By Louis A. Frank and Patrick Huyghe
The universe is what it is. I don't bury observations that stand in the way of conventional wisdom. I don't gloss over things I don't understand. I will not compromise my integrity. Unfortunately, this stance has made me the target of scientific vandalism.
It all began in the mid-1980s, when a camera aboard a NASA spacecraft called Dynamics Explorer presented me with data that many scientists would have ignored or overlooked. Curious black spots appeared in the images of Earth's aurora, one of the phenomena I have devoted my career to studying as an experimental physicist. I came to realize that the black spots in the images were not caused by "instrument noise," as many scientists believed, but were evidence of a remarkable geophysical phenomenon occurring unnoticed right above our heads.
In the spring of 1986, I published my explanation of the black spots in a scientific journal: The Earth's atmosphere was being bombarded by house-sized, water-bearing objects traveling at 25,000 mph, one every three seconds or so. That's 20 a minute, 1,200 an hour, 28,800 a day, 864,000 a month and more than 10 million a year. Spelled out in this way, the numbers truly boggle the mind. These objects, which I call "small comets," disintegrate high above the Earth and deposit huge clouds of water vapor into the upper atmosphere. Over the history of this planet, the small comets may have dumped enough water to fill the oceans and may have even provided the organic ingredients necessary for life on Earth.
Scientists reacted to my announcement as if I had plowed through the sacred field of established science with a bulldozer. I had. If the small comets were real, one scientist commented, textbooks in a dozen sciences would have to be rewritten. And so scientists dismissed the small comets, in much the same way they discounted Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift in the early part of the 20th century.
I spent more than a year answering the objections of critics. But I didn't convince them. It was 10,000 to 1 -- actually 2, myself and John Sigwarth, whose task as my graduate student assistant had been to help me resolve this black-spot mystery. "We have taken a representative poll of current opinion in this field," an editor at Nature wrote in rejecting a small-comet paper we submitted to them in 1988, "and the verdict goes against you." It was my first encounter with taking polls as a way of doing science.
Now, a decade later, many of those who had "voted" against us are changing their minds. In May at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, we presented images acquired by our ultraviolet camera aboard NASA's Polar spacecraft, a satellite sent up to study the Sun's effects on the Earth's environment. This camera, too, had picked up the black spots in the Earth's sunlit atmosphere. And this time there was no doubt; these black spots or atmospheric holes, as we called them, occurred in clusters of pixels or picture elements, not single pixels as in the Dynamics Explorer images. The phenomenon could not be due to instrumental artifacts. We could also see these black spots expanding and moving as they entered Earth's atmosphere. And the filters on our visible-light camera confirmed that these objects consisted of water -- enough water to produce clouds of water vapor 50 miles across, high in the atmosphere.
The new evidence stunned many of our former critics into admitting that we had been right. The University of Michigan's Thomas Donahue, one of the world's leading experts in atmospheric science, said so, as did Robert Meier, a space physicist from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. "I guess I'll just have to swallow crow," wrote one detractor. These former critics now agree that these objects are indeed water-bearing, but they don't want to call them small comets because they don't have the dust that the large, well-known comets do. That's okay. Call them "cometesimals" if you want -- that's the term Donahue prefers -- but the fact remains: They carry lots of water just like the large comets, and they are millions of times smaller than Hale-Bopp and Halley.
At first glance, this apparent resolution to the small-comet affair would seem worthy of applause -- the scientific process of debate, peer review and criticism would appear to have functioned admirably. But the gap between appearance and reality is a large one. After I presented my findings on the small comets in 1986, the scientific community did its best to extinguish my career. In the past decade, I have been unable to get any other projects off the ground. Before the small-comet findings became public, my success in this regard was envious; I was able to get instruments on board several major spacecraft -- Polar, Galileo and Geotail. But after my small-comet announcement, I got nothing. I had my ongoing projects, such as the one on Polar that eventually produced the confirmatory data. But the new projects I proposed went nowhere -- even those that had nothing to do with small comets.
I am a very strong competitor. In my 40 years as an experimental physicist I have worked on experiments on 40 spacecraft. I have been on the forefront of many discoveries in the field of plasma physics. I made the first measurements of the plasma ring around Saturn. I was the first to measure solar-wind plasmas funneling directly into the Earth's polar atmosphere. I was the first to observe with a scientific instrument the belt of ions around the Earth that is now known as the "ring current." And I discovered the theta aurora, a luminous phenomenon which, seen from space, looks like the Greek letter "theta" stamped across the polar cap.
I can understand why the small comets were so startling to people. Their existence raises a number of questions: Where is the evidence of their passage through the Earth's atmosphere? Why haven't the seismometers left by the Apollo astronauts on the Moon recorded any small comet impacts? And so on.
These are the kinds of reasonable questions raised at the beginning of the small-comet debate, and I tried to answer them as best I could -- knowing, of course, that some answers could only come from additional research. But the intellectual discourse on the subject was brief, at best. Many of my colleagues labeled me a crank for my unwavering defense of the small comets, and I was blackballed from the community. Awards and honors with my name on them were canceled. It is public knowledge, for instance, that I was not elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for this very reason.
