosmology with its far-out alien research. Rudolph M. Schild, Ph.D. convinces journalists that they’re safe in picking up the story.
Even the Journal of Cosmology’s name teeters on the edge of science: The scientific study of “cosmology” usually refers to that heady branch of physics dealing with string theory, the big bang and all the Big Questions of how the universe started and what it’s made of. But the JOC uses a looser (or stricter, depending on how you look at it) definition of “cosmology.” According to its “About” page, the Journal of Cosmology is devoted to the study of “existence in its totality.” It’s a journal of everything.
Given such freedom, it’s not really surprising The Journal of Cosmology published the definitive paper on sex in space in October 2010. (Wouldn’t you?) Dr. Rhawn Joseph’s “Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex In Outer Space” covers all the salacious challenges presented by a long, lonely mission to Mars. (Dr. Joseph hails from the “Brain Research Laboratory,” a mysterious institution of which I could find no other mention online.)
“Humans are sexual beings,” writes Joseph. “The likelihood is male and female astronauts, traveling in the same space craft, will have sex during the long duration space-flight to Mars even if substantial rules and steps are taken to prevent it.”
Joseph’s astronauts aren’t just horny — they’re sort of kinky:
Performance of the sex act during a journey to Mars may require potentially complex sexual gymnastics. 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 humans are notorious for inventing ways of having sex despite all manner of logistical impediments.
Joseph’s paper was part of a special issue on the colonization of Mars, which featured another “sex in space” study by a NASA scientist, and a proposal for a one-way Mars mission commanded by the elderly, the rationale being that they’ve already lived out their best years here on Earth. (Maybe this is the solution to the “sex in space” problem, too.)
Like the alien microbes, the sex in space studies were Internet “weird science” sensations. “Forget the mile-high club, who’s joined the million-mile high club?” yucked Fox News. The Telegraph blared, “Sex In Space Tough, Says NASA”. When NASA pointed out that they weren’t actually investigating space sex, the Journal of Cosmology’s executive director, Dr. Lana Tao, mocked their prudishness: “It’s like TV shows from the 1970s where married couples sleep in separate twin beds, and women have babies but never show any signs of pregnancy.”
This combativeness may spell the end of the Journal of Cosmology. On Valentine’s Day, the JOC announced in a press release that it would publish its last volume in May because it had been “killed by thieves and crooks.” It blamed its demise on a conspiracy of more established journals:
JOC’s success posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals, such as Science magazine; just as online news killed many newspapers. Not surprisingly, JOC was targeted by Science magazine and others who engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books.
It would be too bad if the journal shut down. Scientific progress probably wouldn’t be hindered, but the JOC and the noise it’s made show off the messier side of science. Scientists squabble, snark and strive. They are people who sometimes have strange obsessions and really cool cars. They are human. And like all humans, they dream of making wild, weightless love in the vacuum of space, hurtling toward Mars.
Adrian Chen is a staff writer at Gawker. Here is his Twitter.