Random AsidesScience

A Different Kind of Life on Mars

When I was a sophomore in college, I went on a field trip to Death Valley and Owens Valley with my volcanology class over spring break. At the time, everyone was very excited about the Mars rovers. I was buying a soda in a grocery store and saw the above “Weekly World News”, a fine newspaper that I read on a regular basis. By “read” I mean that I usually skim it while waiting in line at supermarket checkouts. When I saw the issue above, though, I just had to buy a copy.

I was heading over to a pizza restaurant to meet my classmates and professors for dinner. I couldn’t resist a little joke. I ran into the restaurant, looking frazzled and excited, the newspaper safely behind my back. I was a little late to dinner, so almost everyone was already seated and calmly looking over the menus.

“You won’t believe the news!” I exclaimed. “They just announced that they found life on Mars!”

Immediately, the table was astir. Everyone started talking at once, and I noticed that one of my friends turned around to look at the news on the TV behind him. He was looking for a Mars story, no doubt.

Finally, one of the professors asked, genuinely, “Was it a microbe? How did they identify it?”

“No,” I replied. “It’s even bigger than a microbe. It’s a macro-organism.” I hoped that I wasn’t making the word “macro-organism” up, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone.

There was more excited chatter.

“How big was it?” one of my classmates asked.

“Well, forget pizza,” another of my classmates said. “I’m going back to the hotel to watch the news.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Look, I brought the story with me.”

I dramatically revealed the “Weekly World News” issue shown above. I think it was good that no one had food or water yet or else I would have been pummeled. As it was, the person nearest me threw his empty glass at me.

Aside from showing a good prank to pull on your scientifically-minded friends, the story above illustrates that finding life on Mars is a very exciting possibility. I think that it’s something that both scientists and non-scientists can get worked up about. I know that whenever I read an article supporting evidence for life– or even just running water– on Mars, I become very excited. I think, gosh, if there’s life only a couple of planets away, what other life could possibly out there?

I’m not an expert in extraterrestrial biology, so I won’t comment too much on this article on a different kind of life on Mars aside from saying that I think the possibility of a different, hydrogen pyroxide-based form of life on Mars makes sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if scientists one day, hopefully soon, discover this form of life on Mars. Boy, will the creationists be in for it then. Or perhaps God had some time to populate Mars on Sunday?

Anyway, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be very different forms of life in the universe. I once saw an episode of “The X-Files” (I think it was Season 2) where Scully and Mulder uncovered a new form of silica-based life in a volcano. The spores of this silica-based life form would grow into an organism inside people and then burst through people’s throats and stomachs releasing a new batch of spores. I don’t think I need to worry too much about silica-based parasite spores on my volcanology trips, but silica-based life in general doesn’t sound too unrealistic. After all, silicon is an even more common element than carbon. And life based on hydrogen peroxide liquid instead of water? Not so far fetched, at least on Mars.

Scientists now know of hundreds of organisms living in conditions so extreme that fifty years ago biologists would have said, across that board, that life wasn’t possible in such extreme environments. Now, scientists know of micro-organisms that live everywhere from boiling, acidic hotsprings to the insides of rocks in the harsh, cold, dry valleys of Antarctica. Entire biological communities based on sulfur energy instead of sunlight energy were discovered at the bottom of the ocean in the 1970s. These hydrothermal vent communities continue to impress and amaze.

So, who knows? I hope there is life on Mars, and I hope we find it. If these Mars cats are real, I want one. My childhood cat passed away this summer. Currently, I’m avoiding animals as my busy schedule doesn’t allow me to take care of a houseplant properly, let alone a living creature. I’d make an exception for a Mars cat, though. I’d just have to take him to the office with me.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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19 Comments

  1. I remember when I first heard about the vent communities at the bottom of the ocean…it almost totally blew my mind. I couldn't fathom such bizarre creatures living without so much as a glimpse of the sun or anything that ever had one. Blind, living off of thermal energy and bacteria, and SULFUR! It's amazing.

    Then, as now, I am convinced that if life can take root in these places, there is no chance it hasn't done so elsewhere. Obviously the important question of whether or not life would have to have existed long enough to have 'evolved' a certain amount of 'evolvability' (in Dawkins's words) is fundamental: could life potentially START in such climates on other worlds, or would it need to have started elsewhere and adjusted gradually to these extreme environments? And, if it CAN start there, we get a few even MORE interesting questions: Could life have began more than once here? And what would life, beginning in these places, look like given the chance to develop over millions of years?

