Face Eating Martians Threaten Earthlings

Editor's note: Science Magazine has published a special issue on the results obtained from the Mars Rover "Opportunity". Rather than let the results, and the scientists who have interpreted the rover's data, speak for themsleves, the British (and American) media have decided to whip up some controversy by jumping to conclusions.

There is currently a link on the Drudge Report to an article by the Times Online titled "The threat from life on Mars". Classic arm waving. The article claims to represent the contents of an article in Science by USGS scientist Keff Kargel. Note what Kargel says:

3 December 2004: Proof for Water, Hints of Life?, Jeffrey Kargel, Science (subscription required)

"Given what we now know about Mars, planetary protection considerations require the assumption that martian life exists, until we learn otherwise. All possible care must be taken to avoid cross-contamination between Earth and Mars. Before proceeding with sample returns or human missions to Mars, we must review measures for planetary biological protection."

No mention is made of potential (and 'deadly') pathogens on Mars. Indeed, putative Martian life might well die under present conditions on Earth. We simply do not know. Yet caution, is always prudent.

That not withstanding, here is how Nigel Hawkes with the Times Online jumped to a conclusion to justify his armwaving headline. He isn't waiting for data: he has already made up his mind: Martians are nasty:

3 December 2004: The threat from life on Mars, The Times Online

"Earth must take precautions to avoid contamination from lifeforms that must now be presumed to exist on Mars, leading scientists gave warning yesterday. Potentially deadly microorganisms could be returned to Earth on a probe which is being planned to collect samples from the Martian surface."

The characterization that putative Maritan lifeforms are "potentially deadly" was contrived by Nigel Hawkes, not by Jeffrey Kargel.

To be fair, jumping to conclusions also happens on this side of the Atlantic as well. Have a look at this article by Mark Carreau of the Houston Chronicle:

3 December 2004: Scientist fears samples of soil or rock might harbor hostile microbes, Houston Chronicle

"Harmful microorganisms trapped in samples of Martian rock and soil could pose a widespread threat to animal and plant life here as well as to the astronauts sent to explore, Kargel writes in a scientific journal article to be published today."

Kargel NEVER says that, Mark! Read his article!

2 December 2004: Scientists fear interplanetary contamination in new Mars missions, Kansas City Star

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the irresponsible and ill-informed comments aerospace engineer and Mars Society President (and also an expert in arm waving) Bob Zubrin who dismisses any possible biolgical contamination issue by telling Knight-Ridder: "For NASA to spend hundred of millions of dollars to prevent martian microbes from coming to Earth in their samples would make as much sense as for the U.S. government to set up a program to stop travelers from bringing Canada Geese across the U.S.-Canadian border," wrote Mars Society president Robert Zubrin in an email."

Oh well. So much for accuracy.

And since we're all waving our arms on this, if you will recall "War of the Worlds" (another UK fantasy export) Earth bacteria kicked the Martian's asses.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on December 3, 2004 11:10 AM.

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