The Martian Chronicles, San Jose Mercury West Magazine
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
If his conclusions are correct, Stanford Professor Richard Zare has made one
of history’s great discoveries
Published: August 17, 1997 in West Magazine
BY JIM PUZZANGHERA
Mercury News Staff Writer
MARS FLOATED in the night outside Richard Zare’s bedroom, one of the
countless pinpricks of lightscattered like crystals of sugar across the sky.
For centuries it has been the sweetest spot in the heavens forthose who
speculated or hoped or believed that somewhere out there something else was
But Zare wasn’t even looking. As a youngster in his family’s home in 1950s
Cleveland, Ohio, he didn’t gaze atthe stars, wondering what they might hold.
The sky for him was the blanket of his bed, illuminated by theaurora of a
flashlight. His universe was a chemistry book, one of several that belonged
to his father, once ahopeful graduate student forced by marriage and the
Great Depression to give up his dream for dead-endjobs at places like
Pierre’s French Ice Cream.
”I remember early on finding [the books] and talking about them and finding
a huge, ambivalent emotionalreaction on the part of my parents–such as,
they would bring no happiness,” Zare says. ”So they became insome sense a
taboo kind of topic–and therefore I became very interested in them.”
Books that spoke of strange substances that did strange things. Harmless
powders that when mixed withother harmless powders bubbled and fizzed and
exploded. An orderly universe where the rules were writtendown, where the
answers to confounding questions often could be found by simply adding a few
drops of theright liquid, or burning away the doubt with a jet of blue
Zare used those rules to transform himself from a troubled child to a giant
in the field of chemistry, arenowned researcher, a Stanford professor, a man
some believe is on the path to a Nobel Prize for a career’sworth of amazing
work. But like many brilliant scientists, he got little public notice. Until
the questions hestudied got big. And until he helped find what just might be
an answer to one of them.
It came from outer space
On Aug. 7, 1996, Zare sat in front of the world as one of four key
scientists whose work pointed to signs ofextraterrestrial life–possible
prehistoric, bacteria-like life culled from the center of a
4.5-billion-year-oldMartian meteorite. Zare was the most outwardly excited
of the researchers, the one who giddily pronouncedon national television
that it’s possible we all might be Martians. Since then, despite criticism
of the findings,he’s become one of the most outspoken proponents of the
research, doing scores of interviews, givingspeeches around the country,
even embarking on a book. The early working title: ”Mars, Meteorites and
theMeaning of Life”–a big question that can’t be answered with a sprinkle
of the right powder.
It is an odd twist to the old tale of the awkward kid who becomes a
world-famous scientist. Zare is in thespotlight for a discovery that had not
been a lifelong quest. But only because he was so interested in thesmallest
substances on our planet was it possible for researchers to uncover the
immense possibility that lifemay have existed on another.
”It’s changed my life,” Zare says. ”It’s made me more aware and willing
to think about some of the biggerquestions that I had thought about and put
aside because they were beyond what I could hope to touch.”
So you could say that Richard Zare didn’t go looking for signs of
extraterrestrial life. In a way, they camelooking for him.
The slivers of rock that would change Zare’s life arrived with goofy names.
One of them actually was calledGoofy. The others were Minnie and Mickey,
code names to keep the project secret.
They were tiny pieces of a potato-size meteorite that had been found in 1984
in the Allan Hills Far WesternIcefield in Antarctica. That meteorite was one
of hundreds found in Antarctica, and it was given the unremarkable name of
ALH84001. Scientists would later decide that it came from Mars because its
chemicaland radioactive composition matched that of the red planet, as
determined by the Viking probe that landedthere in 1976. Only 12 of the
thousands of meteorites found on Earth have been traced to Mars, most
likelystray remnants of some Martian explosion that were sucked out of space
by Earth’s gravitational pull.