    These questions are beyond me, but I can't help but to ponder the answers to the best of my limited ability. Very interesting article, Evelyn.

    You don't happen to have an update on Elvis's baby, do you? I'd hate to hear that the aliens took her/him just like they did the King himself…

  2. Anyway, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be very different forms of life in the universe. I once saw an episode of “The X-Files” (I think it was Season 2) where Scully and Mulder uncovered a new form of silica-based life in a volcano. The spores of this silica-based life form would grow into an organism inside people and then burst through people’s throats and stomachs releasing a new batch of spores. I don’t think I need to worry too much about silica-based parasite spores on my volcanology trips, but silica-based life in general doesn’t sound too unrealistic. After all, silica is an even more common element than carbon. And life based on hydrogen pyroxide liquid instead of water? Not so far fetched, at least on Mars.

    Actually, silicon has a big problem in forming life: It gets very unstable in long chains, and it's the long chains which make carbon such a good base element for life. Now, what might be a possiblity is silicone, which consists of a chain of alternating silicon and carbon atoms. Silicone forms long chains much better than silicon, so it has the potential to result in life.

  3. Blake, again, I have no idea what you're talking about. I made no grammatical error. Heh heh heh… the POWER of editing…

    Actually, I appreciate the built-in editing system I have here. I'm a busy student, and I don't have much time to write if I want to write every day. My philosophy is that it's better to write one interesting yet potentially imperfect essay every day rather than write one or two perfect (well, close to perfect) essays a month, which was my old writing pace.

    Infophile, thanks for the comment about silicone. Interesting. Again, I'm not a biologist or an organic chemist, but I do like to dabble in the "Life on Mars" debate anyway.

  4. It worries me that the current US administration is so pro-creationist that they'd interpret any such findings quite differently from independently minded scientists. Whether their track record of mixing politics with science would apply to something as big as the discovery of (albeit basic) life on Mars is an unanswered question.

    Life on Mars would blow religious creation stories out of the water.

  5. JackPT, don't worry. You just KNOW they will put their own kind of spin on it to make it fit.

    Even if every scientist on the planet knows they're wrong, and tries to explain why time after time, they won't care, since the bleevers will all swallow it without question.

  6. Evelyn wrote:

    Actually, I appreciate the built-in editing system I have here. I’m a busy student, and I don’t have much time to write if I want to write every day. My philosophy is that it’s better to write one interesting yet potentially imperfect essay every day rather than write one or two perfect (well, close to perfect) essays a month, which was my old writing pace.

    Release early, release often, and CITOKATE — criticism is the only known antidote to error. (-;

    JackPT wrote:

    Life on Mars would blow religious creation stories out of the water.

    I have often dreamt of just such a day. . . speaking of which, exarch wrote the following:

    Even if every scientist on the planet knows they’re wrong, and tries to explain why time after time, they won’t care, since the bleevers will all swallow it without question.

    I'm sure a few people — maybe a substantial number — will react in that way, but isn't this view maybe a teensy bit, well, too cynical? I for one wasn't baptised into rationalism by a great shower of critical thought falling from Heaven; far from it. I just read a whole bunch of good books when I was young, looked at the world with their aid, and liked what I saw. It seems reasonable to presume that other people in the same situation — curious, well-nourished, unfettered by fears of reprisal — would react in much the same way that I did. How many people might share my good fortune, waiting in suburbia for words to touch them the way that Isaac Asimov, Larry Gonick and Carl Sagan touched me?

    How did you acquire your present opinions?

    The widespread tendency — documented by generations of sophomore psych majors — is for people to attribute their own beliefs to logical appraisal of the evidence. In contrast, opponents are seen as having acquired their opinions because of propaganda, venal advantage or flaws in their personal character. (It's what your opponents believe about you, folks.)

    In other words (unsurprisingly) we all tend to want to think better of ourselves and to denigrate our foes. We are rational and virtuous; we use reason. They are stupid or corrupt.

    (From David Brin's "Essences, Orcs and Civilization". I'm sort of obligated to quote Brin on all applicable occasions, given that he called me, on the record, "a very bright fellow". . . .)

  7. Well, one only needs to think about creationists to realize how optimistic it would be to think life on Mars would deter them from sticking with their beliefs. After all, even life on Earth didn't convince them, and what could possibly be more in their face than that?

  8. I have the cover of a similar rag pasted to the front of the folder of music I take on auditions – it says something about mermen, and has a big photo of the late Broadway star Ethel Merman with the caption, "Is she related to the South Pacific mutant?"

    That was awesome.

