ICAMSR - International Committee Against Mars Sample Return
Cover of Mars: The Living Planet 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.

Book Review
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 NASA’s 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 1960’s 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 DiGregorio’s 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.