But ALH84001 differed from the other 11. Using radioactive dating
techniques, scientists determined that itwas more than three times older
than any of the others, about 4.5 billion years old. The age is crucial;
Mars isinhospitable to life these days–usually bitterly cold, and dry.
But until about 3 billion years ago, Mars was warmer, and more important, it
apparently contained water,which would be as essential to life there as it
is on Earth.
NASA researchers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston began studying
ALH84001 and were intriguedby globules of carbonate inside. An ancient rock
could contain fossils of some sort of earlier life, so DavidMcKay, Everett
Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keprta started looking deep inside. The chemicals
inside theglobules suggested the globules might have been signs of living
organisms, but the researchers needed moreevidence.
Richard Zare, 57, is renowned for gently coaxing secrets out of the tiniest
of things. He devised a way to usethe intense, focused heat of lasers to
detach a small percentage of the molecules from a chemical sample, thenuse
another laser to help analyze each molecule’s chemical composition. The
process–microprobe two-steplaser mass spectrometry–allows the sample to
remain virtually intact and uncontaminated by human hands.This was essential
with minuscule samples of hard-to-obtain substances like interplanetary dust
particles,which Zare, some of his graduate students, and NASA researchers
had been analyzing.
NASA was keeping its research on the Mars rock secret. In the fall of 1995
space agency scientistsdropped two fingernail-size pieces of rock–code
names Mickey and Minnie–in specially sealed containersand sent them by
overnight mail to Stanford. They were not a high priority for Zare’s busy
lab, but with moreprodding from Thomas-Keprta, a planetary scientist, Zare
tested the samples and found signs of polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons
(PAHs)–simple compounds found in everything from coal to burned steak.
PAHscan be produced without life, for example, by passing methane gas over
hot rocks. But they also can be asign of life, the remnants of decaying
NASA had found other hints of life in the meteorite–mineral compounds
commonly associated withmicroscopic organisms and possible microscopic
fossils no bigger than 1/100th the diameter of a human hair.Zare’s finding
of PAHs was a key piece of NASA’s mounting evidence that life once existed
on Mars.Thomas-Keprta asked Zare do more studies of the samples. But Zare
and his team, still in the dark, wereunimpressed with finding PAHs.
”We had been finding them in interplanetary dust, and we didn’t say, ‘Hey,
because we found them ininterplanetary dust, that means the dust is alive or
had anything to do with life,”’ Zare says. ”I said, ‘Why,should I do
this?’ And she said, ‘Because these are Martian. These are pieces of what
appears to be the mostancient Martian meteorite.”’
She sent a third sample, the size of a thumbnail, and called it Goofy.
”I knew what their goal was,” Zare says, ”and I must tell you I greeted
that goal with great suspicion.”
Zare went about his work in the detached way that scientists do. He and his
students made painstakingly surethat there was no contamination in the
vacuum chamber of their elaborate spectrometer–a melange of
lasers,computers, mirrors, wires and duct tape that fills half a laboratory
in Stanford’s Mudd Chemistry Building.
In the winter of 1996, Zare and graduate student Simon Clemett traveled to
Houston to go over the data.There Zare learned of the mineral compounds and
possible microscopic fossils that NASA had found in therock. Like a
detective finally seeing all the evidence laid out before him, Zare realized
what it pointed to–astrong, if circumstantial, case that Mars once had
microscopic, bacteria-like life.
”That was a profoundly shattering experience,” Zare recalls. ”We’re
sitting there terrified because you don’tlightly go tell the world, ‘Hey, we
think we might have found signs of life.’ Because not only is it very
exciting,but you also may be committing the biggest blunder of your life.”
When worlds collide
Mars has long held a special spot in the sky. Look no further than the
fascination with the ongoing Pathfindermission–not even our first visit to
the planet. Maybe it was the symbolism of touching down on anotherplanet on
Independence Day, maybe it was the unprecedented access via the Internet,
maybe it was just acaptive audience on a holiday weekend, but something
about the landing drew people in like a science-fictiontractor beam.
