by David Sisler
It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually five weeks ago today when we were all excited about the news -- THERE IS LIFE ON MARS! Well, maybe.
And that -- maybe -- is the only thing which can be said for certain about the discovery of unusual structures inside ALH84001.
ALH84001, you will recall, was the meteorite found near the South Pole by a group from the National Science Foundation. The bottom of the world seems to be a top meteorite hunting ground because these visitors from outer space are swept by ice currents to convenient collection points and protected by the ice. Researcher Roberta Score was joy riding in her merry snowmobile when she saw a green glow in the blue ice and filed it for future study. Ten years later unverifiable claims are being made for her rock. Faith, it seems is an operative word in the scientific community.
The twists and turns in this story would give John Grisham or Tom Clancey headaches, but stick with me on this.
Billions and billions of years ago, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs -- pronounced "paws") formed inside tiny cracks in ALH84001. Then 16 million years ago a meteorite plunged into the surface of the Red Planet and cast ALH84001 out into space where it zoomed around until just 13,000 years ago, when it settled in Antarctica, waiting for Score to settle on it.
Until just recently scientists believed that ALH84001 was diogenite, or in other words, a chip off asteroid 4 Vesta. But seeing the error of their ways, the scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center, took another look and they saw something that looked like Martian iron. Actually it was closer in appearance to shergottites, nakhlites, and chassignites (SNCs) which come from Mars. But then again, the composition of ALH84001 doesn't quite match SNC either, so it must be a new type of rock. And it's alive! Or it was. Maybe.
Stanford University researcher Richard Zare, jubilantly proclaimed, "We think they are micro-fossils from Mars."
Stanley Miller, biochemist at the University of California at San Diego, said, "What it really does show is the formation of life on a planet can take place rather easily."
Arch Reid, a geosciences professor at the University of Houston says that whatever is on ALH84001 "may be due to organic activity," and "may have carried with it to Earth the first evidence of life on [Mars]."
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin proclaimed, "These are extremely small, single-cell structures that somewhat resemble bacteria on earth."
Pooping the party is respected UCLA paleobiologist William Schopf. PAHs, he states, are routinely found in interstellar and interplanetary debris, as well as in other meteorites. "In none of those cases," he says, "have they ever been interpreted as being biological."
Chris Romanek, one of the group of researchers present at that original press conference said, "We have not, and I repeat with emphasis, not discovered life on Mars. We have merely documented a series of observations from a piece of Martian rock that, when taken as a whole, can be interpreted as the result of ancient biological activity on or within the surface of Mars."
Three scientists who have worked on ALH84001, Geochemist David Mittlefehldt of Lockheed Engineering and Sciences, Marilyn M. Lindstrom from the Johnson Space Center, and Allan H. Treiman from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, make a powerful assertion: "Meteorite researchers tend to find what they expect [to find]."
Richard Zare, who first said it was life, admitted, "This is an interpretation. It could be a dried-up mud crack."
May be. Somewhat resembles. Could be.
Questions have long been asked about the heavens and life. Consider one ancient source which is always frank and straightforward -- the Bible, Job, chapter thirty-eight.
"Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
‘Where were you when I laid the earths foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone--while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
‘Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God's dominion over the earth?'"
And if ALH84001 is home for a new life form, what then? The answer is simple and accessible through faith: Our God is an awesome God. In my Father's house are many mansions, and Jesus Christ is the door. No maybes.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 9/14/96
Copyright 1996 by David Sisler
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