Making Sense of Science
Oct 2010

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Was There Ever Life on Mars?

As little as sixty years ago we could imagine Mars having an advanced civilization and threatening our planet with a brutal domination.  Within that short period of time we have discovered that we are alone in this solar system and in this tiny portion of the galaxy at least to a distance of about 50 light years in any direction.  Yet the question remains intriguingly open whether microbial life may once have existed on Mars. 
You might be a Scientist if you are able to hold in your mind two opposing ideas at the same time.  Then again, if you can do that, you can excel at any number of human endeavors.  Science above all requires this kind of flexibility of thinking, because there isn't always sufficient evidence to completely cut off one of two opposing possibilities.  In the past we've discussed scientific questions about which there is substantial, decisive evidence.  This time, we discover something new about how Science works while we're still in the process of finding things out.

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There is not now and never has been any life on Mars.  There may have been or may still be microbial life on Mars.  How can I say both?  Because that is what the evidence says.  Most scientific facts begin this way - with two or more distinct possibilities that are both completely plausible, and often contradictory. 

When we entered Space in the 60's, we soon figured out that Mars was not inhabited by little green men bent on conquering and enslaving Earth.  The Viking mission in the mid 70's and many subsequent missions to Mars gave us huge amounts of data to digest.  A clear picture of a sterile, lifeless Mars emerged from that mountain of information. 

But then someone picked up a rock on Earth and studied it.  It was not an Earth rock, but careful analysis revealed, improbable as it was, that it was actually a piece of Mars.  Sometimes when a meteor hits a planet, pieces of the planet get blasted way out into space.  That happens to Mars as well, and occasionally some of those pieces of Mars land on Earth.

The unusual thing about this particular piece of Mars was that it contained microscopic shapes in the rock that looked like tiny spheres.  Tiny spheres can occur any number of ways, but the most provocative possibility was that they might be fossilized micro-organisms - once living cells which atom by atom have been replaced by lifeless minerals that preserve the original shape. 

The discovery of this evidence was widely publicized and criticized.  It was impossible to rule out the many ways that these shapes might have come to exist independently of "life" on Mars. 

More recently, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers discovered rocks on Mars containing Calcium Carbonate or Limestone.  This has re-opened the question of life on Mars and is one more piece of evidence in favour of it.  Living organisms on Earth have in the past (1 - 3 billion years ago) been responsible for producing this mineral.  It is still happening today at two locations in Western Australia.  The Thrombolites in the Peel region and the Stromatolites near Shark Bay are two examples of "Living Rocks" in which microbes suck up carbon dioxide and burp out oxygen while forming an ever- growing fortress of limestone around them.   That is, we hope they burp, and not . . . nevermind.

Although Life is not the only way that limestone could have been formed on Mars, the possibility can't be so easily dismissed either.  For the moment, both possibilities - that life never existed and that life did or still does exist on Mars - seem roughly equally "true," or in other words, "that for which evidence exists."

Do other worlds in our solar system hold out the possibility of microbial or even animal life?  Only one.  Europa, the fourth largest moon of Jupiter (the smallest Galilean moon, just visible with a backyard telescope), is covered by a layer of ice 60 miles thick, under which an ocean of liquid water lies hidden.  Planning is underway for a future mission to tunnel down to that ocean and find out once and for all if it contains living creatures.

I invite you to read more about  Water and the Search for Life on Mars.  Also, a new book explores the intriguing possibilities that are hidden under the ice on Europa.  Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter's Ocean Moon is another that I recommend to you personally.  I hope you enjoy reading these!

Best Regards,


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