The evidence for even that much life, moreover, is hardly conclusive. This could still turn out to be a colossally wrong interpretation -- or a wild propaganda salvo fired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at a time when all Federal agencies are desperately seeking to justify their budgets. President Clinton sounded like a space enthusiast's dream yesterday when he called the discovery "another vindication of America's space program" and pledged to put the program's "full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars."
But we are reluctant to treat this dramatic claim frivolously. If the finding is confirmed by stronger evidence, it will be one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries ever made, even bigger than the first clumsy steps by mankind on the moon. When historians of the future look back at our age, a transforming event of our time might be the discovery that life on Earth is not unique but part of a broader canvas.
The claim of Martian life forms gains credence from the authority of those making it. The scientists involved, primarily from NASA and Stanford University, are respected professionals, and Science magazine, the distinguished journal that published their findings, subjects papers to careful peer review before publishing them. But even the scientists themselves acknowledge that they have found no final proof.
What they did find when they examined a potato-sized meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica some 13,000 years ago was various organic molecules and minerals and fossil-like structures that could have been produced by ancient microorganisms. But the chemicals and structures could also have been produced by nonbiologic processes. Taken individually, the authors acknowledge, every piece of evidence they found could have an alternative explanation. But considered collectively, the circumstantial evidence suggested the presence of "primitive life on early Mars."
There are uncertainties all along the line of reasoning. The meteorite, though characteristic of Mars, might conceivably have originated elsewhere. It might have been formed at temperatures too high to allow life. The molecules found in it might have been produced by normal chemical and geological processes rather than by microorganisms. Or those chemicals might have penetrated into the rock after it landed on Earth, either in Antarctica or through contamination in the laboratory. The most controversial evidence, the tiny fossil-like structures, might simply be dried-up mud cracks or other inorganic matter.
A discovery of life on Mars, even primitive life in the very distant past, would have profound intellectual and philosophical implications. It would mark another step in the centuries-old process of moving humanity from the center of the universe. It would also raise questions as to whether life originated independently on Earth and Mars or started first on one planet and then migrated to the other, or perhaps migrated from somewhere else entirely.
If life did form independently on two separate planets in our own small solar system, that would raise the likelihood that life might be found elsewhere in the universe as well. Creationists who find it difficult to accept the evolution of life on Earth might face even greater difficulties in coping with life evolving elsewhere.
For the moment, confirmation is surely needed before we let this inconclusive finding propel us too far toward an intensified hunt for life on other worlds or toward a drastic revision of science, theology or the Federal space budget. But given the intergalactic speed with which science has advanced in this century, it would be prudent to hold the jokes.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times
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