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Exobiology denial:

It has been five years now that NASA announced researchers found compelling evidence that there was life on Mars at least in the distant past. In February 2001, one more evidence has been found. Yet, some scientists simply will not accept it, without any inside knowledge or counter evidence.

Incapicity to accept facts:

After being batted around the solar system like some cosmic softball, a rock from Mars ended up on Earth thousands of years ago. Now, seventeen years after its discovery, it has become science's most studied stone.

Researchers have studied the Allen Hills meteorite from Mars, and found one evidence after the other in the last years that there was life on Mars in the distant past.

But other scientist, who did not study it, do not like the idea. If Mars once had life, then we humans would be faced with the increased likelihood that life has sprung up elsewhere, and we that are not alone.

On Monday 26.02.2001, scientists announced that further study of "the Mars meteorite," or Allen Hills meteorite, found more evidence: small structures in the rock are in fact of biological origin. The evidence revolves around tiny structures called magnetite crystals, so small that millions of them could hide within the period at the end of this sentence. Researchers say that these crystals were left behind by bacteria that aligned themselves to the magnetic field on the Red Planet. They have ruled out the possibility that the structures might have been created by earthly organisms.

The very next day already, other scientists had already claimed in response that...

"The scientists studying the Mars rock haven't really eliminated the possibility that these structures are inorganic in origin."

The bottom line:

The study has shown that there is currently no known inorganic chemical means of producing these magnetite crystals with their unique morphologies.

Kathie Thomas-Keprta, lead author of one of the new papers, responded that the researchers have taken a more in-depth look at the structure of the magnetite and have done an extensive literature search for other studies that might show analogous structures created by inorganic means, and zero were found.

Thomas-Keprta said the detail of the team's original paper, published in the December issue of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, was voluminous and may not have been read widely or thoroughly by critics.

"This is a very weak argument," Harvey said. "The truth of the matter is, nobody has really looked."

Harvey said a scientific theory can only achieve full strength after alternative ideas have been ruled out. And he says the meteorite has had a complex history of more than 4 billion years, "including volcanism, impacts, travel through space, evaporative processes, reheating, mechanical disruption, time in the Antarctic ice. We should expect to see a lot of confusing and mysterious things."

Meanwhile, the international list of researchers jumping on the Allen Hills meteorite bandwagon has grown large. Seventeen researchers were involved in three papers made public yesterday. Much of the research into the rock has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

NASA geologist David McKay, who was involved in the original study of the Allen Hills meteorite and co-authored the recent paper with Thomas-Kperta, staunchly defended the work against criticism. But he allows that final proof for life on Mars is not yet in:

"These shapes and features and properties that we found in the Allen Hills magnetite have been understood for years to indicate biogenic origin. That doesn't mean they couldn't be produced by nonbiological processes."

But McKay argues that no one has succeeded in producing similar structures via inorganic means, despite serious efforts such as the project going on at the Johnson Space Center, where McKay and Thomas-Kperta work.

"At some point you have to ... accept that the only way they could be produced is by biology."

Research will continue. McKay expects proof of life on Mars to come within five years, based on study of a dozen or so Mars rocks found on Earth.

"We're not expecting any one paper or any one line of evidence to convince people, But we think that over a period of time ... people will be convinced by the evidence, not by us, not by claims in the press."

Meanwhile, more rocks from Mars have been studied by the same researchers who originally examined the Allen Hills meteorite.

Two meteorites, called Nakhla and Shergotty, showed the same evidence of microfossils and other remnants of early life as Allen Hills, according to a team of researchers led by Everett Gibson, a geochemist at JSC.


Science is not about "proving". Science is about understanding, by proposing hypothesis and confronting them to the facts through experimentation and investigation. The hypothesis is that there were bacteria on Mars, the meteorite is one object of study among other, and the evidence to support the hypothesis just add up one after another.

If the skeptics scientist had read the full study, they would not have claimed that nobody considered that magnetite could have a non biogenic origin. This has indeed be a part of the study.

Clearly the scientists who concluded so after regular scientific work are maintaining a very reasonable low profile. On the contrary, the opponents have not even fully read their work, and have not proposed any alternative explanation.

The same type of study would have been fully considered valid by all if it was not about Mars. Because it shows that life existed on Mars, an opposition is maintained in spite of all evidence, based on emotional reaction and without reasonable back up.

Clearly, and not surprisingly, this emotional reaction has the same characteristics than the denial opposed by skeptics to the reality of the UFO phenomenon, and to the Viking experiment which proved that life is still thriving on Mars today. Only time and the accumulation of evidence over time slowly diminishes the skeptics' emotional denial.


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This page was last updated on March 23, 2001