Life on Mars? Evidence from Antarctic meteorite
There are three sections here.
First, the original 1996 proposal, and its gradual disintegration.
Second, new attempts in 1999-2004 to present a revised version.
Third, the crackpot spin-offs (at least, that's my opinion of these ideas!).
The Original 1996 Proposal
In 1996, a group of scientists claimed that they had found evidence that life once existed on Mars. This claim is and always was controversial, and most people now think the evidence is dubious. Various sites show the development of the original proposal, and its gradual disintegration.
New Attempts to Present a Revised Version
The original team clings tenaciously to the idea. Even if the bacteria are not bacteria, and the organic chemicals are largely if not totally contaminants, they said,
the objects that they once called bacteria could instead be the remnants of bacteria. BBC News OnLine, February 1999.
Life on Mars: proof?. Reads like a tabloid, but it's from the BBC News OnLine, March 10, 1999.
Read this one carefully. From the New York Times, October 27, 2000. And the New York Times published another version of it on October 31!.
The reported research demonstrates only one thing: that the Martian meteorite was not heated very much on its way to Earth. No problem: nice piece of research. But then look at the way it is presented, both by the scientists and the reporters. The implication is that if life could have been transported on the meteorite, then it was! Sure: IF AND ONLY IF there was ever any life on Mars. AND THERE IS NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER THAT THERE EVER WAS!!! Yet the whole tenor of this report is that "life on Mars" is a respectable assumption. Sorry, folks, this is not science. And personally, I think it's a little less than creditable. Note that I used the word creditable, not the word credible.
As you might imagine, the panspermia people are VERY KEEN on Martian life. There is a tremendous list of links here too.
Here's what I think is an unfortunate but consistent trend in the debate. NASA has a lot invested in continued funding. It looks as if the decision has been made to push extraterrestrial life as a major lever to get public support behind the NASA budget. As an example, consider the fact that NASA has established not one, but two Institutes of Astrobiology. Astrobiology means "star life", and the fact of the Institutes clearly implies that there is such life. George Gaylord Simpson remarked acidly years ago that sciences with names like that were sciences without anything to study: AND HE'S RIGHT! It would not be half as sexy to give NASA's Institutes names that would reflect what they really do, which is to study organic chemistry under extraterrestrial conditions. But an Institute of Astrochemistry doesn't sound so much fun.
So read this article, from the San Francisco Chronicle December 2, 1999, and see if you can detect in it anything but puffery. Is there any new science to justify the new Institute? Hey, it's not free: that money is coming from other science research! Just my humble opinion!
As it is, the "bacteria-on-Mars" hype seems to have seriously distorted plans for exploring Mars. Here is an update on plans, and lack of plans, for Mars exploration in the nest few years. By Bruce Moomaw, April 2000.
Here is Bruce Moomaw's very sane reporter's view of NASA's First Annual Astrobiology Conference in April 2000. It's clear that a lot of good science IS going on, and that there's a lot to be done yet. Wouldn't it be nice to concentrate on the science?
A flurry of new papers arguing that there ARE bacteria in meteorites from Mars, February 2001.
However, the new evidence is insufficient, to say the least: here are articles about an article in November 2001, when the last piece of evidence pointing to Martian "bacteria" was blasted.
Martian bacteria again.Press release about a new paper, August 7, 2002. . About 75% of the magnetic material in the Martian meteorite is inorganic, but 25% was produced by Martian bacteria. That's the latest version! (Stay tuned.)
The bacteria in the Martian meteorite may be real, but they may also be contaminants (Earth bacteria). BBC News OnLine, October 23, 2002. . This could resolve the vicious arguments and the contradictory evidence.
AND FINALLY, in 2004, Chris McKay gives up (without saying so). Finally, in 2004 Christopher McKay, lead author on the original bacteria-from-Mars paper and a vigorous proponent for it over the years, all but gave up. In a paper on the search for extraterrestrial life, he forgot to mention his own claims about Martian bacteria, and said at least twice that there is only one known site of life: Earth.
Methane on Mars
There was a flurry of interest in 2004 about supposed detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere. It doesn't mean life. It may not even mean methane, because the data have not yet been published. See a summary by Richard Kerr in Science: Kerr, R. A. 2004. Heavy Breathing on Mars? Science 306, p. 29.
Chlorophyll on Mars
This is another outrageous piece of non-science from NASA.
Chlorophyll on Mars? BBC News OnLine, April 5, 2002. Beautifully crafted NASA BS again. Note how the scientists don't actually say the chlorophyll is Martian, but they are perfectly willing, even eager, to have the reporters say so. And no, the "discovery" is not ready for publication, especially in a prestigious journal, but we're perfectly willing to talk about it.... I just can't accept this as good science.
The Crackpot Spin-offs
The real problem is that the successful hype of the "Mars bacteria" (after all, it DID get more money for the scientists in that research field) seems to have removed all normal restraints on "science" in this particular field. Things have REALLY gone off the rails (in my opinion). Remember that science is supposed to work on evidence, and remember that the "bacteria from Mars" suggestion is rapidly disappearing into the "good try, but no prize" category, as EVIDENCE piles up against it.
Here's an idea that you can judge for yourself:
Life began on Mars. It was transported to Earth on meteorites, splashed off Mars by asteroid impacts, and thus life began on Earth. I am not kidding. The paper was published in a normal scientific journal (Journal of Geophysical Research, Planetary Sciences section, November 25, 1998).
And that's not all. There is even the thought that life began on Earth, and was transported to Mars (on meteorites), where it survived, even though the Earth was sterilized by asteroid impacts. Or the other way round. Or both. This comes from an Australian physicist, Paul Davies. Here is an accessible account of this suggestion, written in 2002, including the thought that we are all descendants of microbes that originally evolved on Mars!
Here is an article from the New York Times, January 13, 2000. Read it carefully. At first reading, it looks like real science. But is there a shred of evidence that what could have happened actually did happen? I could say that a Chinese fleet sailed round the world in 1350 AD. Sure, they could have, but there is no evidence that they did, and no sane historian would suggest such a scenario unless there was at least SOME evidence. [That hasn't prevented some people from exactly that suggestion.]
Page last updated October 15, 2004.
All links checked September 29, 2005.
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