- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

George Basalla suggests in Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials (Oxford University Press, $29.95, 224 pages) that the human yearning for company is so great that some great scientific thinkers have let their emotions overtake their reason in believing there is intelligent — and often super-intelligent — life beyond the planet Earth.

Mr. Basalla, emeritus professor of history at the University of Delaware, begins his cautionary history of this long-lived search with the ancient Greek atomists, who postulated an infinite number of universes similar to ours. Further speculation along this line was largely squelched for two millennia, following the church’s acceptance, and vigorous enforcement, of Aristotle’s picture of a finite universe where the unchanging sun, planets and stars circle the earth in orbits fixed in a transparent solid structure.

When Copernicus placed the sun instead of the earth at the center of the cosmos, he opened the way for thinkers like Giordano Bruno, who was eventually burned at the stake for heresy, to argue that other planets might also be inhabited.

Galileo’s observations of the cratered nature of the moon using the recently-invented telescope opened speculation about lunar life by distinguished figures including Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, who conjured up a moon occupied by three groups of intelligent creatures whose lifestyles depended on whether they were on the sunny or the dark side, or in between. He believed that the craters were purposefully constructed by the highly skilled lunar dwellers, whose civilization, notes Mr. Basalla, bore a striking resemblance to that of 17th-century Austria, Kepler’s home.

After surveying the next few centuries of scientific notables who similarly created extraterrestrial creatures in their own image, Mr. Basalla arrives at two late 19th-century observers of Mars, the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli and the American Percival Lowell.

Both men perceived a system of lines covering the Martian landscape which were not evident to many other observers. Schiaparelli called these lines canali, an Italian word usually translated in English as “canals,” but which also means “channels,” which can be natural features. Schiaparelli himself pictured a Martian civilization dominated by a cadre of engineers whose massive hydraulic projects kept their inhospitable planet habitable.

While Schiaparelli did not commit himself fully to this idea, Lowell was a true believer. A scion of the famous Boston family, Lowell’s turn to astronomy after devoting a decade to studying Oriental culture was motivated by a belief in the existence of the Martian canals.

He set up an observatory to study Mars and in short order also perceived the seasonal waxing and waning of vegetation, and poured forth a stream of popular articles and books describing Martian civilization, which far surpassed our own in its technological skill. Observations made with superior instruments soon demonstrated that the canals, as well as Lowell’s other observations, were illusory, but Lowell never abandoned his beliefs.

The myth of intelligent life on Mars inspired much science fiction, notably in the works of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who not only created Tarzan of the apes but also wrote 11 Martian novels. These had a major impact on the ambitions of the young Carl Sagan. Mr. Basalla tells us that Sagan had a map of Burroughs’s Martian world on the wall outside his office at Cornell, where he pursued his career as a major figure in U.S. astronomy and leading believer in extraterrestrial intelligence.

When 20th-century advances began the age of space exploration, it became clear that there was no intelligent life — and very likely no unintelligent life, either — in the solar system. However, the development of radio astronomy inspired scientists to look for radio signals bringing signs of life from more distant parts of the universe.

These have also proved elusive, and Mr. Basalla is skeptical about the prospects of success, which is predicated on an assumption he finds very questionable: that intelligent extraterrestrials think like contemporary scientists.

The strongest evidence to date that there may actually be some primitive form of life on Mars emerged about a decade ago from a meteorite found in the antarctic wilderness in 1984. How that happened is the subject of Kathy Sawyer’s The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets (Random House, $25.95, 374 pages), an engrossing tale of scientific research and controversy artfully woven together from strands of science, politics and human nature.

Ms. Sawyer, formerly a science writer for the Washington Post, traces the history of the eponymous rock back to its dramatic expulsion from Mars 16 million years ago, when the massive impact of an asteroid from outer space sent it on a long journey that ended on earth, where after more thousands of years geological processes brought it to the surface of the antarctic ice.

The scientific story began in 1984, when the fist-sized rock was picked up by Roberta “Robbie” Score, a young geologist on a meteorite-hunting team. Packed up and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, it was mislabeled and lay in obscurity for nine years, until a NASA geochemist called “Duck” Mittlefehldt, who was sent a tiny chip as part of a study of asteroid fragments, analyzed it and realized that it was identical to rocks known to come from Mars.

The rock became ever more intriguing as specialists, at NASA and all around the world, discovered that it was the oldest rock ever examined, dating back some 4.5 billion years, and it contained carbonates, compounds usually deposited from water, a substance with which earth is well endowed but is conspicuously absent on the surface of today’s Mars.

A young NASA investigator, Chris Romanek, perceived tiny structures that resembled “nanobacteria” — entities a small fraction of the size of normal bacteria that some scientists controversially claimed were a variety of earth-bound bacteria that had hitherto escaped detection.

Then another NASA scientist, Kathie Thomas-Keprta, discovered tiny magnetic crystals inside the rock similar to those made biologically inside some bacteria that use them for navigation. Similar crystals can also be made by non-biological processes, but not under the conditions that seem to have prevailed in the Mars rock’s history.

As the evidence mounted, the NASA team, led by veteran geologist Dave McKay, became convinced that the rock contained evidence of bacterial life on early Mars. A laser-based analysis of a rock sample by a lab at Stanford led by the highly-regarded chemical physicist Richard Zare found a variety of organic substances typically, but not exclusively, produced by bacterial action. Then Mr. McKay, peering through his electron microscope, saw segmented structures that resembled bacteria.

Convinced that they had discovered evidence of life on Mars, the NASA team submitted a paper to Science, one of the world’s premier scientific journals, and after exacting peer review, it was accepted. The story then became political, as Daniel Goldin, NASA’s administrator, realized its potential to bring the agency, long removed from its glory days of the Apollo mission, either to renewed heights of glory or new depths of ridicule. Persuaded by the evidence, he arranged both a major press conference and a briefing for then-President Clinton.

The case for life on Mars was not closed, however. The most prominent skeptic was J. William Schopf of the University of California at Los Angeles, discoverer of the oldest bacterial fossils ever found on earth, and others included many of Mr. McKay’s NASA colleagues. Ms. Sawyer reports that the debate is still continuing, but concludes that regardless of the outcome, it has produced many positive developments for biology and space exploration.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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