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Review: The Rock from Mars

The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets
by Kathy Sawyer
Random House, 2006
hardcover, 416 pp.,illus
ISBN 1-4000-6010-9

This past August marked the tenth anniversary of what originally appeared to be one of the landmark scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, if not of all time: evidence that life once existed on Mars. The August 1996 announcement generated a massive surge of media attention, but in August 2006 the anniversary of that announcement merited only a handful of articles, including one in this publication (see “ALH84001 + 10”, The Space Review, August 7, 2006). This decline in attention reflects the tarnished nature of the discovery today: while the original team of scientists who made the discovery, as well as some others, continue to argue that meteorite ALH84001 contains evidence of past Martian life, others have argued that the evidence can be explained by inorganic means and/or terrestrial contamination. So how did such a small rock create such a huge controversy? It’s a story ably told by Kathy Sawyer in The Rock from Mars.

Sawyer, a science reporter for the Washington Post for over a decade, covers essentially the full arc of ALH84001’s history, starting with its discovery in Antarctica in the final days of 1984. Originally misclassified as a relatively ordinary meteorite, most likely a piece of the large asteroid Vesta, it took nearly a decade for scientists to not only ascertain its true origin, but also find that, at 4.5 billion years old, it was one of the oldest rocks found yet in the solar system, far older than the handful of other Martian meteorites previously discovered. That led to further scrutiny of the meteorite, primarily by NASA scientists in the labs of Building 31 at the Johnson Space Center, turning up the chrondrules, magnetic crystals, fossil-like features, and other evidence that became public knowledge in a most public way in early August of 1996.

Of particular interest will be the details Sawyer provides about the machinations within NASA and the White House in the weeks leading up to the announcement, including then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin’s meetings on the subject with President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

The Rock from Mars doesn’t end with the discovery, of course, covering the aftermath of the August 7, 1996 press conference at NASA Headquarters with the reaction—much of it surprisingly visceral and negative—from the scientific community. Planetary sciences meetings became hotbeds for vigorous, vociferous debate on the evidence in the original 1996 paper. Camps of scientists on both sides of the issue—either for or against a Martian biological explanation for the features seen in ALH84001—emerged, with little sign of an emerging consensus, only the exchange of papers and presentations. Little wonder, then, that ALH84001 has faded from our collective consciousness: from a scientific standpoint, there’s still an ongoing debate about its significance.

While many of those details may already be familiar to potential readers, what sets The Rock from Mars apart is both the background Sawyer provides and the little-known details about the discovery. She fleshes out the histories and personalities of many of the key players in this saga, including the scientists involved with the story, turning them from abstract characters into real people. Of particular interest to many will be the details Sawyer provides about the machinations within NASA and the White House in the weeks leading up to the announcement, including then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin’s meetings on the subject with President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Perhaps the only stumble in the book towards the end, where Sawyer recounts a debate at an astrobiology conference in 2002 between William Schopf, the UCLA paleobiologist who was a noted critic of the discovery (he was the one who quoted the Carl Sagan dictum about “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” at the August 1996 press conference) and a British scientist—not about life on Mars but about an earlier discovery by Schopf about fossil evidence for early life on Earth. The debate underscored the difficulty in understanding the formation of terrestrial life, let alone any Martian life, but probably didn’t require the level of detail presented in the book.

In the final chapter of The Rock from Mars, Sawyer notes that regardless of the scientific interpretation of ALH84001, the August 1996 announcement and its aftermath had numerous effects, from illustrating the scientific and technical challenges of finding evidence of life in rock samples (and the difficulty involved in bringing additional samples back to Earth uncontaminated), to the outpouring of public support for such research. “Like a living thing,” she concludes, “the rock had altered its adopted habitat in mischievous and interesting ways. Like a Siren, it lured its discoverers irresistibly toward its treacherous and baffling source. Like a teacher, it instructed us in our ignorance and in the wondrous possibility forged by human audacity.” That may indeed turn out to be the enduring legacy of ALH84001.