February 22, 2008
In 1880, the myopic captain of one of America’s first polo teams was almost killed galloping headlong into his opposite number at the kamekazi start of a match in Dedham, Massachusetts. Given a telescope to gaze through as a convalescent pastime, recent Harvard graduate Percival Lowell soon thought that he saw not just canals on Mars but greenery. His enthusiasm grew into obsession , and he eventually founded the eponymous observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. But much of what he sketched of Mars others could neither see nor, more importantly, photograph. In 1976 NASA’s Viking Lander revealed a panorama of desolation—a world seemingly as dead as Lowell’s reputation. Yet science often beggars fiction. A generation later, a whiff of embalming fluid and a few lines from a Cole Porter musical may herald the discovery of life on Mars.
A flood of purple prose about the Red Planet flowed following the Opportunity space probes 2005 discovery that Mars’s saline sands were once as damp as the underside of an oyster. Satellites orbiting the planet have since found evidence of an equator once carpeted by ice floes and pitted by geysers. The scenery has gotten colorful too. Beyond hematite blueberries and green vitriol on the surface, the spectrum includes inklings of organic complexity in the tenuous air. That marsh gas and formaldehyde coexist on Mars has vital implications. The solar wind is constantly blasting off the top of the Martian stratosphere, so the megatons of formaldehyde in the thin air imply a constant infusion of fresh methane. So what? Unlike the tectonically vigorous Earth, Mars’ effete geology lacks a crustal conveyor belt to exhume gases from its depths. Absent such upheaval, Occam’s razor cuts in: The alternative methane source is life.
Ah, life on Mars! We’ve heard that one before. Few other potential tourist destinations have offered so wide a range of speculation. Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known for Tarzan, tipped his hat to Trollope by portraying Mars as hunt country, where Confederate veteran John Carter encounters not little green men but 15-footers with four arms and an attitude. Before long he encounters red, white, and yellow Martians galloping astride eight-legged saber-toothed sloths, pursuing 10-legged foxes and maidens demurely attired in stainless-steel brassieres.
The high-water mark of Hollywood’s Saturday serials was Flash Gordon’s arrival on the Martian scene. Hot on the heels of Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast came “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars,” whose hero kept fit by wrestling an octopus in the aquarium of Ming the Merciless, an art deco eco-terrorist who set the stage for Michael Crichton’s attempt to exorcise global warming by changing Earth’s climate with a Nitron raygun. The comic strip homage to Lowell was heavy handed- Gordon owed his moniker to his brio captaining the polo team at Yale where his father chaired the observatory !. America loved it, and Cole Porter soon had Bing Crosby crooning:
Have you heard, it’s in the stars,
Next July we collide with Mars
Porter was off by 35 years, but what a swell planet it is—- collide we did. Mars has turned into a sort of celestial lamppost, with more space probes crashing than landing- and some running off the road. NASA’s past failures to fish up Martian life may be due to random landing sites—one mile off a Palm Springs fairway the landscape seems as sterile as Death Valley. But before declaring the Red Planet a Dead Planet, remember that magnification matters It’s hard to overlook a cavalry of giant sloth, but bacteria can be shy and hard to find. Impacting asteroids are forever kicking divots out of planetary surfaces , some from Mars ending up on Earth as meteorites called “Shergottites”, whose isotopic composition match leaves no doubt that they have been whacked into the inner solar system like golf balls of the gods. Symmetry dictates that bits of Earth have hit the Martian fairways over the eons too. Once golf colonizes Mars, the hazards of the course may include alien-looking rocks from home.
This is less peculiar than it sounds. Deep space is a hostile place, but it’s cold out there, and cosmic rays and the solar wind can take a long time to sterilize things flying through it. If a hypervelocity impact on Earth sent not bits of dead dinosaur but mineral-encased spores clear to Mars,they can have done only one of three things: lived long, prospered or died. If hardy Earth critters landed in Martian brine 10 or 10,000 eons ago—bacteria that thrive in acid hot springs, for instance, or Antarctic frost heaves—it’s bad news for Carl Sagan fans today. What will become of funding for the SETI project—searching for extraterrestrial intelligence—if we meet the aliens and they is us? Or us is them?
Carl famously equipped the Voyager space probe with a record of humanity’s best musical hits, to assure us of an inter-galactic platinum album if ever the spacecraft finds an agent orbiting some distant star. In retrospect, the failure to include Porter’s Martian lyrics was doubly deplorable- by the time Voyager makes it to the stars, libretto writing life forms may have evolved on the red planet, and Ice T and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir may have moved there. By mentioning the place in outbound dispatches early on, we could have halved the odds of famished alien dinner theater fans showing up on Earth expecting to find us on the menu.
Russell Seitz blogs at ADAMANT