Nature: Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion

A new article in Nature announces, “Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion.” Yes, that’s right, the bacteria left behind from the Apollo moon landings are slowly eating into the moon and breaking it up.

Pictures captured by an orbiting spacecraft have revealed that the Moon is being heavily eroded. Images of the lunar surface reveal deep cracks and holes that are slowly but surely releasing gas and dust into space.

“This is serious,” says Brad Kawalkowizc, an astrogeologist from the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre in Belgium, who has analysed the pictures. “There really is less Moon up there than there used to be.” If the process continues, he adds, the Moon could eventually crumble away to nothing.

Michael Hopkin & Mark Peplow, Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion.” Nature, Published online: 1 April 2005

It looks like a disaster is in the works. How did scientists discover this?

The images of the Moon were captured on 1 April by the Floating Optical Orbital Lens.

OK, yes, this was an April Fool’s joke. But consider the following articles that also appeared in Nature’s news update:

Philip Ball, “Black holes ‘do not exist’

Mark Peplow, “Artificial retina gets diamond coating

Either of these titles is shocking enough that it could easily be an April Fool’s Joke. I had to take a good long look at the article on black holes, and the arXiv paper on which it was based, plus the date (March 31st) before deciding that, yes, it was for real.

This is the problem with April Fool’s spoofs in science. When you are not very familiar with a field – e.g., I don’t know much at all about astrophysics – it can be difficult to tell reality apart from spoof. Dozens of amazing discoveries are announced every week, and the science media takes pains to trumpet the most surprising/weird/pun-worthy ones.

Discover Magazine used to slip one spoof article into its April issue every year. The problem was, many readers couldn’t tell them apart. Famously, Discover’s story on the rediscovery of the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers of Antarctica was widely believed. Supposedly, the ice borers melted tunnels through the ice with their superhot heads, and then would converge in packs underneath penguins, suddenly creating a slush puddle and devouring the penguin before it could escape:

April Pazzo was about to call it a day when she noticed that the penquins she was observing seemed strangely agitated. Pazzo, a wildlife biologist, was in Antarctica studying penguins at a remote, poorly explored area along the coast of the Ross Sea. “I was getting ready to release a penguin I had tagged when I heard a lot of squawking,” says Pazzo. “When I looked up, the whole flock had sort of stampeded. They were waddling away faster than I’d ever seen them move.”

Pazzo waded through the panicked birds to find out what was wrong. She found one penguin that hadn’t fled. “It was sinking into the ice as if into quicksand,” she says. Somehow the ice beneath the bird had melted; the penguin was waist deep in slush. Pazzo tried to help the struggling penguin. She grabbed its wings and pulled. With a heave she freed the bird. But the penguin wasn’t the only thing she hauled from the slush. About a dozen small, hairless pink molelike creatures had clamped their jaws onto the penguin’s lower body. Pazzo managed to capture one of the creatures – the others quickly released their grip and vanished into the slush.

Over the next few months Pazzo caught several of the animals and watched others in the wild. She calls the strange new species hotheaded naked ice borers. “They’re repulsive,” says Pazzo. Adults are about six inches long, weigh a few ounces, have a very high metabolic rate – their body temperature is 110 degrees – and live in labyrinthine tunnels carved in the ice.

Despite the researcher’s name (“April Pazzo”) and the stunning energetics required for a small mammal to survive in ice, let alone melt through ice, the article was widely believed. More than once, people cited it to me in rebuttal to statements like “there are no land mammals native to Antarctica.” (“Oh, but recently they discovered those ice-borer rodents that eat penguins, I read about it in Discover”)

In actuality, the photo was a doctored photo of a naked mole-rat. The story reported got more mail than any other Discover article, ever, and is now listed as #9 on the The Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time website, and is lovingly reproduced or cited on many other websites

Discover continued the practice for several more years. They used to have a website devoted to it, it is still available on the Wayback Machine. In 1997 they did an article announcing that Dr. Oscar Todkopf had discovered what appeared to be the remains of a Neandertal tuba, bagpipes, and xylophone. This one didn’t fool nearly as many people, particularly those who knew what “Todkopf” means in German, but in 2000, the much-beloved Institute for Creation Research actually used this article as a data source in one of their radio broadcasts.