Monday, December 3, 2012

The (Continuing) Mars Enigma

Today's announcement that various simple carbon compounds have been found in soils on Mars studied recently by the latest lander/rover was somewhat anti-climactic given the hype surrounding it. Anyone who's been following the saga of Mars exploration for any length of time would be pleased that organics on the Martian surface have -- finally -- been observed and confirmed.

Now if they could only find all those hypothesized oxidants and hyper-oxidants that were claimed to be sterilizing the surface since the ambiguous biological results of the Viking Landers more than 35 years ago.

As Gil Levin argued and attempted to demonstrate, the Viking results probably indicated the presence of organics and possibly Martian biology, but planetary science politics entered the picture and those indications were set aside in favor of a biologically negative interpretation of the data.

To suggest that the scientific community is suffused with "politics" is, of course, heresy. To go further and suggest that scientific results are not infrequently massaged to fit a pre-determined narrative can be a burning offense. Mars science has been particularly affected by these factors for generations, and given the latest hoopla, that's not likely to change any time soon.

[One of my earlier posts on Mars might be apropos...]


  1. Ah yes, the politics of everything. A geologist gave a presentation to our local Ice Age Floods group earlier this year, on parallels of Big Flood features on Earth and Mars. He has been involved in various aspects of Mars exploration since the 1970s, and still has some ancillary involvement. One of the things he told us was that just choosing the place for Curiosity Rover to land was as much politics/PR as geology. (Is it still "geology" when it concerns Mars??) The eventual location was not the one most scientists wanted; it didn't have the variety and oddity of features of their preferred area. BUT, it was a safer choice for landing. They realized that they couldn't afford to blow this one, as over-engineered and Hollywoodesque the landing itself was. They had to get it right or subsequent Federal funding would be even harder to get.

  2. Yes, very true about the sometimes absurd and counterproductive politics of the field.

    The funding issues are often the reason why, too.

    The Gale site is safe and redundant, so I don't expect too much from it, but they seem to be trying to pull a lot more out of the data this time. Good.