The 1976 Viking 1 Lander seemed to find life on Mars. Scientists quickly dismissed the data, and seldom mentioned it in later years. But thirty six years later an article appeared that claimed Viking was rightÂ—and it was roundly ignored… for about six weeks. Then the story first appeared in Discovery News April 12, and since then respected news outlets have carried it around the world. Small resurgences have happened before, but have barely broken the surface of ‘real’ news outlets. What made this one different?
View from Viking 1 on Mars – 1976
To begin with, the scientists who did this study weren’t analyzing the data itself. The great knock originally had been that other experiments did not support the results that the radiation labeled gases experiment showed, because they also showed Perchlorates, for which no one could find a mechanism other than contamination. The scientists involved in this study did a multivariate analysis that focused on the number and complexities of reactions that occurred within the reaction chamber, as shown by the gases coming off.
The point of the exercise was that organic processes are far more ordered and complex than inorganic processes that produce the same compounds. The study focused on the rate of gas production, the number of gases and precursors throughout the time of their production, and the last proportions of the gases. The final conclusion was that only organic processes could have produced the organic compounds in the ways and complexities found. Case closed. There’s life on Mars… or not. Joseph Miller of USC’s Keck School of Medicine said, ‘On the basis of what we’ve done so far, I’d say I’m 99 percent sure there’s life there.’
Well, that’s pretty definitive. As Dr. Miller also said, “They should just send a microscope and watch the bacteria move around.” Then again, others in the research group are less sanguine. For instance, Christopher McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Centre said, in an interview with Discovery News, ‘Finding organics is not evidence of life or evidence of past life. It’s just evidence for organics.’
So what triggered all this in the first place? It seems that the original dismissal may have been a bit hasty. Perchlorates (salts comprising one Chlorine atom, four Oxygen atoms, and a third element) were found in the sample. Contamination from Earth, was the judgement meaning the entire experimental chamber was contaminated. Pff-f-f-ft… end of story, no Martian life… until 2008.
In 2008, the Phoenix Mars Lander found Perchlorates in Martian soil, and this time there was no question. That meant that the perchlorates found by Viking could have been Martian… as could the carbon-based organics have been. It was time for a re-look.
Not everyone accepts the results as meaning Mars has life, although the idea of organics seems OK with all of them. Critics insist that the method has not been proven to truly differentiate between biological and inorganic processes.
“Ideally to use a technique on data from Mars one would want to show that the technique has been well calibrated and well established on Earth. The need to do so is clear; on Mars we have no way to test the method, while on Earth we can,” planetary scientist and astrobiologist Christopher McKay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told Discovery News.
The study report is found in the March issue of “International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences,” vol. 13, no. 1, pp.14-26, March, 2012. “The Korean Society for Aeronautical & Space Sciences” publishes the journal.
There are two problems with this investigation and published article. First, the journal itself is an issueÂ—no, not that it’s a Korean journal, but that it is not a mathematical/statistical journal. Would it not have been better to have the article reviewed for the mathematical/statistical value of its central investigative technique, against the results claimed? Second, this method almost appears a search for data supporting a hypothesis, exactly the opposite of classic scientific method, where the investigator attempts to prove the null hypothesis.
Still, the study is incomplete. Part II is being undertaken as these words are typed. In this second phase, scientists will attempt to discover whether “…there are variations when sunlight was blocked by a weeks-long dust storm on Mars, with the idea being that biological systems would have acted differently to the environmental change than geologic ones. Results of the research are expected to be presented in August.” And then the answer will be maybe there’s Martian life after all… or not.
Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons