In 1976 NASA’s two Viking landers successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to successfully land and operate on the red planet. While the more recent success of a series of NASA Martian rovers and landers—with Curiosity being the most impressive triumph so far—might cause us to forget the 1976 Viking missions, there is one thing we shouldn’t forget: those early missions might have found living microbial life on Mars.
Both Viking landers carried an experimental apparatus (called “Labeled Release”) to test for metabolic activity in the Martian soil. When samples of Martian soil were given drops of nutrient solutions both lander’s apparatuses returned positive signs of metabolic activity. Initially even the operators of the experiment expressed considerable skepticism about the positive results, but by 1997 (20 years later) two of the experimenters involved in the mission, Dr. Gilbert Levin and Dr. Patricia Straat, had completed years of additional tests and investigations and concluded that the original 1976 results are best explained by the existence of microbial life on Mars. Dr. Levin and Dr. Straat have now published a new paper in the journal Astrobiology presenting further evidence from the Curiosity rover and other Mars missions which supports their argument for the possible 1976 detection of microbial life on Mars (see “The Case for Extant Life on Mars and Its Possible Detection by the Viking Labeled Release Experiment,”).
The details of the original experiments, the subsequent further investigations, and the ongoing debates are summarized in recent coverage of this new paper, but here we’ll examine a related point which is perhaps just as important: the ideological hostility toward even considering these results. The obvious response to the decades-long debate over the validity of this potentially monuments discovery should have been to include improved experimental tests on later missions (specifically experiments to repeat the original tests , while also testing for homochirality in the results). However, in the half dozen NASA landers after Viking (launched between 1997 and 2012), each equipped with multiple instruments, none included an experiment to follow up the successful 1976 Viking results (despite the fact that such follow up experiments were proposed and were quite feasible).
Why not dedicate at least one experiment to try and answer one of the most interesting questions in the Universe?
Between and behind all the assertions and alibis one thing is certain, modern academic investigations of life are dominated by the reductionist outlook of Alexander Oparin, rather than the superior approach of Oparin’s ideological adversary, Vladimir Vernadsky. To the mind of the average modern scientist (even those studying life) the universe is fundamentally abiotic, with the process they call life being the result of a miraculous happenstance organization of chemical reactions. How exactly some accidental chemical arrangement became self-perpetuating, self-evolving, and one of the most complex systems known to man is not explained, but left to vague hand-waving generalizations. What is known is that the fossil records of life on Earth indicate a coherence of organization and rapidity of development (e.g., the Cambrian explosion and early date of the first signs of life on Earth) which point to life being the expression of some organizing principle intrinsic to the Universe itself—as Vernadsky argued.
In his 1930 “The Study of Life and the New Physics” Vernadsky argued that our basic “scientific picture of the cosmos” must be reshaped to include life as a fundamental principle, as intrinsic organization of the Universe as gravitation, for example. At the time of his writing, relativity, the equivalence of mass and energy, and the paradoxical nature of the quantum had freshly uprooted some of the most fundamental assumptions about the basic scientific nature of the Universe—however, Vernadsky, citing this upheaval, argued that the shift must go farther.
Vernadsky opens this 1930 work stating, “The revolution being carried out in physics in our 20th century places on the agenda in scientific thinking a review of fundamental biological conceptions. It is evident that it is making it possible for the first time to locate life phenomena in the Cosmos in their proper place, in a purely scientific conception of the universe…” Deeper into the paper (after detailing the scientific revolution thus far) he says, “It is necessary to approach this process, whose progress seems inevitable to me, in another way, in relying upon the scientific conceptions of life. It is important to pay attention to the phenomena of life whose introduction in the domain of the scientific construction of the Universe is already beginning to become probable. We are approaching a very rational epoch—and that of a radical change in our conception of the scientific Universe. This change will not be, in its consequences, any less important than it was at the time of the creation of the Cosmos, based upon universal gravitation…”
Unfortunately, to the detriment of modern science, the pursuit of this principle largely died with Vernadsky, and the reductionism of Oparin began to dominate the study of life. Whatever the ultimate judgement on the 1976 Viking experiment, the tragedy is that this highly provocative evidence for extant life on Mars ran up against the ideological brick wall of modern reductionist dogma. It is long past time that we free science from such obstructive ideological prejudices.
As for the evidence itself, the new paper by Dr. Gilbert Levin and Dr. Patricia Straat, after 20 years of effort, is now published and freely available online, and we are happy to present a video recording of Dr. Levin’s presentation to the 2013 Human to Mars Summit. It is well worth a watch, while one contemplates a Universe bringing forth life as a self-expression of its creative nature.