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Life, Mars, the Universe

The entire Space Age - now nearly 40 years old - has seemed at times to be a case of life trying unsuccessfully to catch up to science fiction.

Writers like Jules Verne got the details wrong. (Verne's moon rocket had gas lamps and first- and second-class carriages.) But, from Verne to 2001 to Star Trek, authors took the human race into space. They plotted encounters with alien creatures and civilizations sprinkled through the universe.

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But, until now, the real Space Age has imitated only the inorganic mechanics of science fiction: rockets, probes, robot explorers, humans on a dead moon lofting golf balls, planets too lethal for life.

True, radioed sampling and spectro-analysis showed elements that might support formation of organic life. But such life was not to be found. The romantic canals of earlier speculation were dry holes.

Until now.

This week's cautious (but exuberant) announcement in Washington about possible ancient microbial life on Mars adds what can only be called the spice of life to the space program.

The multilevel research in Houston that found residues in a Martian meteorite, apparently explainable as the detritus of cell life on Mars, looks like the opening to a defining step in human history. It gives a strong push to some astronomers' probability theories. Their thesis: with so many suns discovered and postulated in so many galaxies, other planets hospitable to life forms are statistically very likely.

Human history is filled with life discoveries. Many have been simply the reuniting of branches of the human family who had lost sight of each other (i.e., Columbus and his "Indians", and assorted lost tribes in Oceania). Some have found microbial life near sub-sea volcanic outflows. Others have involved the ultimate in genealogy: namely, archeology and paleontology.

In the wake of the Houston discovery, much has already been written about the discarding of limited views of mankind's place in the universe. Copernicus and Darwin have rightly been cited.

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As humans' space search moves from exploration of the inorganic to probing for life signs, a currently fashionable, limited view may also be discarded. That is the view that life is all about genes competing to replicate themselves.

Surely a creation as marvelously intricate, diversely abundant, and full of surprises that, once uncovered, fit into logical patterns and laws represents something larger than mindless cellular snippets seeking immortality. The very intelligence of those humans who speculate about a gene-centered universe belies their thesis.

The concepts "universe" and "creation" seem increasingly congruent.

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