#93 March 1996
Section 220.127.116.11.093.of the Artemis Data Book
[Reprinted with permission from Inside NSS, Dec 95/Jan 96]
[See MMM # 83 MAR '95 pp. 1-2, 7]
A year-long effort by the NSS Board of Governors to ascertain whether a Viking instrument which failed to detect biological life on Mars might have been flawed has concluded with a determination that no such flaw can be established.
NSS Board of Governors member Robert Jastrow, echoed by scientists Cyril Ponnamperuma (who died during the study) and Roald Sagdeev of the Univ. of Maryland, had brought the matter last fall to Board Chairman Hugh Downs. With the encouragement of NSS VP Glenn Wilson and the Executive Committee and financial pledges from numerous Governors, the Governors proceeded to arrange for a re-study of the data [Inside NSS, Dec. 94/Jan 95] Downs' report to the Governors follows:
I have further information on the matter of the Viking tests for Martian life. You may recall that the negative findings obtained with the instrument known as the GCMS were brought into question by seemingly contradictory results obtained some years ago by John Lavoie as a part of his PhD dissertation at MIT. As you recall, the GCMS [Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer] was deposited on the Martian surface and tested the Martian soil for molecules of biological origin. It found none within its threshold of detection, implying no Martian life.
Lavoie, however, tested a sample of Antarctic soil with a laboratory replica of the GCMS and reported that while the Viking instrument gave a negative result - i.e., no biological molecules in the sample - another lab test [Labeled Release experiment], for organic carbon, showed a relatively large amount of organic carbon. Organic carbon usually means carbon of biological origin.
Thus, taken at face value, the implication in Lavoie's results was that the GCMS was relatively insensitive to biological molecules. Therefore, there could be such molecules, and life, on Mars after all.
Before proceeding further to resolve this apparent contradiction, it seemed prudent to test the reproducibility of Lavoie's results. On recommendation of Dr. Sam Epstein, eminent Cal Tech biochemist, Dr. Jastrow consulted Professor John Cronin of Arizona State University, who specialized in testing for organic matter in meteorites. Dr. Jastrow asked for his help in re-doing Lavoie's experiments on the same sample of Antarctic soil Lavoie had used (kept in a freezer at NASA's Ames Center all these years), to see if he would get the same results as Lavoie.
Prof. Cronin has now reported to us that he has found that this Antarctic soil sample does contain carbon, as Lavoie reported, but it appears to be carbon in the form of coal dust rather than carbon in the form of biological molecules (there are large coal deposits in the Antarctic).
This result would appear to eliminate the contradiction between Lavoie's finding of carbon in that Antarctic soil sample and the GCMS result that there were no detec-table biological molecules in this sample.
Prof. Cronin is tidying up his experiments with a view to publishing a research note. However, in view of his findings, it appears at this time that thee is no reason to pursue that line or revisionist inquiry further. In the view of Dr. Jastrow and others - which I share - the question of Martian life is still open and will only be settled when we can take subsurface samples in a variety of Martian environments. But we will have to wait for a Mars landing before we obtain a definitive answer by that route.
In addition to bringing you up to date, in the meantime, I want to thank those who contributed to the new research that has brought these results. While they don't, of course, offer proof that no life exists on Mars, they do indicate closure for the investigation we helped fund.
With best wishes,
Chairman, NSS Board of Governors
The romantic spirit lives! For only a romantic fool looks at the Viking Labeled Release data set and discerns in that mess a "clear and positive indication" of some earthly phenomenon. One lander pushed aside a stone to get a sample from underneath it.
The residual polar cap radiates thermal infrared at 160°K [-113°C, -171°F]. To sublime it, [the frozen carbon dioxide component, anyway] we must raise its temperature to 213°k [-60°C, -76°F]. Adding 1012 metric tons of CFCs to Mars' atmos-phere raises the global mean temperature almost exactly 53° [K or C, 95° F]. Now, where do we get a trillion tons of CFCs? And how do we transport them to Mars?
Life copes well with extremes of temperature, pressure, pH [acidity - alkalinity], and radiation, but not with extreme dryness. A billion arid years without rain or running water will kill anything.
On Earth, recognizable paleomicrofossils appear in shales, cherts, and limestones, tough rocks that resist weathering yet preserve the evidence. Outcrops of these rock types on Mars would be of great interest to explorers. We need a geochemical map of the planet.
Dr. Lynn Margulis, microbial sex fiend and co-creator of the Gaia religion, has presented evidence that cells created viruses, viroids, prions, and the like, as packets to salvage genetic information under environmental stress: i.e. when the water wasn't boiling, where deadly free oxygen was present, or where unfiltered UV poured down from the skies.
-- Jeff Sanburg, Skokie, Illinois
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