It's official. There was life on Mars!!!
February 26, 2001 5:46 PM   Subscribe

It's official. There was life on Mars!!! "I am convinced that this is supporting evidence for the presence of ancient life on Mars,'' said Kathie Thomas-Keprta, an astrobiologist at the space center and the first author of a study appearing Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
posted by zeoslap (12 comments total)
I admire the persistence of the NASA scientists, but they've been singularly unsuccessful in winning over more than a minority of their colleagues to their position of certainty.

posted by dhartung at 6:54 PM on February 26, 2001

It's "official"? Are NASA scientists the final authority on scientific fact?

If you want to be cynical, the main reason NASA is so certain that there was life on Mars is because if there were, they could expect a lot of new funding.
posted by daveadams at 7:30 PM on February 26, 2001

...and that would be a bad thing because...?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:01 PM on February 26, 2001

...because it's not good science.
posted by grumblebee at 8:06 PM on February 26, 2001

(well, it MIGHT be good science, but NASA's stake in Mars projects should make one skeptical.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:07 PM on February 26, 2001

I don't know. Personally I think we should let NASA say all they want to get more funding. Space exploration is a good thing, in my opinion.

And I really want a spaceship.

Plus I'm going to be like that kid in Space Camp who started the first interstellar Burger chain.

Intergalactic consumerism begins!
posted by christian at 8:19 PM on February 26, 2001

Don't get the wrong impression, I'm all for NASA getting plenty of funding. But I also don't doubt they often resort to exaggerating reality in order to get that funding. Not that any other federal program is different.

Of course, the argument could be made that continued funding of NASA is only hurting human space exploration.
posted by daveadams at 9:43 AM on February 27, 2001

I don't think that this is the result of a mad attempt to get funding. Rather, I think it's the result of overenthusiasm. I'm skeptical of this particular rock, but I certainly understand their quest. The search for extraterrestrial life is one of the most important scientific endeavors available to us. The problem is that we don't know whether life is common or rare. If we can find that life occurred independently at least twice just in this solar system, then it means that life will be everywhere. If not, then we don't know.

Mars was, way back when, easily the second best candidate for the development of life in the system, since it had liquid water, a decent atmosphere, and vulcanism. That appears to be all that's required according to current theory. So there's a lot of effort being put into determining if life existed on Mars, although I think that effort is premature.

Right now, it's generally thought that the best candidates for life outside Earth are Europa and to a lesser extent Callisto and Ganymede. But there's no way right now to determine that. We'll be able to test the theory at Europa in perhaps 50 years, and Callisto and Ganymede even longer from now.

In the mean time, impatient scientists are attempting to use such evidence as exists now to answer the question for Mars. Unfortunately there isn't much, and what does exist is ambiguous. Their logic of "We found this and we've only seen it as a side effect of life" is not adequate; it doesn't prove that there couldn't be an as-yet-unknown inorganic origin.

But then, this has happened before. The Viking landers had three experiments which were supposed to check for life, and initially one of them seemed to be positive. Later they worked out an inorganic explanation for what they saw. (The changes were the result of inorganic catalysts in the martian soil, not metabolic processes.) Viking didn't prove there was no life, but what was found isn't evidence that there is. Equally, magnetite in this rock is intriguing but not by any stretch conclusive.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2001

Dear Mr daveadams, while NASA certainly aren't the final authority on scientific fact they do have a lot of very smart scientists working for them. Why are you so reticent to believe that they have proof there was life on Mars ? What they found currently has no other explanation than a biological one, short of finding an ancient city full of brass knobs and strange writing this seems like a pretty good indication that there was something going on up there way back when.

Mars exploration fuels the public interest in space exploration and finding life out there is a major impetus for kids getting into the field in the first place, which can only be a good thing.

Stop your whining and cynicism, this is cool stuff.
posted by zeoslap at 10:38 AM on February 27, 2001

Zeoslap, "We don't know of any other explanation" isn't the same as "There is no other explanation." They don't have proof.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:24 AM on February 27, 2001

I realise that the evidence isn't conclusive but from what we know right now the mineral features found in the rock can only be produced by biological means, and until someone figures out another way these things could have been formed I'm willing to believe it was by ancient space bugs :)

posted by zeoslap at 12:05 PM on February 27, 2001

zeoslap, I don't doubt the scientists at NASA have complete faith in their conclusions. I also don't doubt that the variety of "very smart scientists" outside NASA who disagree with them have complete faith in their own conclusions.

I just thought it was funny that you used the word "official." I mean, what does that word really mean in a scientific-community sense? Even where there are scientific groups that decide on standards or whatever for the community, there's no guarantee that they are correct about anything (except arbitrary conventions like SI units, which can't be "right" or "wrong"). So it's funny (to me) that any science could be termed "official," e.g.: "It's official! Orangutans on the path to extinction!"

It was an attempt at humor, but not a good one, apparently.
posted by daveadams at 2:19 PM on February 27, 2001

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