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The NASA conspiracy theory October 28, 2010

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Here’s fairly nutty view on the life-on-Mars controversy: Chandra Wickramasinghe from the University of Cardiff claims that NASA has evidence for life on Mars, but they’re hiding it.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy gets into the details of some other nutty Wickramasinghe claims, and why this one in particular just doesn’t make sense. If you want to learn more about Wickramasinghe’s claims about extraterrestrial life in the Indian red rain incident, check out Rocco Mancinelli’s talk at Stanford (the red rain discussion is at the end, at about the 1:05 mark), where he dissects Wickramasinghe’s published paper.

The reaction to an announcement of Martian life October 27, 2010

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What would the reaction be if everyone agreed that ALH84001 showed signs of Martian life? It’s tempting to think that this would be one of most important discoveries in history, that it would change the way we think about life on Earth and present a crisis for fundamental religion.

But then I read some interesting comments from a 2003 interview with director James Cameron here:

Q: Encounters with extraterrestrial life have been a premise of some of your movies. You have a strong sense of how the public responds to those characterizations, so how do you think they might react to the real thing?

A: I think we already know. Didn’t Bill Clinton announce that the Allen Hills meteorite contained Martian organisms? Don’t we already know the answer to that? People went, “Hey, there’s life on Mars, cool. It’s bacteria.”

Q: So it was no big deal? It didn’t change our societal psyche in terms of our place in the universe?

A: Absolutely not … I hate to say this, because I am so in favor of going to Mars, of going to Europa and finding this out, but I think that to the average person, the response will be a shrug. If (aliens) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies.

But I think if we found intelligent communication, if the SETI Project said, “Yeah, we definitely got an answer,” I think people would react differently to that. I think there’d be fear, there’d be excitement. There’d be all the things that all the science fiction movies have ever shown.

I almost see my duty, if I want to make a film about Mars or Europa, is to get people excited about bacteria. They’re basically not, because they don’t understand the significance. So this is where education and outreach is going to be critical.

There’s no point assuming that if you go win that touchdown, anybody is going to be looking. You know what I mean? You have to get them looking first and then go make the touchdown. If you came in yelling right now, “Hey we found life on Mars,” and if it was microscopic, people are not predisposed to understand the significance. So that’s where the education and the outreach, the filming making, the story telling, the narrative part of it is just as important as the science mission.

I think he makes a great point. Would people get as excited and worked up about a fossil of Martian bacteria as they would about a radio message from ET?

ALH84001 in popular culture October 26, 2010

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The announcement of possible signs of life on ALH84001 made news around the world, and it had an impact on popular culture as well. Here’s a sample of what it inspired:

  • The X-Files –  in a November 1996 episode titled “Tunguska”, FBI agents Mulder and Scully investigate a Martian meteorite that contains black worms that infect those who come into contact with the meteorite.
  • Deception Point – this Dan Brown novel published in 2001 (prior to his mega-success with The Da Vinci Code) features a meteorite found in the Arctic that contains insect fossils.
  • Contact – The 1997 move starring Jodie Foster was about detecting extraterrestrial life through radio signals, but it has an interesting link with ALH84001. The movie shows Bill Clinton talking about the detection of alien life, but the footage in the movie was actually taken from his real comments about ALH84001. Apparently the White House was not impressed with this sleight of hand.

How did all his influence the scientific controversy? I think it’s fair to say that most scientists were a little annoyed that a speculative hypothesis that didn’t have a lot of scientific support was adopted into the cultural mainstream, and this may have fueled some resentment and provided a bit of extra energy to those attacking the research.

More on the David McKay video October 25, 2010

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One of the most interesting sources of information on the controversy is this video of a talk given by David McKay to an astrobiology class at Stanford. McKay spends most of the talk going through the ALH84001 research in detail and discussing how his team reached their conclusion, but there are little gems sprinkled throughout the talk where he reflects on the controversy itself.

I’ve mentioned one of these moments previously, where McKay talks about the media circus surrounding the 1996 press conference. Here are some other revealing moments:

  • He thinks that that other scientists got a lot of press when they criticised the initial research (and he admits that his team got a lot of press in 1996 too), but when his team showed that those criticisms weren’t valid, nobody paid attention.
  • He seems to blame NASA and the White House for the early release of the story
  • He believes that some other Martian meteorites show similar ‘biomorphs’ (things that look like microfossils) to those in ALH84001; I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else and it seems to me that this strengthens the argument considerably
  • His tone throughout is quite calm and reasoned; there’s not really any bitterness or frustration at the way things have turned out, which one might have guessed.

