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The Cat and Curiosity

NASA/Curiosity roverWith all the hype about the successful landing of the $2.5bn Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, The New Scientist posted that it may just find what we already found in 1976 with the twin Viking landers. Life. Gil Levin‘s “Labelled Release Experiment” on Viking detected the signal of what can only be life. Yet NASA politics kept him from uncorking that champagne for 36 years,  so in his retirement and with a smile as wide as the Cheshire cat, he is setting the record straight.

The original labelled release experiment scooped up soil, added a nutrient mix of water and sugars possessing carbon-14, and then monitored the carbon-dioxide gas coming out with a geiger tube radiation counter. If there was life in the soil, the count rate should grow exponentially, as it does on Earth, when the bacteria multiply. It did. Then for a control, the scoop of soil was baked at 500C, cooled, and the nutrient mix added. On Earth, this was sufficient to sterilize the soil and eliminate the response. And on Mars, there was no response either. The entire cycle was done a second time with a different scoop. Same results. It was done on the 2nd lander site hundreds of miles away. Same results. A total of 8 data sets were sent back to earth, and Gil even analyzed them for wiggles–since the bacteria grew faster in the daytime than in the nightime–just as they do on Earth.

Every “pseudo-life” signal that has been proposed–supermetalloperoxides, perchlorates, peroxides–neither duplicates this signal, nor is constitent with the atmospheric composition, nor the other instruments on the Viking lander. The mystery of why the much much more expensive mass spectrometer failed was solved when it was realized that sulfur in the soil had clogged its palladium filter, reducing its sensitivity to about 1/100,000 of Gil’s simple experiment. Gil explains all these things in his papers, and for those who remain skeptical, it would be an education to read his papers.

But will Curiosity rediscover life and attribute the first discovery to Dr Levin?

Don’t count on it.

Ever since the 1976 experiment, NASA has sent a dozen missions to Mars, and the AO (official announcement of opportunity to propose) has always included the caveat that NASA will not fund proposals that look for life. They will fund the search for promising environments, the search for water and water-modified minerals, but not life. Gil Levin has responded to critics of his stellar experiment with a simple modification. Add a third step using  mirror-image L-sugars and D-amino acids in that nutrient broth. Chemistry won’t notice the difference, but life will find it distasteful. This would clearly separate abiotic from biological signals. But this violates the NASA policy to “not look for life”, and all his proposals have been declined.

So strongly has this meme of “don’t look for life” aka “don’t confirm Levin’s discovery” permeated NASA that it even causes silly science to be reported. That’s my only explanation for why the Mars Phoenix lander made such a fuss about finding perchlorate–basically the same bleach that they washed the Phoenix lander with before launch to insure that it doesn’t bring microbes to Mars. If there is bleach in the soil of Mars, the lead scientist explained, then Levin’s experiment might be explained away. Except of course, chlorine would stick out like a sore thumb in the atmospheric data set, in the mass spectrometer data set, in the remote sensing data set, etc.  In other words, a scientist must be risking his career to make such an unfounded claim that could so easily be attributed to contamination.  Unless his boss asks him to.

So when Curiosity with its 17 cameras, some of which are attached to microscopes, explores Mars, not one of them will have the resolution to see the bacteria Levin detected. The best magnification is 15 microns, and typical soil bacteria range from 2-5 microns.  This is not a difficult thing to do, my daughter’s high school biology lab has $100 microscopes that can see bacteria, so why didn’t the $1M ones on Curiosity?

Because that would let the cat out of the box. Better to leave it where it is neither confirmed dead or alive.

That is, until Curiosity kills the cat.

PostScript: At the UD post “Science’s Nightmare”, a quote from a physicist bemoans the attempt of string theorists to dominate the field of particle physics despite the recent setbacks from the Higgs search at LHC. His concern is that the entrenched, tenured, moneyed physicists, now getting a $3M boost from Russian millionare Yuri Milner,  (and you have to see the Magician’s Twin for an explanation of that!) are not likely to accept the defeat of their theories. He’s right, of course, and this has been known for quite some time. Max Planck famously said, “Science advances one funeral at a time” and it applies to string theorists as well as Darwinists. What is different, however, from Planck’s early 20th century experience, is that science has become synonymous with big government. The Higgs cost $10bn to discover. The Curiosity lander cost $2.5bn. Not only can these discoveries not be duplicated, but there are literally thousands of people whose career and livelihoods depend upon the “successful” completion of the experiment. They are “too big to fail”.  Thus big government does for big science exactly what it does for economics and Wall Street–it distorts the market. You might note that many of Europe’s best and brightest came to the US during the WWII decades, but this surely cannot account for the fact that the US has dominated Nobel prizes throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century. Something else destroyed initiative, something else prevented discoveries in Europe. And that something is now afflicting NASA and CERN, biology and string theory. Science must be predictable, controllable, investable–not spontaneous, brilliant and intermittent. And that may be the biggest reason (after controlling for atheism) why big state Darwinism is always governmentally preferred over the little upstart ID.

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