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Artist, Heather Oliver             

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

marvin.gifAbout three weeks ago, Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Geology Dept., Washington State University) delivered a paper in which he suggests that the Viking probes may have inadvertently destroyed Martian bacteria. He theorizes that if their optima differ significantly from “median” terrestrial bacteria, the tests of the probes – heating, adding water – would be lethal. His speculations, if correct, could explain and reconcile the contradictory results from the biological experiments conducted by the Viking landers.

This shows how our lack of an independent second life sample limits our horizons. In 1976 and 1977, the years of the Viking landings, extremophilic bacteria were unknown. Even after their discovery, it took heroic measures to propagate them once they left their native habitats. Also unknown were the thriving communities of fragile, gelatinous animals living in the ocean depths: the methods used to capture samples shredded them to confetti. Something similar may happen when we look for life under Europa’s ice sheet and in the Mars polar ice cap – the destination of the upcoming Phoenix expedition.

The instruments of the Phoenix lander are still configured to look for life “as we know it”. But this time, the excuse of ignorance will not avail us. Now we are aware that even terrestrial life pushes the boundaries of what was once considered possible. We should put that experience to use. Otherwise we may literally step on alien life and deprive ourselves of unique, irreplaceable knowledge.

More on Dr. Schulze-Makuch’s theory:

Note: An updated, expanded version of this article appeared in Science in My Fiction and on io9.

6 Responses to “You Only Find What You’re Looking For”

  1. rocketscientist says:

    It’s often amazing how the obvious can be so elusive. How many times have any of us accidentally destroyed something we were trying to observe? A lttle common sense could go a long way.

    Wonderful article.

  2. Athena says:

    The complication in such missions is trying to contain costs and size while making the instruments robust enough to withstand vacuum, radiation, acceleration… but I agree with you 100% that a combination of daring, imagination and common sense is called for. Not an easy task, but a very worthwhile one.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    Excellent article. And I agree; this does provoke a good deal of thought on how far common sense would go if applied to the other motivations behind the drive to look for other life. In my opinion, it’s not–rather, shouldn’t be, ideally–just a question of, “How quickly can we get there?”; consideration for how wisely we can act would also go a long way.

  4. Athena says:

    You know, this is the other side of the discussion we’re having on the forum about the Fermi paradox. If alien life differs too much from us or is too high or low in the scale, it may never register as such. We may never even notice that we destroyed it. A sobering thought.

  5. Walden2 says:

    Viking landers did detect organics on Mars

    ( — In 1976 the NASA Viking landers took samples of soil on Mars and tested them for signs of organic carbon. A reinterpretation of the results now suggests the samples did contain organic compounds, but the results were not understood because of the strong oxidation effects of perchlor…

    Full article here:

  6. Athena says:

    Let’s hope this finally gets missions off the ground. I would love to have proof of a second life genesis in my lifetime — wash the awful taste of NASA’s “arsenic bacterium” out of my brain.