Or maybe it was just something about Mars.
The planet’s sometimes blood-red hue led ancient cultures to link it to
their gods of war. When telescopescame along, Mars became even more
intriguing. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli pointed
histoward the planet and saw what he thought were channels. Near the turn of
the century, two popular bookscontended the channels were canals, built by
intelligent beings living on Mars. H.G. Wells picked up the balland turned
those Martians into marauders in ”War of the Worlds” in 1898. Orson Welles
put the book onradio 40 years later and caused a panic.
It all seemed so plausible.
Mars is the planet in our solar system most like our own. It tilts in space
just as Earth does, giving it similarseasons. Its day is just slightly
longer than ours–24 hours, 37 minutes. If you wanted to believe that we
werenot alone in the universe, here was the perfect place to let those
fantasies touch down.
But when the Viking spacecraft really touched down there in 1976, it
shattered that hope. It sent back wordto Earth that Mars was inhospitable to
life–and might have always been. The planet lost some of its cachet.The
idea of life there, past or present, seemed as dated as those 1950s
B-movies, with their silvery flyingsaucers and little green men.
Zare and the NASA researchers submitted their findings to the journal
Science, where they were reviewedby other scientists before being accepted
for publication–all in the highest confidence. Zare couldn’t discussthe
work. That proved difficult for a man who can get so excited he’s prone to
stutter and giggle, a professorwho enjoys sharing his work so much that he
still teaches freshman chemistry–extremely unusual for aworld-class
researcher. One night at dinner after that Houston trip, Zare couldn’t
contain his excitement, oneof his three daughters remembers.
”He said they were onto something big. We thought, ‘This is just Dad
talking up a storm.’ He said, ‘You don’tget it! This is so big it’s going to
change all our lives and how we view our lives!”’ says Beth Zare, 33.
”Wesaid, ‘OK, Dad, pass the ketchup.”’
On Aug. 6, 1996, about a week before its scheduled publication, word of the
findings leaked out. Zare wasright–this was big. NASA ordered the key
members of the team to get to Washington for a news conferencethe following
A television camera crew tracked down Zare and graduate student Clemett in
the ticket line at San FranciscoInternational Airport. Ted Koppel
interviewed Zare live on ”Nightline” from the airport. ”Good
MorningAmerica” and the ”Today” show were waiting when he landed in
Washington. At NASA headquarters, Zarefaced a media crush reminiscent of the
Apollo days. CNN carried the whole thing live.
Through it all, Zare’s mind raced beyond the research to the amazing
possibilities it suggested.
”Is it possible that actually we’re all Martians, that–what do I mean by
that, that life actually first started onMars and just as we saw, came from
Mars to Earth [on a meteorite]?” he told Jim Lehrer on PBS’ staidNewsHour.
Then he contemplated another possibility: Maybe a meteorite had carried
microscopic life fromEarth to Mars.
”I mean, I can’t cleave the mold out of my–where I store my bread, OK …
cabinet–once I get it infected.How do I know? Alternatively, we really now
understand that the planets exchange bodily materials. Let’sput it that way.
I won’t say bodily fluids. I’ll say bodily materials–OK?–back and forth.
It’s possible that thisis actually Earthlings, came from Earth and went to
Mars and then it’s come back to us.”
At that point, Lehrer asked Wesley Huntress, NASA’s associate administrator
for space science, ”Does thisexcite you as much as it does Prof. Zare?”
When Zare is fascinated or amazed or surprised, it’s hard to contain him.
”He hasn’t lost that pure pleasure of discovery and understanding that one
sees most frequently in youngchildren but is usually dimmed if not lost by
the time they’re high school students,” says M.R.C. Greenwood,chancellor of
the University of California-Santa Cruz. She has gotten to know Zare well
while serving withhim on the National Science Board, of which Zare now holds
the prestigious job of chairman.
