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(January 23, 1997)
For some reason I decided to watch the execrable TV show "Sightings" last night. This is a tabloid-type journalism show dealing with fringe science such as ghosts, UFO's and the like. They had a brief blurb about a meteorite that contains an unusual form of carbon called 'buckeyballs', or molecules shaped like soccer balls. These balls are actually hollow, and can contain other atoms inside (this is true). On the TV show, the reporter said that the buckeyballs can transport life-giving atoms such as oxygen and nitrogen 'from galaxy to galaxy'.

It's difficult to take seriously a show that purports to be at least marginally about science when it can't even get the basics right. The announcer meant 'from star to star'. Even that takes thousands or millions of years. Going to another galaxy at the speeds consistent with interstellar travel would take longer than the age of the Universe.

But where was the evidence that this rock came from another star, and not just our solar system? The report itself was too brief to get a good idea of the actual research being done on the meteorite. They said that the buckeyballs had atoms of helium inside 'older than the Sun', implying the rock came from outside the solar system. Well, just about every atom in the Sun is older than the Sun. The hydrogen was made in the Big Bang, and the heavier elements almost all came from outside the solar system-- they formed the solar system, of course! The Sun was put together from building blocks that already existed. Now, the Sun does make new helium in its core, and it is possible for that helium to make its way to the surface. But how did the researchers date the helium inside the buckeyballs? This was not mentioned in the report, and yet it was a key part of that report. (To be fair, I can think of one way-- the meteorite itself can be dated using cosmic ray techniques, and one can assume that the helium was trapped in the buckeyballs before the meteorite formed. Again, however, this was not mentioned in the report). It's possible that there is evidence that the meteorite came from outside the solar system, but the report didn't mention it. The type of narration used on the show was misleading, and playing a little loose with the facts. I will grant that the report was brief and no doubt edited for time, but this show has a history of sensationalizing para-science issues, so I am less willing to cut them slack then I might be if they were a little more careful more often.

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