Mars: The Living Planet
Barry E. DiGregorio, with additional contributions
by Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat.
North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 365 pages, 1997, $25.
by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe
The title Mars: the Living Planet does scant justice
to the true content and import of this excellent book. Herein
is a commentary on the state of 20th century science
providing the clearest evidence that the pursuit of truth with
its goal of discovering the true nature of things has been
relegated to a position of secondary importance. High-tech
state-funded science in the late 20th century has
become part of a political process in which preservation of an
established position in any particular field became a matter of
paramount importance. Politically correct science was to
become more relevant than correct science, to the
detriment of a process of scientific and philosophical inquiry
that stretches back to the time of classical Greece.
The author enlists the assistance of two pioneers of Mars exploration, Gilbert
Levin and Patricia Straat, to unravel a shocking case history of institutional
deception and mendacity in one of the most exciting areas of modern Science.
This concerns the search for life outside the Earth, a line of research to which
NASA was ostensibly committed from its very inception. In the first three
chapters the author takes the reader on a guided historical tour of an intellectual
adventure starting from the ideas of the ancient Babylonians right up to the dawn
of 21st century Astrobiology.
The centre piece of the book is the story of the 1976 Viking probes of Mars. In
the now-famous labeled gas release experiment Levin and Straat showed that a
bacterial nutrient with a radioisotope label was taken up by the Martian soil
with a dramatic release of CO2 in a manner that was fully consistent with a positive
signal for microorganisms. However, the lack of an adequate signal for high molecular
weight carbon compounds found in another experiment aboard Viking (GCMS) led quickly
to the belief that the former LR experiment did not imply extant biology. The argument
was that if life was present, as the labeled release experiment had indicated, evidence
of their metabolic products was missing. So a variety of alternative non-biological
hypotheses came to be developed and these have been maintained and defended to the
present day. This, despite the fact that Viking prototype experiments subsequently
carried out on Antarctic samples led to results that were amazingly identical to those
found on Mars - and of course microbial life does exist in abundance in the dry valleys
of the Antarctic. Although all the non-biological interpretations of the 1976 Viking
results have been shown to be flawed, the institutional view has remained that these
results disproved the proposition of life on Mars. The author of the present book has
taken great pains to demonstrate that this position is totally without foundation.
It would seem remarkable that despite NASAs avowed commitment to search for life in
the Universe, whenever evidence of extraterrestrial life turned up there has always
been a tendency to turn away from the facts. This has remained the case both before
and after Viking. In the 1960s evidence presented for microbial fossils in carbonaceous
meteorites were immediately rejected without adequate critical appraisal. This was also
true for the 1996 discovery of organic molecules and structural "fossils" in the Martian
meteorite ALH84001. This latest episode of institutional rigidity is covered in the last
chapter (Chapter 8) of DiGregorios book. Despite the vigorous denials of a biological
interpretation in some quarters, the latest scientific evidence points to at least a
fraction of the organics and morphological structures in ALH84001 being of external
biogenic origin. This would of course be consistent with the findings of extant life in
the Viking experiments of 1976. Although denials are bound to continue, it is to be
hoped that future space missions to Mars that are planned for the coming decade would
resolve these issues once and for all.
Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe
Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales
Copyright © 2000 Chandra Wickramasinghe. Used by permission.