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What the Search for Life on Mars Teaches

What the Search for Life on Mars Teaches
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Tuesday, 26 March 2019 01:21 PM Current | Bio | Archive

In 2016 the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey on Americans’ increasing reluctance to accept doctrinaire policies and worldviews imposed upon them, notwithstanding how much intellectual pressure is brought to bear by scientists and experts.

Climate debate, genetically modified organisms, and medical research, for example, headed the list of issues the masses seem disinclined to relinquish to the better judgment of anyone, no matter how many scholarly acronyms follow the names.

That’s a shift in opinion over the last few decades from the “science knows all” mantra long in the ascendant.

The public may be starting to gain a true appreciation of researchers’ monumental toil and struggle — as well as being disillusioned by seeing those efforts too often validated only if deemed suitable to be converted into yet another push-button application available to be downloaded onto smartphones, along with promoting whatever political or cultural fad happens to be monopolizing the public forum.

Americans are coming to realize that’s not how science works at all. It was Albert Einstein who said, “The more I learn the more I realize how much I don’t know.” And a good illustration of that is the quest to solve a very old scientific inquiry: Is there life on Mars?

The Viking Program made a valiant effort in the 1970s to answer that question. It’s worth mentioning that all three of Viking’s biology experiments yielded initially positive results for presence of microbial life.

These data were then almost immediately clouded by doubts from all quarters though — from possible sprung leaks in the apparatuses used, to particular chemical compounds already in the Martian environment fudging the results, to uncertainty whether soil samples for roasting during mass spectrometer testing were even successfully scooped into the crucible at all.

That the scientists working on Viking were able to even weigh these cosmological questions from tens of millions of miles away from the planet being tested is an accolade to the skill and intelligence of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — even the mid-1970s versions.

Two decades later, researchers got another crack at the Martian life question. This time it was a bit easier, since Mars came to them and not the other way around.

A piece of Mars discovered in Antarctica, meteorite ALH84001, made headlines around the world in 1996, along with being the focus of a sensational paper published in the much-respected journal, “Science,” with a photograph of what appears to be an ultra-small fossilized bacterium imaged on the surface of the meteorite. Here too, however, there is contentious debate about seems to some plain proof at a glance.

Experts in the arcane scientific fields of magnetite crystals (microscopic magnets that carrier pigeons and other species utilize to home in on magnetic north) along with specialists in nanobacteria who set the limit for the smallest possible life conceivable — and others — don’t see a super-tiny segmented worm-bug when viewing ALH84001. They also have purely natural explanations for the other seemingly biogenic signatures found within the meteorite.

Most recently, scientists at NASA discovered a lake of water under the Martian south polar ice cap in 2018. It is approximately 20 kilometers across and a permanent feature of Mars. If it turns out that this body of water supports no life whatsoever it should be the first one ever discovered anywhere, on Earth or elsewhere, to somehow have escaped being colonized by at least some biological denizens. Even the Dead Sea supports salt-loving haloarchaea microorganisms.

So is there life on Mars or not?

That is unknown at present — as with many other thousands of important matters so far insoluble by science. And that’s far from that being remarkable; science is the calmest and strongest voice cautioning against taking things as they appear at first sight. Science always demands a second look, and then another, and another.

The fallacious view of every whimsical question answered instantly and perfectly accurately by someone in a magical, white smock is the stock in trade of publicists, agents, and politicos. But in classrooms and laboratories, on Earth or on Mars, experimentation is hardly that cut and dried, and many realize that.

It’s a sophisticated population the Pew Research Center queried in 2016, difficult to manipulate on some issues, and one which has educated itself in many ways. Scientific nuggets are no longer brought down from pyramids to the uneducated masses by high priests in an age of instant digital communication with the electronic avatars of the greatest minds in any subject, at the touch of the keyboard.

No one knows if there’s life on Mars or not. Most people seem amenable to accepting that while intelligently waiting for the incontrovertible evidence.

David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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So is there life on Mars or not?
mars, science, life
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2019-21-26
Tuesday, 26 March 2019 01:21 PM
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