There’s a lot of technical analysis in the video, but if you’ve got an hour to spare it’s quite enlightening.

A good summary of the ALH84001 controversy October 24, 2010

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Thanks to a tip from Erin, I’ve been reading this story from Astrobiology Magazine about ALH84001. It’s a good summary of the current state of things. The highlights for me were:

1. Kathie Thomas-Keprta, who has been involved in the research almost from the beginning, was originally invited into the team by David McKay to study the fossil-like objects with an electron microscope:

“I kind of thought he was crazy,” she says. “I thought I would join the group and straighten them out.”

She’s been with the group ever since, so clearly she’s changed her views on McKay and his research!

2. Allan Treiman of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, who had been critical of the research, said many other scientists have simply moved on to other things:

“I am one of the few holdovers still arguing about it,” he says. “I can’t move on.”

The debate may not be settled anytime soon. Treiman isn’t sure how one could ever entirely rule out that Martians might have had a hand in forming ALH84001. “Nature is infinitely complicated,” he says. “It is always surprising us.”

However, he believes the alternative explanations from geology and chemistry are simpler, since they don’t require inventing the whole new science of Martian biology. Scientists are trained to pick the simplest explanation.

A nice reference to using Occam’s Razor as the guiding principle when evaluating competing hypotheses.

3. Timothy Swindle from the University of Arizona used to run surveys of what other scientists thought about ALH84001:

An informal poll of more than 100 scientists by Swindle in 1997, right after the first announcement of possible biological relics in ALH84001, showed that most of the community was already hedging their bets. The typical response gave about even odds that Mars once had life but said that there was just a 1-in-5 chance that McKay’s group had found the smoking gun.

A few years later, Swindle tried to do the poll again but couldn’t get enough respondents to form a representative sample. He thinks most people had made up their mind that ALH84001 did not carry biosignatures from Mars. But that doesn’t mean that sifting through the meteorite hasn’t been worth it.

“It was good science,” he says. “It challenged people to really think about what would count as evidence of life on Mars.”

It’s worth noting that even though most scientists thought ALH84001 didn’t how signs of life, they were much more willing to believe that Mars did once have life. When you look at this controversy with Kuhn’s framework, it’s important to realise what the existing paradigm is – it’s *not* that Mars doesn’t (and can’t) have life; it’s that we don’t have any good evidence for Martian life.

Getting people interested in the next Mars mission October 23, 2010

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Previously I discussed some of the ways that the life on Mars controversy might end, and I mentioned the Mars Science Laboratory mission that NASA is launching next year. Among the mission objectives listed here, the one of interest to this blog is “Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes”. Note the “may” in that phrase; it’s not there by accident!

If you’re interested in these sorts of things, NASA have set up a webcam looking into the clean room where technicians are assembling the rover; the live feed can be found here. They’re working 8am – 11pm PDT, Monday to Friday – for those here in Brisbane, that equates to 1am – 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

Another initiative to get the public interested is the “send your name to Mars” program, details here. My kids did something similar for the recent Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission and were fairly excited to think about their names flying around the moon.

A creationist angle on ALH84001 October 23, 2010

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Here’s a new angle on the ALH84001 debate – inspired by Nick’s blog, I thought I’d look into what creationists think of the ALH84001 controversy. The most interesting response is here, from Brisbane’s very own Creation Ministries International.

It’s fairly comprehensive, and (to their credit) has lots of links to original research in the journals. After discussing some 2001 research by David McKay’s team that expanded on their initial 1996 research, the author (Jonathan Sarfati) says, under the heading “Just how conclusive is this, and what should creationists think?”:

We should certainly wait till more evidence comes in. Many times, evolutionists have triumphantly announced ‘proofs’ of evolution or something else against the Christian world view, and the secular media uncritically gave them headline status.

Much the same headlines erupted about ALH84001 in August 1996, and gullible skeptics gloated over the supposed demise of Christianity, and compromising theologians bent over backwards to accommodate their ‘Christian’ faith (which was already far removed from the Bible by accommodation to evolution/billions of years) to these ‘discoveries’.

