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Book Review:
The Hunt for Life on Mars

By Jim Plaxco

With the widespread interest in the issue of life on Mars, it was inevitable that a book would appear on the scene to examine and explain the issues surrounding the meteorite that even got the attention of President Clinton - ALH8001. To the best of my knowledge, Donald Goldsmith's book The Hunt for Life on Mars is the first on the scene and is obviously intended for a general audience.

Mr. Goldsmith, who recently wrote the book The Astronomers as the companion to the PBS television series of the same name, received the Annenberg Foundation Award for lifetime achievement from the American Astronomical Society in 1995. I have not read any of Mr Goldsmith's previous works, but if memory serves me, I did attend a presentation he did on the Hubble Space Telescope at the University of Wisconsin some years back as a part of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's annual meeting.

In the course of the book, Mr. Goldsmith covers a lot of ground - from explaining the issues of the analysis of the meteorite thought to contain evidence of ancient microscopic Martian life, to a look at future missions to our red neighbor, of which Tobias Owen of the University of Hawaii says: "These are the most sophisticated devices our civilization can produce that are not designed to kill someone. Their purpose is to reveal the secrets of other worlds. When one of these marvelous messengers from Earth falls silent, the letdown can be overwhelming."

Approximately half of the book is devoted to discussing the issues surrounding the question "Does ALH8001 contain evidence of past life on Mars?" His method of explaining the positions of those who both agree and disagree with the findings of the team that did the analysis is to set it up as a case being argued in a court of law with himself as a judge of sorts. Unfortunately, Mr Goldsmith takes the court room analogy too far for my tastes. With two direct references to the "OJ" case, including the now famous line "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit," Mr. Goldsmith's approach distracts from rather than facilitates an understanding of the issues involved. In the last chapter of the book, there is a section that concentrates on the scientific method. My reaction was that the reader would have been much better served if this material had been presented at the beginning of the book. This would have made it possible to take the overly-done trial analogy, throw it away, and concentrate on the science.

Perhaps, at a very basic level, the arguments both for and against whether or not ALH8001 contains the remains of Martian microscopic life can be summed up with two quotes taken from the book. On the whole topic of Martian life, Carl Sagan is quoted as saying "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This is a view favored by many of those who doubt the evidence. I must say that my initial, and ongoing, reaction to this quote has been a negative one since it implies a double or multiple standard for judging whether or not a theory is right or wrong. My disposition leads me to side with another who is also quoted by Mr. Goldsmith. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Even though a fictitious character, Mr. Sherlock Holmes does a better job of addressing the root question than does Mr. Sagan. What is really at issue is the degree to which the team examining ALH8001 has eliminated alternative explanations for the presence of what they think they see.

The chapter that I personally found most interesting was "The Origin of Life." It gives a very nice overview of the issues and helps to put things into perspective. I would have placed this strong, well-done chapter right after the chapter explaining the scientific method.

Personally, I would have preferred a longer, more detailed book without the courtroom scenes. For a more serious examination of the issues of life and of life on Mars, I would suggest Mars and the Development of Life by Anders Hansson published in 1991 by Ellis Horwood, Ltd. However, I would recommend The Hunt for Life on Mars to anyone that wants to know more about our attempts to answer the question "Have we found evidence of ancient life on Mars?"

Donald Goldsmith, The Hunt for Life on Mars. Dutton, 1997.

The Hunt for Life on Mars Title:  The Hunt for Life on Mars
Author:  Donald Goldsmith,Donald Goldsmith
ISBN:  0525943366
Publisher:  NAL/Dutton
Date Published:  January 1997
Format:  Trade Paper


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