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Mars Life and the Nature of Science

On 20 November 2012, NPR broke a story that NASA was in the process of discovering something ‘earthshaking’ on Mars. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, was quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” (See the NPR broadcast here: Big News From Mars?)

The data he is talking about comes from the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instruments incorporated into the Curiosity rover. The purpose of these is to ‘investigate the past and present ability of Mars to support life.’

Because of this, my guess is that the earthshaking discovery is the existence of organic compounds that are strongly indicative of past life or, perhaps, even evidence of present microbial life on Mars. It could be something else, of course. I’m only guessing, but it’s my blog, so I can guess what I want to.

This is a significant difference between the busy folks at NASA and my humble self, a simple science fiction novelist. I can make a wild guess about something like this and share it with the world, or at least with the miniscule portion of it that reads what I write. The people at NASA are more constrained. What they do is science, real science, which means they have to question and test their conjectures before they proclaim them. They also have to try to prove that their assumptions, their expectations, the things they think are reasonable, and especially those things they wish to believe, are not true, or at least not conclusively demonstrated. They have to be careful not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, especially if those conclusions are what they hope to find because this is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves. That’s what real science does. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would certainly qualify as extraordinary in my opinion, not in the sense that it is unlikely, but in the sense that it would be the first evidence of life somewhere other than Earth. The chemicals required for life are common in the universe, so the surprising thing to me would be if it did not exist elsewhere. We’ve never found any, though, but then we’ve only just developed the ability to search for it.

Undoubtedly, many dedicated men and women around the world will be spending long hours collecting and analyzing the SAM data, trying to determine what it implies, and trying verify and, at the same time, discredit their own conclusions. This is how science does things. It’s meticulous and inherently skeptical, and it is the best method available to us to know the universe.

I understand that NASA’s conclusions about this earthshaking finding will be released in December. I look forward to seeing them.

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