Life On Mars: The Complete Story

By Paul Chambers

Blandford, London, 1999, 222 pp., hardcover, $22.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Is there life on Mars? People are still looking for it. And Paul Chambers' book is a good place to find a cogent explication of the many aspects of the search, covering the last 400 years.

As the centuries have rolled by, the telescopes used to observe the planet have improved. Drawings from 1659, 1787, 1867 and 1974 demonstrate this.

Even so, technical limitations and observer error have needed to be taken into account. Until the 1960s, a debate raged over whether Mars had canals or not. The planet had been in a good position for observation in 1879, and the air had been calm in Europe, so astronomers got excellent looks at it. Even so, separate observers saw different features, and differing numbers of canals.

The most noted proponent of their existence was Percival Lowell, born 1855. He theorized a dying planet where water lodged at the poles but melted periodically and, through the efforts of a declining civilization, was sent down through canals.

Another person who took this kind of thing seriously was the electrical genius Nikola Tesla. When he heard a pulsing radio source from space, he stated that it was from Mars. (He planned to return the "call," but there is no known record that he ever tried to do so.)

More reliable information about Mars became available when in the 1960s and 1970s non-manned spacecraft flew by the planet, particularly those of the Mariner (U.S.) and Mars (Soviet) series. The Viking landers, of course, later from Mars itself provided information that excited the world. The first Labelled Release (LR) test on Viking 2 using radioactive nutrient, like its Viking 1 predecessor, provided hints that very simple life might be present in Martian soil -- as did the second LR test. The results remained controversial, even though the Viking scientists did not in the end promote life as an explanation for the results.

Later, in 1997, Pathfinder and its accompanying vehicle Sojourner provided more clues, direct from the fourth planet, particularly as regards places where water might be present on Mars, and where beneath-the-crust microscopic lifeforms could exist. As life on Earth exists in environmental extremes, so might Martian life, but, as the author puts it, "...conditions on the surface of Mars make being on the summit of Everest in a gale seem preferable."

And not enough searching has been done beneath the surface. The two Viking landers only took their samples on the upper ten centimeters of the "Red Planet's" soil.

An excellent chart in the book outlines the possible history of Martian life as compared to the known history of life on Earth. The chances of surface life flourishing on Mars have become much more remote during the last 1500 million years.

One of the many excellent photographs included in this volume shows Mars's Isu Chasma canyon, which is 300 kilometers wide. It was probably once a vast lake where life could have evolved. Another photograph, of Martian meteorite ALH84001, shows what some scientists have taken to be a fossil of Martian life -- a contention still much disputed. A table with the "Summary of Research Performed on Globules within ALH84001 and their Implication for the Possibility of their Representing Fossil Life" shows the opinions of many teams using numerous methods, ranging from Not Possible and Uncertain to Possible.

Arguments about what these mean, and about whether extraterrestrial life has come to earth in carbonaceous chondrites, are well chronicled in this volume.

Scientists hope to find on Mars clues to the development of life everywhere else, including Earth. Hoyle's theory, of life having come from comets, gets a going over. While it is considered problematic, some of its underlying elements have been considered more likely, particularly the delivery by comets of large organic molecules. If life is ever discovered on Mars, will its genetic material prove related to Earth's? Will both planets turn out to have been seeded from elsewhere? Microfossils from the early history of both places might prove enlightening, if large molecules perhaps present in both places led to the development of the same sorts of bacteria.

Chambers also covers the less reputable theories about life on Mars, and about contactees' alleged contacts with entities from Mars and other planets. Recently, conspiracy theories have become well known, about a government cover-up of evidences of Martian civilization, including information about the Face On Mars. NASA originally released their photo of the Face On Mars as part of publicity for its Viking program, but the Face has gained added fame. Richard Hoagland has shown purported alignments of Martian surface features, including those involving the Face, a City, and a cliff. Since he finds indigenous complex Martian life unlikely, he maintains that these are traces of visitors from elsewhere in the universe.

Whether taken to be factual or fictional, Martians remain popular in film, television and printed matter; there was even a movie some years back called Mars Attacks!

Until further robotic visits and intended future manned missions make the nearby planet better known, Paul Chambers' book will serve as a good account of the various meanings of Mars.