A new study shows some carbon compounds from Mars arose from geological processes. What does life have to do with it? Ask some science reporters.
The facts: According to a new study by the Carnegie Institution, some carbon compounds in Martian meteorites arose by chemical processes on the red planet, probably volcanism. The compounds in the famous Martian ALH 84001 meteorite that sparked the birth of the new science of Astrobiology in the 1990s were also found to be non-biological in origin. This means the compounds have nothing whatsoever to do with life.
One might suspect this would be tragic news for those who have devoted their careers to finding life on Mars, but here’s how popular news reports treated the story:
Live Science began by saying that organic compounds (by definition, those containing carbon, including cyanide and tailpipe soot) are “linked with life” and used the popular phrase, “building blocks of life” twice. It quoted a scientist saying, “We now find that Mars has organic chemistry, and on Earth, organic chemistry led to life.” The article was more “lively” than the dead geology facts indicated. It even turned the bad news (astrobiologically speaking) into good news: “Now that scientists have a better picture of the foundations of Martian chemistry, they can better look for anomalies that might be signs of life,” reporter Charles Q. Choi said.
Science Daily also used the suggestive phrase “building blocks of life” and accentuated how the new knowledge of dead rock “will help aid future quests for evidence of ancient or modern Martian life”.
New Scientist called the finding that “Tiny carbon nuggets in meteorites from Mars were formed by cooling magma, not left by ancient alien microbes” to be “good news and bad news for astrobiologists.” MacGregor Campbell’s headline read, quizzically, “Bottled carbon from Mars bodes well for ancient aliens.” Campbell quoted a researcher who brought the lava, like Lazarus, from the dead with a word: “The presence of organic carbon at or near the Martian surface provides a potential nutrient source for putative life.” The ending paragraph, which mentions St. Paul, would probably make the creationist saint roll over in his tomb:
“Perhaps the formation of prebiotic chemistry on Mars was as simple as cooling of Martian lavas,” says Marc Hirschmann, a planetary scientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and St. Paul, who was not involved in the research. “It reinforces the idea that early Mars may have been ripe for the development of life.”….
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