June 28, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Using Aliens to Titillate the Public

Geologists cannot even figure out our own planet (next headline), but some of them claim to know a lot about other planets – their geological history, and even their prospects for life.  Is it fair to tease the public with the L-word life when so much remains to be understood on the ground under our feet?

  1. Mars life:  A new study reported by PhysOrg from a JPL press release claims that Mars had a nearly global wet era 4 billion years ago.  Talk about water on Mars has gone back and forth for decades; was it really necessary to evolve life there by just adding water?  “The new findings suggest that the formation of water-related minerals, and thus at least part of the wet period that may have been most favorable to life, occurred between that early giant impact and the later time when younger sediments formed an overlying mantle.”  (Nobody saw that impact, by the way.)
  2. Mars hands:  “If there’s life on Mars, it could be right-handed,” teased a headline on New Scientist.  The article was about chiral molecules, but it made Mars a lively place.  Some astrobiologists have never been able to forgive the 1976 Viking landers for not finding life.  One experiment gave ambiguous results that are the basis for ongoing hopes.  They keep trying to find other explanations for the gas that Viking measured coming out of a prepared broth when Martian soil was added.  Jeffrey Bada, astrobiologist at Scripps, still thinks non-biological explanations can explain this.  “No matter how you construct an experiment, Mars is likely to throw you a curve ball,” he said.
  3. Europa bones:  An Arizona planetologist has an easier way to look for life on Europa.  PhysOrg reported how he feels one could find evidence of it on the surface without having to drill through the ice.  It might not even be microbes, Richard Greenberg (U of Arizona) said: “there’s always the possibility that we could find structures – something analogous to skeletal remains.
  4. Starry avatars:  A JPL press release seemed to play on the public’s fascination with the recent 3-D alien movie by starting, “Many scientists speculate that our galaxy could be full of places like Pandora from the movie ‘Avatar’ — Earth-like worlds in solar systems besides our own.”  So have they found any?  Nope; just looking.  “Once considered the stuff of science fiction, it may not be long before Earth-like planets, or, in the case of Pandora, Earth-like moons of giant planets, are found to exist other places besides the silver screen.”  That was in a paragraph captioned, “Pandora, up close and personal.”  Incidentally, the real Pandora is a small moon of Saturn.  Here it is, up close and personal from Cassini.  Not quite like the movies.

For SETI fans, Space.com announced that Frank Drake is retiring as director of the SETI Institute, and is turning the job of “Chief Alien Life Hunter” to long-time astrobiologist David Morrison.  Even though NASA doesn’t do SETI work, Morrison revealed an inside secret: “The SETI Institute has partnered with scientists at NASA Ames in a teaming arrangement that has greatly benefited both organizations.  The Institute played an especially important role in the development of the new multidisciplinary field of astrobiology.”  The two fields are closely allied, if for no other reason than the fact that neither has any evidence to support its reason for being.

This has all the appearance of a cult (see CMI essay).  Only in this case, we have a cult funded by taxpayer dollars and preached by the mainstream media.  It’s not science if you have no evidence.  Whatever happened to separation of search and state?

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