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Mars Science

Martian Microbe Fossils, Not So Debunked Anymore 306

rubycodez writes "Three meteorites, including one that has been in a British museum for over a century, are going to be put under the electron microscope and ion microprobe by NASA. We're 'very, very close to proving there is or has been life [on Mars],' said David McKay, chief of astrobiology at Johnson Space Center."
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Martian Microbe Fossils, Not So Debunked Anymore

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  • undebunked? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Bastard of Subhumani ( 827601 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @12:24PM (#30765706) Journal
    Undebunked? Rebunked? Or just bunked?
  • June 2010: "Scientists analysing martian meteorites mysteriously dissappear after announcing they where close to a breakthrough. Majestic 12 suspected."


    • 'Taint funny, McGee.

  • One of the comments from the actual article point to this YouTube video:

    I don't know about you, but a four-frame, time lapse, YouTube video showing brown things apparently moving to good enough for me. The Mars landscape is teeming with life! Life I say!
  • ..I'm curious if, based on previous evidence that water existed on Mars at some point before it hit the deep-freeze, does this essentially suggest that water = life everywhere? Theoretically, then, if Europa contains water, then it, theoretically, might also have similar "organisms" that are found on Mars?

    Like I said in the title, I know zip about how all this works, but once you've got some water sloshing around on your planet, what else do you need? Organic material presumably has to start somewhere, I ju

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Water is the universal solvent. Once you've got it in liquid form (meaning there's at least thermal energy around), you've got conditions ripe for some pretty cool and complex chemistry.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by digitig ( 1056110 )

      I'm curious if, based on previous evidence that water existed on Mars at some point before it hit the deep-freeze, does this essentially suggest that water = life everywhere?

      Hint. Top Cat had whiskers, Garfield has whiskers. Does this essentially suggest that whiskers=cats everywhere?

    • I'm not sure if it tells us anything about what kind of life we might find elsewhere in the universe. If they find life on Mars, I think there's a fair chance that life or some of its makings was transplanted from Mars to Earth or vice versa, and would therefore have some inherent similarities. Plus, Earth and Mars formed from the same dust cloud, giving them many of the same raw materials. They have fairly similar sizes and orbits, all of which could predispose life to develop in similar ways.

      Of course

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sznupi ( 719324 )

        I suspect we will have to wait significantly less than "centuries" for larger dataset regarding life in the Universe. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if in less than two decades we will have telescopes capable of resolving Earth-like planets and analyzing their atmospheres (and highly active biospheres probably tend to heavily influence those)

        Even in our system the list of suspect places is quite long, giving us plenty opportunities for exploration. Not only Mars, but also Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, even

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Ihlosi ( 895663 )

      Like I said in the title, I know zip about how all this works, but once you've got some water sloshing around on your planet, what else do you need?

      Carbon and Nitrogen. And an energy source. And time, a billion years or so should do the trick.

  • How did meteorites from Mars end up on Earth? I'm not trying to suggest it's not true, but how does that happen? What causes portions of mars to both erupt out of the planet AND escape Mars' gravity/orbit and wind up on Earth? Aren't those immensely small odds? And we have 3 such meteorites?

  • by BobMcD ( 601576 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @12:36PM (#30765932)

    ...this topic. Any here on Slashdot?

    For example, how did we determine that Allan Hills 84001 [] came from Mars and not anywhere else? Not even a Mars-like planet in a nearby solar system? How?

    How do we know that the signs of life on that rock are from before it was landed, rather than after? I see wikipedia mention that 'some argue', but there's almost no meat on these bones.

    There are more questions, but I guess I'm uncomfortable with the word 'prove'. If this were in a court of law, for example, all of this would be 'circumstantial'. There generally needs to be a lot of it, and it needs to be compelling, before this sort of evidence would get a verdict. This leads me to suspect one of these scenarios:

    A) There's more detail here. (I'm rooting for this one)

    B) The scientific word 'prove' isn't the same as other uses of 'prove' (which would be sad, since they already have their own words - e.g. hypothesis)

    Anyway if you either are a third party with sources or someone who actually works with this kind of thing, please do comment below. I'm in the mood to learn something today.

    • by mopomi ( 696055 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @01:07PM (#30766490)

      Disclaimer: I am a planetary scientist but do not work directly on the martian meteorites.

      1) We know that the rocks are from Mars because they all have consistent isotope ratios between the various meteorites that are inconsistent with those isotope ratios on Earth but consistent with isotopic ratios on Mars [] [] (May need a subscription)

      2) The age(s) of the possible fossils are greater than the time the meteorites have been on Earth. Again, this can be calculated using various isotope ratios. In essence, these things formed while the rocks were still on Mars.