”Being with him,” she says, ”you can’t help it, you get infected with his
That’s a big reason why Zare is one of the most popular teachers at
Seven years ago, he and fellow chemistry Professor James Collman started
teaching a course called”Frontiers in Chemistry.” It was spurred by Zare’s
idea to develop a more challenging freshman course tostimulate students
about science. ”This is no sleeper,” the Stanford Review student newspaper
wrote in1994, when it ranked ”Frontiers” the fourth-best course on campus.
”It includes lab experiments andstudent-professor interaction unusual for a
Teaching freshmen is unusual for a scientist of Zare’s stature–he’s the
recipient of the prestigious NationalMedal of Science, among a slew of
awards. In his standard blue blazer, his eyes bright behind
thick-rimmedglasses, his smiles frequently stretching the sides of his
goatee, he seems more like a small-town high schoolscience teacher than a
world-class researcher. His style is anything but smooth. He’s prone to
laugh, almostawkwardly, at his own jokes, as if trying to kick-start a laugh
from his audience. And he stumbles over hiswords when he gets excited, his
mouth unable to keep up with his racing mind.
”I’m a ham, and I really enjoy sharing my excitement about the world with
people,” Zare says. ”It helps medo research. It’s a secret weapon in that
sense. The best research is where you are forced to really questionthe
fundamentals, to take a new look at the world, and teaching prepares you to
Zare loves to show that science is everywhere. He enjoys art and music, but
manages to find a scientificcomponent to them.
Many of the eclectic modern art pieces that fill his home on the Stanford
campus do odd things that Zarerelishes pointing out–a piece made of two
circles of glass that becomes different colors when the pieces areturned,
paintings on special surfaces that become different images when viewed from
different angles. Andthe most fascinating thing to him about an antique
Bechstein piano in his living room is the maker’s name inlaidabove the keys.
”This is all brass inlay,” he says. ”If you rub your fingers over the
letter ‘c’ you’ll feel the temperature change.”
Zare believes science is more emotional and creative than most people think,
much more like art and music.But he didn’t push his children to follow in
his footsteps. He and his wife, Susan, an undergraduate academicadviser at
Stanford, have three daughters, and the closest any of them got to science
is Rachel, 27, who isstudying to become a midwife. Beth plays French horn in
the San Jose Symphony. And Bonnie, 30, ispursuing a career in Victorian
literature as a professor at the University of Wyoming.
If science is like art and music, then of course there must be critics.
With the Mars research, the criticism started immediately.
”In hindsight, when you have an extraordinary announcement like the one of
last Aug. 7, you’d expect someextraordinary reaction,” says Donald
Goldsmith, an astronomer and science writer from Berkeley who wrotea book
about the meteorite research, ”The Hunt for Life on Mars.” ”The enormous
worldwide attentioncaused other scientists to exaggerate their natural
reaction of, ‘Oh yeah? How do we know that?”’
The lead researchers on the meteorite–Zare, Gibson, McKay and
Thomas-Keprta–were not the elite ofplanetary scientists. Zare wasn’t even
in the field–he was a chemist. Other researchers had spent a lot moretime
looking for signs of extraterrestrial life and had come up empty-handed. Now
these upstarts were gettingall the attention, looked to as experts about
what NASA’s future Mars missions should try to accomplish.
”I see in the scientific community a lot of resentment about that,” says
Jeffrey Bada, director of the NASASpecialized Center of Research and
Training in Exobiology at the University of California-San Diego.
”Thepeople that were on the August Science paper are the new guys on the
block, and I’ve seen some prettyglaring mistakes by them.”
Like attorneys on cross-examination, critics have hammered away at the
circumstantial evidence–thepossible microscopic fossils were far too small
to have been living organisms, they said, and the PAHs morelikely came from
non-living sources than decaying life.
Zare’s mind remains open and he reserves the right to change it. But he says
some of the criticism comesfrom people who just don’t want to consider the
fantastic, that there might have been life on Mars.
