In my recent article in Origins & Design1 about the putative discovery of nanofossils in a meteorite from Mars I dwelt on the fact that we often see what we want to see. Hamlet2 toyed with Polonius:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that is almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922), a Swiss psychiatrist, analyzed the interpretations, by his subjects, of ten standard inkblots to probe their thoughts. Similarly, the claim of nanofossils in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 by a team of scientists3 at the Johnson Space Center has turned out to tell more about the Exobiology program funded by NASA (or rather funded by the American taxpayer) than about the origin of life on Mars. This discovery received massive publicity from the NASA press relations office. President Clinton and Vice President Gore gave a news conference in support of this paper. But sooner or later embarrassing the President and Vice President with bloopers like the McKay3 paper will backfire to all science funding.
Now reality has delivered the coupe de grace! Numerous scientists have pointed out that these presumptive nanofossils appear to be too small to be fossilized bacteria. Three scientists, J. P. Bradley, R. P. Harvey and H. Y. McSween, Jr. published a paper in the December 4, 1997 issue of Nature showing that the nanofossils reported are laboratory artifacts.5 The carbonates, pyroxenes and other minerals of ALH84001 are non-conductors of electricity. To get an image of the surface it is necessary to evaporate a coat of 2-20 nanometers of gold or gold/palladium. The conductive metal coating produces the segmented features that resemble such characters on bacteria. The segmentation becomes more pronounced as the coating thickness is increased. The surface topography follows the cleavage directions of the substrate crystals. Bradley et al. found by close examination, over many tilt angles, that pyroxene has segmented, curvilinear features resembling worm-like forms.5 The surfaces of carbonates in the fracture zones of another Mars meteorite also showed emergent lamellae. The tiny worm-like features found in photographs made by a field emission scanning electron microscope are largely an artifact of the conductive metal coating. As Polonius might say: They are backed like a worm.
McKay et al.6 reply in the same issue of Nature in a following page. They largely repeat their former arguments and show several objects with even more worm-like features.
McKay et al.3 do not mention amino acids in the orthopyroxenite ALH84001 meteorite. Amino acids, the components of protein, are found in a number of meteorites. Organic matter derived from a proteinous sample shows considerable oxygen and nitrogen from all amino acids as well as sulfur from methionine and cysteine. If DNA had been involved one would expect to find phosphorous, an essential element. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found by McKay et al.3 are composed solely of carbon and hydrogen and have no known role in the biochemistry of life on Earth. In addition, they are found widespread in the universe as well as on Earth and therefore cannot be used to determine terrestrial or extraterrestrial origin.
Furthermore, investigations of organic compounds, (that is, compounds of carbon and hydrogen, not necessarily biogenic) that one may propose are derived from life on Mars, must show markers such as reduced C13. The isotopic character of the carbon will not change and can be used as a marker. The aromatic hydrocarbons found in ALH84001 do not show a propensity for the selection of C12.
Jeffrey L. Bada, Daniel P. Glavin, Gene D. McDonald, and Luann Becker7 reported in Science their examination of the amino acids found in ALH84001. All amino acids found in matter of biological origin are left-handed, except glycine, which is symmetric. Very old organic matter derived from biological effects may not show handedness because of the slow racemization. Bada et al.7 investigated the occurrence of amino acids and the state of their handedness. If amino acids show left-handedness, that indicates contamination by glacial melt water during the 13,000 years spent in the Antarctic glacier. The amino acids alanine and isovaline found in the Murchinson meteorite (which landed near the town of Murchinson in Australia and was collected soon after) were racemic as one would expect for both very old samples and for samples not of biogenic origin. (Of course isovaline is not a component of protein.) Bada et al.7 found traces of amino acids glycine, serine and L-alanine in ALH84001. They found a similar distribution in another Antarctic meteorite EETA79001 and in Allan Hills glacial ice.
