August 6, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Ten Years Later: Mars Rock Was a Useful Lie

Almost nobody believes any more that the Martian meteorite ALH84001 contained evidence of life, but the iconic rock launched the science of astrobiology (see 04/17/2006).  So said Matt Crenson for AP (see Space.com and Chron.com) on the tenth anniversary of the highly-publicized NASA announcement that purported to show bacteria-like fossils, magnetites and PAHs thought to be biogenic in origin.
    Like the Miller Experiment (see 05/02/2003), the Martian meteorite has long since been discredited by most scientists.  It did, however, spark the public imagination.  Capitalizing on the wave of enthusiasm, the government provided research opportunities for hundreds of scientists who expect the funding to keep flowing long after the original claim has fizzled (see 03/13/2006).  Ironically, the chief proponent of the Mars-life theory, David McKay, had a prominent critic just down the hall: Gordon McKay (his brother).

Our title is not suggesting that McKay and his team intentionally lied; they apparently truly believed their interpretation and still do.  In retrospect, however, their story appears way overblown.  It should have been subjected to far more scrutiny and criticism from the start.  Instead, former NASA administrator Dan Goldin used the claim for a flamboyant press conference, portraying it as the discovery of the century, aiming for the imagination of the gullible public.  The co-conspiratorial press obliged and fanned the flames, Congress signed on, and Astrobiology was born.  There has been nothing to show for all these hopes but pessimism (see 08/02/2006 entry) for a decade, just like there has been nothing to show after 50 years for the Origin-of-Life (OOL) craze ignited by the Miller Experiment (e.g., 12/17/2005).
    We see now that, though the magic rock did not contain life, it did have mystical powers to woo congresspersons with visions of Charlie on other worlds, and to separate taxpayers from their money.  This is not the only useful-lie trick in the Darwin magician’s bag.  If the Sirens of SETI ever find their persistent narrowband whistle (12/03/2005), grab your wallet quick.

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