”We put this forward and then everybody’s been pounding on us…. They want
to believe or they don’t wantto believe. Science is not about belief,” Zare
says. ”We’ve put forward a hypothesis…. You observe and thenyou try to
explain what you observe.”
The stars were too big
As a child, Zare wanted to observe the chemicals he was reading about in
those forbidden books. When hisfather wouldn’t let him get a chemistry set,
he was undeterred. He struck a deal with the local pharmacist toget some of
those magical powders.
One was a purple substance called potassium permanganate. It was used as a
foot wash for treating fungus.”But I knew,” Zare says, ”that if you mixed
it with sulfur and with carbon you could get nearly the equivalentof
Zare tries to joke now about his childhood, but he is clear that it was not
He almost failed kindergarten because he wouldn’t tie his shoes– not
because he didn’t know how, butbecause he was smart enough to realize that
if he didn’t tie them, somebody would just do it for him.
”I’m the person who wouldn’t play ring-around-a-rosy. The person who
wouldn’t lie down on his blanket andgo and have a nap,” he says. Between
second and third grades, his family moved from a predominantlyJewish
community to one where they were the only Jewish family, compounding the
problems. His class sangChristmas carols and he told them the words were
false. He got into fights. He saw a therapist at thesuggestion of his
Science changed all that. It became a retreat, a way to show that he had
talents and cope with a confusingworld. ”It was a way for me to show off
and make up for other things I was lacking,” Zare says.
So he read his books and mixed up chemicals. He built a crude computer out
of war surplus relay switchesand won a local science talent search. He
earned a scholarship to Harvard and decided to study chemicalphysics in
graduate school. He never took an astronomy course in college.
The stars were too big for him. He found his challenges in the little things
that people don’t pay much attentionto.”Most people think of dust, what you
might call schmutz, as something to be swept away, clean it up, get ridof
it. Isn’t it amazing to think that the various dust particles might actually
carry a story locked within them?”he says. ”It starts out sounding like a
truly obscure and ridiculous form of research … but certain small
thingslike bacteria we tend to discount. And then we realize as we get
deeper into it that we have a lot to learn.”
Inside those pieces of meteorite, Zare has found what he calls a second
childhood–one more happy than thefirst.
”All types of things are now coming into my mind and my view of the world
has changed,” he says. ”To me, itcontinues to move toward this new era of
us understanding our place in the world, our place in the universe.”
He and his students are using their lasers to look for what even the critics
say would be more compellingsigns of past life–amino acids, the building
blocks of all proteins. But Zare wants to go beyond that, to studyhow to
simulate the primordial conditions when life sparked on Earth and how
”You could make up fancy words for it, from cosmochemistry to astrobiology.
I’m much more interested inthe nature of life, where it started, where it’s
going,” he says. ”That’s a long way from analyzing little bits ofdust for
what they contain, or understanding chemical reactions collision by
In the Mars meteorite, Zare sees more than just possible traces of life. He
sees an opening into a newuniverse for himself–and an opening through which
people can glimpse the magic that science can do.
”People say, ‘Do the American people care about science?”’ he says. ”Look
at the Mars meteorite. Do theycare? They care a great deal.”
He knows that from the flood of e-mail messages that crashed his computer.
The phone calls from people claiming they had been abducted by aliens. The
letters from youngsters who want to be astronauts and askhow to prepare
themselves to make discoveries like his. The farmer from Texas who found a
red rock whileplowing his field and called Zare because he was convinced it
must also be from Mars.
”If you spoke about extraterrestrial life forms and you said, ‘I’m really
interested in that,’ people said, ‘Well, you’ve been reading a lot of
science fiction.”’ Zare says. ”Now people pause and say there are really
serious, unsolved questions here that we would really like to get to
understand. And in that sense, it’s given a lot more focus to why explore
space as well as why explore Earth.”
And that’s a strange thing for a kid who wasn’t interested in the stars to
have grown up to do.
Posted at 5:35 p.m. PDT Monday, August 25, 1997