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April 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 16

Banking on Mars

I was pleased to read a quote from Steven W. Squyres in which he said that signals from the rover Opportunity provided numerous lines of evidence that nearly unequivocally indicate that large amounts of water were present on the surface of Mars eons ago (C&EN, March 8, page 7). Then he continued, "That doesn't mean that life was there, but Mars was a habitable place at one time."

I regret that this well-qualified statement is not what was projected during a highly publicized television interview in which Squyres joined about half a dozen National Aeronautics & Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Lab directors. Not only was the interesting geological data recounted--all directly tied to proof of a past very wet Mars--but the directors also gleefully exclaimed, "Where there is water, there is life." Yes, I did even hear Squyres chime in, "On Earth, wherever there is water, there is life." I cringed at the comment by my Cornell colleague. On Earth, there are winds that carry bacteria, seeds, and insects for deposition under relatively benign temperatures and favorable ambient pressures.

What image does the phrase "where there is water, there is life" convey to the average citizen, whose taxes support the enormously expensive NASA enterprise? To some, it implies bacteria; to others, more complex entities. Some even imagine apelike creatures with IQs of 270. It is evident that for NASA, this mantra is blatant propaganda to justify continued funding.

It has been known for several years that water was present on Mars at the polar ice caps. Gamma-ray spectrometer signals recorded during the Mars Odyssey flyby indicated that the permafrost was composed of up to 50% H2O. Radio spectral evidence was recently obtained for H2O2, a hazardous chemical for microbial life, in the martian atmosphere.

Christopher P. McKay of Ames Research Center pointed out that, were robotic explorers to chance upon clearly recognizable fossilized entities in the dry, desertlike regions of Mars, we would learn very little regarding the fundamental questions of when and how these were initiated and in what respects these were Earth-like. Perhaps deep below the ice cover at the poles there are sufficiently well-preserved microorganisms, such that their compositions could be analyzed.

Were this the case, the similarities and differences from Earth-like species would answer a number of crucial questions: Do their amino acids have the same chirality as those on Earth? Are their nucleic acid sequences recognizable? Are there any indications that martian and Earth biospecies may have originated in close proximity somewhere in the solar system? Is there a similar set of principles for biology and evolution on Mars and Earth?

Were the "search for extraterrestrial life" expressed in these terms, I would support NASA's quest. As matters stand, I seriously question their dedication to basic science.

S. H. Bauer
Ithaca, N.Y.


Checks and balances

It was deeply disturbing, but also interesting, to read the article "Concerned Scientists" by Bette Hileman (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 5) and the editorial "A Pattern of Misuse" by Rudy Baum (C&EN, March 1, page 3) about the Bush Administration's practice of systematically using only the scientific knowledge that favors its policies, rather than providing complete and objective information to the American people. Human beings are imperfect, so it is probably universally true that those who are in power tend to exercise their power beyond appropriate limits. There have been countless cases of abuse and corruption all over the world, both in history and in modern times.

Fortunately, the founding fathers of our nation thoroughly understood human deficiencies some 200 years ago, and they designed and established the U.S. government with a checks-and-balances mechanism to minimize negative impacts of people in power. A democratic political system would be more effective only if there were a well-informed and better educated general public. Here I admirably and respectfully salute the 62 distinguished scientists who signed the Union of Concerned Scientists statement for their courage, integrity, and moral responsibility in publicly voicing their concerns. They are the Linus Paulings of today.

Charles Rong


Corporate bagel

Reading the letter "Science Writer in Training" by Kelie Williams took me back many years down memory lane (C&EN, Jan. 12, page 4). I would like to contact Williams so that we can network with each other as chemists in career transition. After all, it is networking that enabled Alan G. MacDiarmid to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other professors.

I took a similar route to the one Williams described when I decided to change my career from a quality-control chemist. I completed a couple of courses in quality assurance and regulatory affairs at Temple University. The university--along with knowledge, certificates, and grades--also dispensed an illusion of success in the job market.

The biggest impediment to the transition was the Catch-22 "experience." Experience is a strange requirement, as a lot of it is as bad as a little of it. After all, who will hire an overqualified candidate? And in the Northeast U.S., the complexities of population have added confusion to an already chaotic job market that seems to be controlled more by a system of lottery than by any other form of logic.

I agree that writing is a psychologically more satisfying profession than that of a medicinal or QC chemist. What could be more satisfying than your self-expression or idea being published in a well-reputed and equitable science magazine like C&EN?

When ridiculing the system of capitalist democracy, the early-19th-century revolutionary Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovski compared it to a bagel. He said that some people get the stuff and others get just the hole. In the current economy, many Americans are living with the holes because their jobs have been outsourced. I sincerely hope that with all of that sacrifice and hardship to effect a career change, Williams has instead found a deserved corporate bagel.

Mathu Venkat
Colonia, N.J.




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