Searching for life on Mars and in meteorites in the 20th century



Three years ago, a group of scientists at NASA shocked the world by announcing that they believed they had found evidence for primitive fossil life on Mars [McKay et al., 1996]. President Clinton proclaimed, “If this discovery is confirmed it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.”

But to some of us it seemed like deja vu all over again [Berra, 1948]; for almost 90 years previously—on December 28, 1907—The Wall Street Journal published its annual selection of the “most extraordinary event” of the year. The editors picked not the financial crash that panicked most of their investors that year but, for the first and only time in their history, a scientific discovery: “The most extraordinary event of the year is …the proof afforded by astronomical observations …that conscious, intelligent human life exists upon the planet Mars.” It was not mere fossil evidence of microbes, as in 1996, but “conscious, intelligent human life” that so excited Wall Street. The “proof” lay in the announcement by Percival Lowell that the staff at his new observatory in Arizona had been able, for the first time, to photograph the canals. Up until then, planetary observers had merely drawn pictures of what they were seeing, or claimed to be seeing. But with this announcement those uncertain days were gone; the camera doesn't lie, Lowell proclaimed, and this would be the end of all doubts.