June 23, 2011

A Different Kind of Life on Mars

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Weekly World News Cover taken from here.

When I was a sophomore in college [note: in 2004], I went on a field trip to Death Valley and Owens Valley with my volcanology class over spring break. At the time, everyone was very excited about the Mars rovers, which had landed on Mars just a few months before. I was buying a soda in a grocery store and saw the above “Weekly World News,” a fine newspaper that I read on a regular basis. By “read” I mean that I usually skim it while waiting in line at supermarket checkouts. When I saw the issue above, though, I just had to buy a copy.

I was heading over to a pizza restaurant to meet my classmates and professors for dinner. I couldn’t resist a little joke. I ran into the restaurant, looking frazzled and excited, the newspaper safely behind my back. I was a little late to dinner, so almost everyone was already seated and calmly looking over the menus.

“You won’t believe the news!” I exclaimed. “They just announced that they found life on Mars!”

Immediately, the table was astir. Everyone started talking at once, and I noticed that one of my friends turned around to look at the news on the TV behind him. He was looking for a Mars story, no doubt.

Finally, one of the professors asked, genuinely, “Was it a microbe? How did they identify it?”

“No,” I replied. “It’s even bigger than a microbe. It’s a macro-organism.” I hoped that I wasn’t making the word “macro-organism” up, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone.

There was more excited chatter.

“How big was it?” one of my classmates asked.

“Well, forget pizza,” another of my classmates said. “I’m going back to the hotel to watch the news.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Look, I brought the story with me.”

I dramatically revealed the “Weekly World News” issue shown above. I think it was good that no one had food or water yet or else I would have been pummeled. As it was, the person nearest me threw his empty glass at me.

Aside from illustrating a good prank to pull on your scientifically-minded friends, the story above illustrates that finding life on Mars is a very exciting possibility. I think that it’s something that both scientists and non-scientists can get worked up about. I know that whenever I read an article supporting evidence for life– or even just running water– on Mars, I become very excited. I think: gosh, if there’s life only a couple of planets away, what other life could possibly out there?

I’m not an expert in extraterrestrial biology, so I won’t comment too much on this article on a different kind of life on Mars* aside from saying that I think the possibility of a different, hydrogen pyroxide-based form of life on Mars perhaps makes sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if scientists one day– hopefully soon– discover this form of life on Mars. Boy, will the creationists be in for it then. Or perhaps God had some time to populate Mars on Sunday?

Anyway, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be very different forms of life in the universe. I once saw an episode of “The X-Files” (I think it was Season 2) where Scully and Mulder uncovered a new form of silica-based life in a volcano. The spores of this silica-based life form would grow into an organism inside people and then burst through people’s throats and stomachs releasing a new batch of spores. I don’t think I need to worry too much about silica-based parasite spores on my volcanology trips, but silica-based life in general doesn’t sound too unrealistic. After all, silicon is an even more common element than carbon. And life based on hydrogen peroxide liquid instead of water? Maybe not so far fetched, at least on Mars.

Scientists now know of hundreds of organisms living in conditions so extreme that fifty years ago biologists would have said, across that board, that life wasn’t possible in such extreme environments. Now, scientists know of micro-organisms that live everywhere from boiling, acidic hotsprings in Yellowstone to the insides of rocks in the harsh, cold, dry valleys of Antarctica to highly-alkaline pools in Oman deserts**. Entire biological communities based on sulfur energy instead of sunlight energy were discovered at the bottom of the ocean in the 1970s. These hydrothermal vent communities continue to impress and amaze.

So, who knows? I hope there is life on Mars, and I hope we find it. And if these Mars cats are real, I want one. My childhood cat passed away this summer. Currently, I’m avoiding animals*** as my busy schedule doesn’t allow me to take care of a houseplant properly, let alone a living creature. I’d make an exception for a Mars cat, though. I’d just have to take him to the office with me.

*Note: The original CNN link is now broken, so I found a different article to reference.

**I couldn’t resist adding the life in alkaline pools in Oman– something I’ve seen first-hand during my 2009 and 2010 field seasons for my thesis research. In these highly alkaline (pH 11-12) pools in Oman, there are sometimes even fish and little, strange-looking, crab-like critters!

***In 2009, I adopted my two adorable kitties, Zayna (with the mustache) and Samira (calico). They’re from a Martha’s Vineyard shelter, though… not from Mars.

And now, a perfect excuse to post pictures of my adorable cats:

Zayna on the bed.
Samira on the sofa.
Snuggling together.