  9. I think I acquire opinions through nagging insecurity with my own ideas and an interest in what other people think (no doubt as useful an evolutionary trait as belief that your parents are right when you're a small child attempting to play with a stove). I think if you've been lucky enough to have parents that have brought you up to be interested in the world you're going to find things that challenge your assumptions. No doubt there are people from religious backgrounds who were lucky enough not to have been kept in a bubble. Who are open to reasonable argument. So I agree with Blake that we shouldn't get too cynical.

  10. The ideologues behind creationism — make no mistake, they are liars and manipulators long since inured to sin — have pat "explanations" for the life we see close at hand. They have convinced their audience that there is no need to look at Nature. It's almost fair to say that Earth's countless and varied forms of life are not "in their face" after all, because the self-appointed prophets of Creation have blessed them with cataracts. But what happens when a whole new discovery none of them had ever predicted drops into the consciousness of the world? Can't we say with high confidence that someone — not everyone, but someone — will wake up?

    (Consider, for a moment, how one can defend an untruth. We here have already studied the evidence and cross-examined the arguments, so we don't have to couch our statements with politic clauses: evolution happened. Creationism is a lie. How, then, does one become a mouthpiece for lies? It is possible to repeat without consideration what one has been told, propagating a meme because it derives from an authority figure or, more fundamentally, because it brings comfort. Yet what about the memes' originators, the ones paid to put "politically incorrect" and factually flat-out wrong assertions into books? I suspect that such a career requires a studied indifference to subtle matters of ethics. No matter how genuine the beliefs they hold in their beating hearts, the meme-masters have to distort everything they touch, and making dishonesty the key ingredient in one's career can only inure the practitioner to greater sins. It begins with quote-mining, continues with folly like puerile Flash animations. . . and ends where? Creationism breeds immorality.)

    People do, from time to time, recognize that they've been sold a line of balderdash. We catch on far too infrequently. . . but tell me you didn't feel a frisson of joy when the midterm election results scrolled across your computer screen! On the happy day that a Martian bacterium or a squid from Europa waves hello, more than a few people in the American Southland will realize that there is more to the Universe than they had been told. What discovery could better underline Sagan's message that the Cosmos is burgeoning with surprise and wonder. We, children of starstuff, will have found our long-lost cousins.

    My heart beats faster as I merely contemplate that day. Rest assured, if that day ever arrives, other hearts will also be moved.

    Yes, we will have to deal with the people who say that Europa's squid are God's failed experiments, or the inferior handiwork of a jealous Satan. But I guarantee that those people will never have sounded so small-minded and cold-hearted! Their message will lose its appeal, not to everyone, but to enough people that we just might be able to start dreaming of a noble destiny.

  11. Blake Stacey:

    Hear, hear! You know, I too will call you 'a very bright fellow,' although coming from me it certainly doesn't mean as much. However, to quote George Carlin in my own defense, 'I have as much authority as the Pope! I just don't have as many people who believe it.'

    Maybe someday we will reach a noble destiny. I know I'll certainly find it more plausible as soon as a larger number of people can write about it as clearly and patiently as you!

    By the way, your vision of a Europan Squid probably just blew P.Z. Myers's mind! :-P

  12. Those were great posts, Blake – a nice respite from *noise*. Also, you don't need Brin's endorsement (though it never hurts, I suppose), and you've probably never made a gross analogy either. :))

    Octopuses is acceptable, too…

    2 plural octopuses or octopi

    And where is that darn Europa probe?

    Evelyn, I so needed a good laugh and that picture just cracked me up. I had to save that one, especially as I have two cats. (Sorry to hear about your childhood cat.) :(

    Thanks, I'm going to go to bed with Mars cats on my mind.

  13. Extraterrestrial life isn't particularly challenging to most Creationist views, I don't think. They don't necessarily believe that the Bible describes everything that happened; they are just fairly particular about those points it does touch on. Witness C.S. Lewis' space trilogy! The intrepid Man of Faith travels to Venus, there to help prevent the world's analogue of Eve from committing Original Sin.

    In the conversations I've had with Christians on the topic, it's more an interesting question to them: "How did God deal with them? Did they fall, as we did? Did Christ offer His life on their behalf, too?"

    If we found many extraterrestrial intelligences and learned that none was religious, then perhaps that would be a blow to their faith. I doubt that will happen, though. I think religion stemmed from our pattern matching and generalization abilities, and it's hard to conceive of finding many other intelligences without finding another with those traits. Of course, should they find us then perhaps they will have aged for long enough to grow out of using that particular model.

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