September 26th, 2003

Could earthly religions survive the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe? The Atlantic Monthly

The recent discovery of abundant water on Mars, albeit in the form of permafrost, has raised hopes for finding traces of life there. The Red Planet has long been a favorite location for those speculating about extraterrestrial life, especially since the 1890s, when H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds and the American astronomer Percival Lowell claimed that he could see artificial canals etched into the planet’s parched surface. Today, of course, scientists expect to find no more than simple bacteria dwelling deep underground, if even that. Still, the discovery of just a single bacterium somewhere beyond Earth would force us to revise our understanding of who we are and where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things, throwing us into a deep spiritual identity crisis that would be every bit as dramatic as the one Copernicus brought about in the early 1500s, when he asserted that Earth was not at the center of the universe.

June 1st, 1977

Life on Mars The Atlantic Monthly

Space scientists won’t say so, but the results of three brilliantly-conceived experiments lead inevitably to one startling conclusion: Life, in some form, exists on Mars. The results of the Viking life-detection experiments have been more positive than most people expected. Dr. Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says, “Short of seeing something wiggling on the end of a pin, the case for life on Mars is now as complete as the Viking experiments could make it.” But no one wants to make predictions about Martian life which might be proved wrong by later evidence; scientific reputations could too easily be damaged in the process. So the Viking scientists have been extremely cautious in interpreting the results of their biology experiments. And the official NASA position straddles the fence. As Viking scientist Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University puts it, “We have clues up to the eyebrows, but no conclusive explanations of what we’re seeing.”