The science game can be brutal. I was shunned by almost everyone. It got to the point that when I went to out-of-town meetings, I normally ate alone, occasionally joined by a few close friends who are physicists. I've paid a stiff price. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so naive, but the behavior of some former friends and colleagues amazed me. It went far beyond what I expected.
There were a few people -- I can count them on one hand -- who started out as critics, but had the intellectual honesty to pursue this subject properly. One was John Olivero, then of Pennsylvania State University and now at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Olivero and a graduate student named Dennis Adams collected data on water-vapor concentrations in the upper atmosphere and found temporary increases of the sizes and frequency one would expect if the small comets existed. Clayne Yeates, who has since died, was another. He was the science manager for the Galileo project. He devised a way of using the Spacewatch Telescope in Arizona to track the small comets -- which he doubted were real -- and managed to obtain a set of images showing the small comets in consecutive frames. It didn't take long for Yeates to be ostracized, just as I had been, and life for Olivero hasn't exactly been a picnic since he presented his controversial findings before the American Geophysical Union in 1987.
We began working on our instrument for the Polar spacecraft several years before the small comets were even a gleam in the eyes of Dynamics Explorer. We had the data from Dynamics Explorer by 1984, so we knew the small comets were real. But we were still a couple of years away from making our findings public. We began, however, to think about how we could modify our instruments -- under construction for Polar -- to include the capability of specifically looking for the small comets. We did this without any risk to the primary objective, which was studying the Earth's aurora. Basically, we made sure that the ultraviolet camera had a very large field of view and very low noise so that there would be no question of instrumentation being responsible for the black spots in the images. For the visible-light cameras, we put in filters that were not related to the aurora, and it was these filters that eventually told us the small comets had no sodium, no dust, but water -- lots of water.
Polar went up on Feb. 24, 1996. After we worked hard to get our instruments turned on, the first images came through. Sigwarth was at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and he called me back in Iowa City to say the black spots were there. He wasn't surprised. Neither was I. We had done our research carefully enough that we knew they just had to be there.
The new data from Polar have not silenced all my critics, however. Alexander Dessler, the editor who published my original small-comet papers in Geophysical Research Letters in 1986, is one of them. He published the material against the recommendation of his reviewers because he welcomed controversial topics and didn't want to miss a possible breakthrough. But he quickly became a critic, convincing people that the camera aboard the Dynamics Explorer wasn't working properly. Like most of those who continue to criticize the small-comet findings, he hasn't even seen our latest data. I can deal with my critics on an intellectual basis. But if they pound their chests and bray at the moon, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
I have submitted four papers on our latest small-comet findings to Geophysical Research Letters. A raft of reviewers is working hard to get them out so that everybody can see the results. It's been a fair review; some of the reviewers have been quite helpful in even squeezing more out of the results.
But the shabby treatment I've received at the hands of some science journals has continued. Last year, Nature rejected one of our team's new small-comet papers by saying: "We are unable to conclude that the paper provides the sort of advance in understanding that would excite the immediate interest of a wide, general audience." How wrong can you be? When we announced our results from Polar at the end of May, the story drew the attention of CBS, CNN, NPR, most of the major daily newspapers in this country, including this one, as well as Time, U.S. News and World Report, and Science.
People tell me I should have dropped the whole subject, but that would have violated my sense of integrity. What has happened, however, is that science has lost its fun for me. The joy of working with the general scientific community is gone. But I have not lost my ability to do research at the very highest levels. I essentially have become a science machine: In the past three to four years alone, I have authored or co-authored nearly 100 papers on Jupiter's moons, non-linear plasma physics in the vicinity of Earth, the Earth's aurora and a dozen other topics. And during that same period I have presented or co-presented nearly 200 papers at national and international meetings.
I've done what I had to do. It took me a tenth of a century to do it. I've proved the atmospheric holes are there. I've shown that these objects have water in them. And I've shown that there are 10 million of these things coming in a year. What we have to do now is go up there and meet the small comets at 600 miles out. Polar sees these objects with great resolution but from a great distance. Now we have to get up close and see these objects in detail. And that's just what a group of us -- Sigwarth and myself, along with some of my former critics, including Donahue and Michael Combi at the University of Michigan; Paul Feldman at John Hopkins University; Meier, George Carruthers and Charles Brown at the Naval Research Laboratory; and Ralph Bohlin at the Space Telescope Science Institute -- have proposed. We all agree that there is a really astounding number of previously unknown objects coming into our atmosphere, but we are in total disagreement about what they are. That's what the proposal says.
This proposed spacecraft is the first step in doing more sophisticated studies on these objects. Its two imagers will not only be more powerful and sensitive than those on Polar, but they will be able to look at the emissions coming from these objects. We are going to be looking for carbon, oxygen and simple organic gases. Maybe later we will be able to send a major mission after these objects and bring back samples. What an exciting adventure that will be for everyone. Meanwhile, we must begin to come to terms with the thought that as our planet twirls around the Sun, as the Earth's tectonic plates heave and dive, the cosmos is bathing us in a gentle cosmic rain.
[Home] [Latest News] [The Original Discovery] [Who's Who] [FAQ] [For More Information]