      3) I agree with your discomfort with the word "prove." Most scientific study is based on the Popper philosophy of disproving something rather than proving its opposite.

      A) The new instrumentation and techniques being used on these meteorites are greatly advancing our understanding of them. The press announcement that AH84001 might have evidence of life was premature (what we call "science by press release"), but the publications by the team were certainly good and valid work, whether they are falsified or not...

      B) The scientific word "prove" is more about the lack of any valid competing hypotheses. If you can't come up with a reasonable alternative explanation for the data, you have to accept the presented explanation.

      • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

        Wow. Thank you! Thank you very much. I was nervous about posting this question, but you have definitely made my day.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mopomi ( 696055 )

          You're welcome! It's good to see people genuinely interested instead of automatically dismissing because they think they thought of the one thing wrong with the analysis that was missed by the possibly hundreds of scientists who do this day-in and day-out...

          A clarification on my post:
          A) I don't think it was misunderstood, but want to clarify that the "whether they are falsified or not..." statement was meant to say that whatever the final conclusion about the possible fossils, the initial (1996) work raisi

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by mopomi ( 696055 )

            Dangit! Missed another point I wanted to make..

            When we say we have "proved" something, we generally mean we've shown, to our satisfaction, that the competing hypotheses are not as strong as the hypothesis we have "proven."

            So, what these guys are doing is working to show why these possible fossils are not likely to have formed on Earth, are not likely to have formed as precipitates, etc. Eventually, they expect to show that all of the competing hypotheses for the formation are weaker than (or have even bee

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Dusty101 ( 765661 )

        Mod parent up: it's a good, concise, balanced reply.

        I'd also recommend that anyone interested in following up this story look up some of the stuff by (e.g.) John Bradley on this as well, to provide a bit of a counterpoint, as the headline-grabbing articles tend to lack scientifi balance. The following link's a good few years old, and the work has moved on a bit, but it is a pretty good potted summary of the arguments for and against a biological origin of these structures. []

      • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @02:32PM (#30768092) Homepage

        What makes me very dubious about these claims is that the structures are so small that they'd have to be nanobacteria, and yet the so-called "nanobacteria" on Earth turn out to be non-living [].

        B) The scientific word "prove" is more about the lack of any valid competing hypotheses. If you can't come up with a reasonable alternative explanation for the data, you have to accept the presented explanation.

        No. One does not have to accept an extraordinary scientific claim just because one does not yet have another explanation. There is lots of data on UFOs. For some of this data, there is no reasonable alternative explanation. That doesn't mean that I have to start believing in UFOs. It just means that UFOlogy is a field where the data are all a big pile of doggy doo. Science has many subfields in which the state of the art is so terrible that reputable people don't want to get involved, and no progress is being made. Two good examples that spring to mind are nanobacteria and IQ testing.

        I am very skeptical about extraordinary scientific claims coming from NASA. NASA has not succeeded in instituting a culture of proper scientific peer review. For instance, the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project does crank stuff, and has ties to characters like Harold Puthoff, who specializes in things like telepathic visits to Jupiter. In a way it's not surprising that NASA has problems with proper peer review. They're the handmaiden of Congress. Congress wants the crewed space program to be run as a national prestige project, but they also want to be able to give justifications for the crewed space program that don't sound like pure nationalism. Therefore they coax NASA into coming up with bogus scientific justifications for programs like the shuttle and the ISS. In a culture that's all based on puffing up bad or nonexistent scientific achievements, it's not surprising that they're susceptible to kookiness.

        Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is not sufficient to say that there is no alternative explanation for these structures in the meteorites, and therefore they must have arisen from living organisms. No geologist has ever been to Mars. We know far less about Mars's geological history than we do about the earth's. It's not at all surprising that we find geological samples where we can't explain how they were formed. That doesn't mean that we immediately have to leap to the conclusion that they were made by nanobacteria.

    • Nearby is still light years away.

      An unguided rock fragment expelled from several light years away?

      Odds are that we'd get missed since the diameter of the earth's gravity well is a vanishingly small arc within the solar system, never mind to a nearby system.


      • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

        Perhaps, but think of all the rocks on earth at the moment. The odds of one of them coming from several light years away does not necessarily approach impossible.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      For example, how did we determine that Allan Hills 84001 came from Mars and not anywhere else? Not even a Mars-like planet in a nearby solar system?

      Isotope ratios match those found by the 1970's Viking landers. Each planet has a different set of ratios, sort of like a female's breast-waste-hip measurements: 38-24-36 etc. (don't ask why I thot of that analogy first).