But all the ‘proof’ presented back then has been almost universally discounted. For example, there is almost certain proof that the amino acids found in ALH84001 were the result of contamination from Earth, and other ‘nanofossils’ were merely inanimate magnetite whiskers plus artefacts of transmission microscopy (TEM). Of course, the humanist-dominated media and assorted ‘skeptics’ didn’t give the retraction anywhere near the same publicity.

In one sense, it’s not that much different from any analysis that concludes ALH84001 doesn’t contain signs of life, although it’s sprinkled with phrases like:

Since evolutionists claim that Mars is the same age as Earth (4.5 billion years old), that leaves precious little time for evolution to have produced relatively advanced forms of life that could photosynthesize or navigate by magnetism.

Evolutionists frequently use common structures to ‘prove’ a common ancestry (although a common designer would explain them better), so it’s difficult to believe that almost identical structures evolved independently on different places with vastly different environments.

Probably the most striking thing is how enthusiastically the author supports legitimate scientific research that argues against signs of life in ALH84001, but fails to see how that same research is entirely inconsistent with a 6,000 year old earth, which is the viewpoint of Creation Ministries International.

I also was hoping to find some discussion of what creationists should think if it turns out that there *are* signs of life in ALH84001, but I guess that’s pushing my luck.

The slow decline of a controversy? October 22, 2010

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I was feeling a bit lost without some numbers to crunch, so I’ve started a bit of analysis on how the ALH84001 controversy has changed over the years. My first cut at it, which is a bit crude, was to look at how often the phrase ‘ALH84001’ has appeared in journals and some major newspapers (the online search at UQ seems to include the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian and the Financial Times).

Here’s the result:



# of occurrences of phrase 'ALH84001' in journals and newspapers


In the journals it’s been a slow and steady decline; in the newspapers it started from a smaller peak and hit zero pretty quickly. This is a bit surprising – I would have thought the newspapers would have kept the story going in order to attract readers, even if the journal interest was fading. Although it is consistent with the story I mentioned at the end of this post.

There are a few more things I want to do with this. Breaking the journal articles down into those that support the Martian life conclusion and those that oppose it, broadening the newspaper search to include more publications, and refining the newspaper search – I’m sure many articles about the controversy just talked about a ‘Martian meteorite’ rather than ‘ALH84001’. Hopefully I’ll update this in the next couple of days.

An interesting astrobiology conference October 20, 2010

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Here’s an article from May of this year in the Washington Post that discusses the latest ALH84001 research. It’s reported from an astrobiology conference in Houston.

It’s notable for a few things:

1. It’s still David McKay and his group doing the ALH84001 research; they feel like they’ve made great progresss in rebutting their critics’ arguments but aren’t getting any recognition for it.

2. The article includes quotes from Mary Voytek, NASA’s Senior Scientist for Astrobiology (and therefore David Mckay’s boss, in some sense). She says McKay’s work has been crucial to astrobiology, but admits the field is not convinced by McKay’s research. This is the first comment about the controversy from a senior person at NASA that I’ve come across.

3.  The article discuss a proposal that any new findings on extraterrestrial life be treated with the same type of special process that SETI researchers have in place (from memory, this involves notifying governments, the UN, etc. before a public announcement is made). No doubt this was prompted in part by the fallout from the ALH84001 news conference!

In a fantastic piece of irony, Britain’s Sun newspaper reported a story from the same conference that NASA had found evidence for life on Mars, based on some findings from their rovers on the planet. They got the story all wrong – details here.

Fading from public memory October 19, 2010

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Here’s an interesting blog post written in 2006, on the 10th anniversary of the ALH84001 controversy.

I can relate to the opening paragraphs – ALH84001 sticks in my mind pretty clearly, probably because it happened just as I was leaving physics to study business – had I left just as things were getting interesting?

I think the point about the impact of ALH84001 on NASA’s Mars program is spot on. These days Martian missions happen pretty routinely, and it’s easy to forget about how little attention NASA was paying to Mars in the early 1990s. ALH84001 stirred up the public’s enthusiasm and focused NASA on searching for water and habitable environments.

It’s interesting to read about how far ALH84001 has faded from memory. I was surprised by the story about the Mars conference attendee who doesn’t know what ALH84001 is, although I’m probably not the best judge of these things, since I’ve been studying it intensively for 3 months now!