An Open Letter on the Subject of Life on Mars – Sarah Kember

An Open Letter on the Subject of Life on Mars[i]

Since all other channels are now closed to me, I am forced to serve this notice courtesy of the press. This would be considered unorthodox for any reputable scientist, but for me it is also ironic. I do not have time to summarize the history of my relationship with the media, although I expect it will become more widely known, along with every other irrelevant detail of my life, in due course. I have lived a long time, but I’ve only ever understood one thing, namely that the quest for truth is all that matters. I have held on to this principle. Indeed, I’ve had to. I can’t think what would have happened to me otherwise, where the battles and insults might have left me. I don’t know where the strength came from, to be honest. I have no partner or family and have always worked alone. Please don’t misunderstand me; I have no cause for bitterness. On the contrary, my life’s work is now complete. I’ve done it despite them, the so-called journalists, the space agencies and their ever-shifting criteria for success, the scientific community – my peers. I have no peers, not any more. That will become apparent soon enough.

The discovery was made six months ago but withheld from the public. I now realize that they were never meant to know. Classiforum Louellian: I named it after myself, as was my prerogative. I would describe it, simply, as a strain of bacteria akin to its Earth-based counterpart but with one key difference, concerning the rate of cell division and subsequent mutation. I made all of the formal announcements, needless to say. My paper was published in Nature and presented at the Spring Symposium on Astrobiology in Phoenix, Arizona – close to my home. I’m a veteran of the conference circuit, familiar with many of its venues and even more of its idiosyncrasies. I became inured to them, the cliques, the fads, the self-appointed leaders and their disciples. Popularity has nothing to do with science. I found it ridiculous, so I ignored it. I had allies, people who would get in touch with me privately, usually after I’d spoken at an event. In the past, I’d even considered writing with one or two of them, but not on this occasion. On this occasion I actually wanted to have the stage to myself. I’ve never sought the spotlight, it wasn’t about that, but after so many years and a great deal of discouragement, I thought I’d earned the right to silence my detractors. Instead, I merely silenced the room.

There were two experiments and mine was the second. I wouldn’t call it minor but the primary goal of the mission was to test for the presence of organic molecules on Mars. Should these be found, the second experiment was designed to see if these molecules had a biological source. In other words, mine was the life detection experiment and it ran, in effect, independently at the same two landing sites, some five thousand miles apart. I used probes shaped like arrows to collect the soil, add water and nutrients and analyze the result. Most of them could do this remotely, using radio transmitters to convey data to the orbiter and then back to Earth. One probe was retrieved from about four inches under the surface by the robotic arm of the rover, Beagle 3. This was the European rover. NASA’s were bigger and more expensive but they were only ever geologists. They were not looking for life, but for the conditions that could support life, or could have supported life in the past. For reasons I could never fathom, NASA chose to ignore the inevitable consequences of what we have known for several decades, which is that there is liquid water on Mars. Where there is water there is always, necessarily, life. I found it in the form of a species of green sulfur bacteria. Terrestrial equivalents collect in clumps, or aggregates around a single-celled, often nameless organism. In this case, that organism closely resembles the virus E. Coli. The detailed classification of my discovery wasn’t done in situ but once the sample had been returned to Earth. I announced it with the publication of my paper and at the symposium a few weeks later. Nobody has spoken to me or contacted me since.

I want to make a couple of things perfectly clear. The results of my experiment satisfy pre-mission criteria for life on Mars. The results were consistent, controls were in place and the sites had been agreed upon many years in advance. The design was selected from hundreds of submissions and no-one with any scientific training has questioned how the experiment was conducted or even what it found. It is not the results themselves but my interpretation that seems to be the problem – again. Yes, it has happened before. I’ll come to this, but first let me clarify what has occurred in the interim. In between then and now, there have been a number of major developments. One such is the undisputed identification of liquid water that was made toward the end of the ‘90s. Another development concerns the discovery of what we call extremophiles on Earth. These are plants and animals that live in conditions that were previously thought inhospitable, even hostile to life: the deep sea where there is no light or oxygen but only sulfur and methane, the desert.

There were four experiments originally and so, statistically, I stood a better chance of being believed this time around. Still, I knew the dice were loaded. It hurts me to say this, so allow me to explain. I’ll keep it simple, but for further reference, I have written many more detailed papers on this subject. One of the original experiments was the GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) test. It was given the casting vote in the dispute between myself and the other experimenters. I subsequently found, in fact I was able to prove, that it lacked adequate sensitivity. In other words, the reason why it did not find organic molecules on Mars and so effectively cancelled out my own positive findings was that it was simply unable to. Instead of accepting that there was a fault with the test, NASA put my own results down to chemical rather than metabolic reactions. They simply explained them away. The fact that I’ve been disproving the possibility of a chemical explanation ever since would seem to count for nothing. How is it even possible for science to be conducted this way?