      Occam's Razor says they are from Mars. Having 3+ meteorites that all match the Mars ratios are far more likely to have been blasted from Mars

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by iamapizza ( 1312801 )
      It depends on the meteorite being studied. When a meteorite is discovered, scientists can study it and compare it to moon rocks. They can compare the composition and makeup of the rock with the moon rocks and they'll find that the meteorites bear a strong resemblance, thus making it probable that it came from the moon.

      For Martian meterorites, they can look at a few other things. You can first check to see if it's igneous []. That indicates that it might have come from a place with molten rock and it sol
  • I'm not surprised the meteorites sat in the British Museum for so long before being given a good once over. There's so much crap in there it would blow you away. Their section on Egypt is bigger and better than the whole King Tut exhibit tour. hehe it's no wonder other countries are like "um can we have our stuff back?"
  • by CheshireCatCO ( 185193 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @12:37PM (#30765970) Homepage

    First of all, why bother linking to PopSci when the original story, even as quoted by PopSci, is at Spaceflight Now []?

    (Of course, the title of the Slashdot piece is pretty bad as well, so I be too surprised.)

    Second, the quote in both the blurb and the PopSci article is taken out of context. The original, from Spaceflight Now:

    "But we do believe that we are very, very close to proving there is or has been life there," McKay tells Spaceflight Now.

    The words at the beginning make a world of difference in terms of McKay's attitude. He's not asserting something he can't know, he's stating he, personally, feels confident. (But it is stated as an opinion.) That's just crappy reporting. (Or, in this case, not even reporting: copying and pasting.)

    All that said, it'll be exciting if it turns up anything, but don't hold your breath. There are just so many ways to contaminate the samples or to produce a lot of the effects that they've seen abiotically that I don't think we'll answer this question from Earth. I suspect to get most scientists to agree that there's life, we'll have to find it in situ.

  • And "not so debunked" is still debunked. How come a martian asteroid on Earth can have life yet we didn't find any on the planet itself ?
    • I doubt a Mars Rover is capable of going deep enough to find fossils.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nadaka ( 224565 )

      Because we have carefully studied every bit of the pieces of mars available on earth with the best scientific laboratories available. Whereas we have only looked at a minuscule fraction of mars on site, and done so with tools light enough to transport to mars.

      Its like asking why we can not prove the nature of human metabolic functions with nothing more than a thermometer in your behind.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by phoenix321 ( 734987 ) *

      Because we are only rolling around our RC toys and they lack an electron microscope powerful enough?

      But we will never get to Mars, because we need all funds we ever had on other things, like that interesting branch of science where we can clearly prove anything and where isolated experiments to the contrary don't disprove anthing. The science there is settled, folks. For. Ever.

      Now excuse me while save some CO2 and pay some taxes.

    • And I don't believe the mars rovers are equipped with electron microscopes.
    • Not life, evidence of former life. There's a lot of evidence that Mars once was much more hospitable.

    • by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @02:28PM (#30767988) Homepage Journal
      Wow, really? To date we have two Martian rovers on the planet and the Phoenix lander. We also managed to land the Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes and a Soviet probe that transmitted for 22 seconds and quit out on us. So, to clarify, we have 5-6 successful surface missions for an entire planet that lost its atmosphere millions of years ago. Millions of years is a long time for the geophysical structure of the planet to change/morph/transform. It's not a big stretch of the imagination to think that any signs of life (fossils, some kind of living bacteria, etc) could have been buried awhile ago. There is also the possibility that any life that still does exist on Mars (or any signs of life) exist in a very small niche area of the planet, where the conditions are just right. So we have a combined 5 active spacecraft to explore an planet's entire surface and you are surprised that we haven't happened to stumble upon the types of evidence we are looking for? (which could also be a limiting factor). Just to put things in perspective, mankind has been actively wandering around this particular planet for more than 15,000 years and there are still a few places we haven't managed to explore. I think we can be forgiven for not finding life on a different planet in the last 40 years of exploration just yet. Sheesh. Why was this modded anything but 'retarded, unsound cynicism?'
  • Obviously (Score:3, Insightful)

    by azav ( 469988 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @12:52PM (#30766218) Homepage Journal

    God put them there to test us.

  • David McKay is the scientist whose own brother doesn't even believe him. See this article [] from back at the 10-year anniversary of the "found life" announcement. It sounds like this thing has become his own little personal crusade.
  • you know... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by GundamFan ( 848341 ) on Thursday January 14, 2010 @04:30PM (#30770162)
    I doubt our definition of life is anywhere near broad enough to ever be sure what is out there.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them WHAT to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. -- Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.