Bada et al.7 simulated the process of contamination of CaCO3 by amino acids in water. They found that amino acids present in solution were adsorbed as they passed through a column containing CaCO3 granules. Once adsorbed they were so firmly held that they could only be freed by dissolving the carbonate. Bada et al.7 concluded that the amino acids found in ALH84001 are from contamination by the glacial melt water in which the meteorite lay for 13,000 years.
It is worthwhile pointing out that Professor Bada is at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography working on projects involving the origin of life. One must presume he would be delighted to find proof of life on Mars.
A companion paper in the same issue of Science by Jill, Courtney, Jeffrey and Beck8 used C14 and C13 as tracers to find the origin of the carbonate mineral and organic carbon in ALH84001 and EETA7901. Organic material originating on Mars should contain a negligible amount of C14. Once lying on the glacier they were subject to contamination from terrestrial C14, much of which, since 1955, had been generated by atmospheric detonation of atomic bombs. Jill et al.8 separated the organic carbon from that in the carbonate by combustion between 200° and 400°C releasing CO2. Carbonate minerals typically break down between 450° to 600°C. The carbon dioxide from EETA7901 was found to be 40% to 60% modern by its C14 content. The work reported in these two papers could have been done and should have been done by the team of McKay et al.3, saving themselves and NASA considerable embarrassment.
Science also published several papers on the results from Mars Pathfinder9. The photographs published on the cover and in the text show as desolate and sterile a scene as one could imagine. The results of Pathfinder corroborate the results of the Viking mission10 in 1976.
The putative discovery of nanofossils from Mars in ALH84001 joins the discovery of the cold fusion that would solve all energy needs without the radioactive waste products and plutonium of nuclear power plants or the effluence of green house gases such as carbon dioxide from coal and natural gas fired power plants. The absence of evidence is evidence of absence!
These results will not shake the faith of the Mars Underground, SETI or search for life on Europa. Richard A. Kerr4 quotes Kathie Thomas-Keprta as saying: Finally, just because Bradley failed to find any structures resembling microfossils doesnt mean they arent there. That remark applies also to the existence of fairies, goblins, witches, trolls and unicorns. Surely, someday, a small dinosaur will be found deep in the rain forest of Brazil. Dr. Thomas-Keprtas statement, if any thing, demonstrates that the belief in life on Mars is based on religious faith. The efforts of NASA to find life on Mars contributes to the establishment of religion and is in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Faith of our fathers, living still.
In spite of dungeon fire and sword.
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We shall be true to you till death.
The Methodist Hymnal p.151
1. Hubert P. Yockey, Life on Mars? Did it Come From Earth?. Origins & Design Winter (1997) pp.10-15. return to text.
2. William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Act III scene II. return to text.
3. David S. McKay, et al, Search for past life on Mars: Possible Relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Science 273 (1996): pp. 924-930. return to text.
4. Richard A. Kerr, Putative Martian Microbes Called Microscopy Artifacts. Science 278 pp. 1706 (1997). return to text.
5. J. P. Bradley, R. P. Harvey and H. Y. McSweem Jr. No Nanofossils in Martian Meteorite. Nature 390 p. 454 (1997). return to text.
6. David S. McKay et al. Nature 390 pp. 465-466 (1997). return to text.
7. Jeffrey L. Bada, Daniel P. Glavin, Gene D. McDonald and Luann Becker, A Search for Endogenous Amino Acids in Martian Meteorite ALH84001. Science 279 (1998) pp. 362-365. return to text.
8. A. J. T. Jill, C. Courtney, D. A. Jeffrey and J. W. Beck, Isotopic Evidence for a Terrestrial Source of Organic Compounds Found in Martian Meteorites Allan Hills84001 and Elephant Moraine 79001. Science 279. pp. 366-369. return to text.
9. Science 278, pp. 1743-1774. return to text.
10. Norman H. Horowitz. To Utopia and Back. New York: W. H. Freeman (1986). return to text.
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