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At Scientific American: We did find life on Mars in the ‘70s. Rob Sheldon weighs in


Gilbert V. Levin, principal investigator of the Viking mission Labeled Release experiment, tells us,

On July 30, 1976, the LR returned its initial results from Mars. Amazingly, they were positive. As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart. The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by LR tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.

When the Viking Molecular Analysis Experiment failed to detect organic matter, the essence of life, however, NASA concluded that the LR had found a substance mimicking life, but not life. Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results. Instead the agency launched a series of missions to Mars to determine whether there was ever a habitat suitable for life and, if so, eventually to bring samples to Earth for biological examination…

NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test. In keeping with well-established scientific protocol, I believe an effort should be made to put life detection experiments on the next Mars mission possible. I and my co-experimenter have formally and informally proposed that the LR experiment, amended with an ability to detect chiral metabolism, be sent to Mars to confirm the existence of life: non-biological chemical reactions do not distinguish between “left-handed” and “right-handed” organic molecules, but all living things do.

Gilbert V. Levin, “I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s” at Scientific American

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon, who has long been convinced that Gil Levin is onto something, responds:

Everything Gil says is true. He’s a solid, kind and generous man who has had to put up with inexplicable NASA administrators for 44 years, refusing to acknowledge that his experiment worked perfectly. For the first 20 years, they threatened him with cutting off his funding if he announced life. After retirement, he started publishing papers and they simply ignored him. They also put a ban on any Mars mission to redo Gil’s work or to search for life. You can search for “an hospitable environment” but not life itself. That’s why Mars 2020 won’t have any life-detection experiments.

And Gil isn’t bitter about it. In fact, this is the first blog I’ve seen where he is asking people to petition NASA to fly a life-detection experiment. I’m not nearly as patient as Gil, which I suppose is why I haven’t had NASA funding for 20 years.

Some of us have difficulty understanding the story because we wonder, why wouldn’t NASA want to declare life found on Mars? Did so many people may need to spin the story out in their own interests that it took this long? Like, stupid (but maybe well-paid) seminars about how religious people would react if life were found on Mars? With no one to spoil the party by pointing out that most religious people wouldn’t really care? (It’s not like being told NOT to feed the hungry or something, right?)

And can we now discuss the possibility that they found life on Mars but ignored it?

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent.

See also: Signs of life on Mars from 4 billion years ago

Did Viking discover life on Mars forty years ago?


Ethan Siegel at Forbes: Was life found on Mars 40 years ago?

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