ChemWipes 2009

Copyright 1998 Gannett Company, Inc.

August 27, 1998, Thursday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 732 words

HEADLINE: Level head is key to talk of Martians

BYLINE: Alcestis “Cooky” Oberg

Sensational headlines in politics and sports are standard fare
these days, but they need to be used with caution in the world
of science.

Consider how, two years ago, NASA scientists announced they may have found the fossilized remains of life on Mars inside a meteorite that had been blasted off the Red Planet and found in Antarctica in 1984. News anchormen could hardly contain themselves when they announced the astounding information, and the great popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, called it “a possible turning point in human history.”

The NASA scientists who discovered the wormlike formations, Everett Gibson and David McKay, were far less comfortable with the announcement. For two years, these careful scientists kept the conclusions to themselves, going over and over the data, trying to verify their own research.

Richard Zare of Stanford University, a brilliant scientist by anyone’s standards, was brought onto the team, too, for his independent assessments. The men sent their manuscript to Science magazine — known for its high standards of peer review — without telling their colleagues at NASA anything about it.

White House leaked Mars story

When they finally briefed their management at Johnson Space Center and NASA on the discovery, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin informed the White House. Unfortunately, the White House leaked a garbled, headline-screaming version of the news before the formal news conference — honest, forthright and including many cautions and opposing views — could take place.

Two years later, at an important conference on Mars exploration that concluded earlier this month, Gibson and McKay’s findings on life on Mars were challenged by several different explanations. Here are some views on what the “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” in the Mars rock and carbonate crystal structures that looked like tiny worms might, or might not, be:

— Scientists at the University of Arkansas, among them Derek Sears, think they’ve found the same structures in lunar meteorites, suggesting that some exotic chemical process is accountable
for these structures, rather than a biological one.

— Another group suggested that temperatures were too high during the rocks’ formation for tiny bacteria to form at all.

— *The Mars rock doesn’t contain other water-related minerals required for the presence of life.

— The organics originated in Antarctica, where it was found.

None of these theories has reached any unanimity either. The NASA team has reinforced its findings on Mars life with new data, including pictures that suggest cell walls. Many of McKay’s and Gibson’s colleagues at NASA feel the controversy will never be settled until we go to Mars and get a bigger inventory of samples. What we do have arrived accidentally: All the Mars rocks on Earth were blasted off the Martian surface by a comet or meteorite thousands of years ago.

Not even moon findings are certain

Yet even if we did collect Mars rocks systematically, as we did during the Apollo moon program, the scientific debate might not be settled: I remember attending the 20th-anniversary celebration
of the moon landings in Houston in 1989. One distinguished scientist after another rose to present the long-studied findings on the unshakable truth about the moon. At the end of it, the world-renowned planetary scientist, Eugene Shoemaker, stood up in the audience and pointed out: “Are you guys aware that you’re all contradicting each other?”

The great contribution McKay, Gibson and Zare have made is to get the public and the scientific community not to dismiss the possibility of life on other planets. Future space ventures to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn will be much more likely to find evidence of life because they will be looking for it. Think of all the places on our planet where we’ve found the most exotic forms of life against all odds — for instance, beside acid-belching volcano vents on the ocean floor.

For the moment, those bizarre little wormlike structures the NASA team found are — well — what you’d expect extraterrestrial life to be: provocative to the point of prompting sensationalism, difficult to explain and puzzling. Like all great discoveries, they leave us with a sense of how much more we need to know.