I have made one of the most important discoveries known to science and to humankind and I have done it twice. It should never have been necessary for me to do it twice! For the last half century, I have stood my ground and answered every question using only – only – the agreed methods and techniques of my field. In this way I’ve countered every alternative interpretation of my original results. When it comes to rigor, diligence, sheer patience, I have nothing to reproach myself for. What I do regret is being cautious. I was still a young person back then and the selection of my experiment on the Mars mission was a very great honor. I was not overwhelmed or unconfident, even in relation to my perhaps more illustrious colleagues, but I was, as I have always been, careful. I was careful enough to design the only experiment that worked, that was sensitive enough to detect life in conditions that are certainly harsh, if not outright hostile. I do not need to tell the readers of this publication that the subject of life on Mars has been disputed for centuries. I feel a certain affinity with some of my predecessors, such as Lowell, who was wrong, of course, about the canals but not about the general conditions that have turned out to be at least sufficient for alien life. Lowell’s detractors declared the planet dead and their opinion dominated three quarters of the twentieth century. My response to them was understandably circumspect, but when I announced that my results were compatible with life, I allowed the debate to remain open. I recognized, if anything too clearly, the significance of what I had found. What I didn’t see was that I’d given my opponents enough room to deny it. Well, not this time.

I managed to persuade ESA, the European Space Agency, to take a modified version of my original experiment. How? Because Mars has been returned to Lowell. Where there is water there has to be life and it was I – and I alone – who found it last time. What else were they going to take apart from my experiment? A modified GC-MS test, naturally. Did it find its organic molecules this time? No, it did not. The results were negative, as they were always meant to be. How could they have been otherwise? The test has proved only its own inadequacy, so why choose it again unless the real goal of a life detection experiment is to discover no life on Mars or, better still, to undermine the discovery of life on Mars, however unequivocal, however certain it is.

What else could I do? From my room I survey this arid landscape that looks like nothing but dust and rock, and I know that it is teeming with life. I can prove it but my proof makes no difference. How can that be? These are the rules I have lived by. They are universal but with, so it seems, one exception. I’ve only ever understood one thing and I could not allow it to be destroyed, even if that meant breaking the rules that didn’t, in any case, apply to me.

One newspaper, if I can call it that, implied that I had falsified my results. Even my former colleagues have never done that. It didn’t give any of the relevant facts, but the public has a right to know. Most people don’t read specialist journals like Nature and in any case the editors printed a retraction. That was the worst thing. They tried to take it back. Luckily, I figured out how to do that too. I requested access to the sample that had been returned to headquarters. They couldn’t very well refuse – though believe me they tried. I made the trip, I conducted what I said would be a follow-up experiment, comparing the Mars sample more closely with terrestrial viruses and bacteria. I wanted to say more about the remarkable speed at which the Martian cells divided and account for the mutations that had taken place. But there was no longer any point doing it in writing. I left the Earth sample in place of the Martian one and returned home.

The desert is a natural habitat for many unseen organisms and you don’t need to look far to find them. Just lift a rock or dig a few inches down. The air condenses at night and moisture gets trapped underground. Whatever is out there is changing now, evolving much faster, accelerating toward some unknown form, just like me. I needed to be certain.

L.G.

[i] This is a work of fiction. It alludes to events that have happened and could happen but it is still made up, as is the central character. This character, who may be male or female, is drawn from historical figures, living and dead, but is not intended to represent any of them.

Anyone who is interested in or concerned about this letter should contact s.kember@gold.ac.uk

Sarah Kember is a writer and academic. Her work incorporates new media, photography and feminist cultural approaches to science and technology. Publications include a novel and a short story The Optical Effects of Lightning (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2011) and ‘The Mysterious Case of Mr Charles D. Levy’ (Ether Books, 2010). Experimental work includes an edited open access electronic book entitled Astrobiology and the Search for Life on Mars (Open Humanities Press, 2011) and ‘Media, Mars and Metamorphosis’ (Culture Machine, Vol. 11). Her latest monograph, with Joanna Zylinska, is Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (MIT Press, 2012). She co-edits the journals of photographies and Feminist Theory. Previous publications include: Virtual Anxiety. Photography, New Technologies and Subjectivity (Manchester University Press, 1998); Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (Routledge, 2003) and the co-edited volume Inventive Life. Towards the New Vitalism (Sage, 2006). Current research includes a funded project on digital publishing and a feminist critique of imedia.

Sarah is Professor of New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London.