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Little Green Men

Lawrence Bush
August 5, 2017

Daniel S. Goldin, NASA administrator from 1992-2001, declared on this date in 1996 that “NASA has made a startling discovery that points to the possibility that a primitive form of microscopic life may have existed on Mars more than three billion years ago. The research is based on a sophisticated examination of an ancient Martian meteorite that landed on Earth some 13,000 years ago.... I want everyone to understand that we are not talking about ‘little green men.’ These are extremely small, single-cell structures that somewhat resemble bacteria on Earth.” Goldin’s announcement was based on examination of a rock that had been launched into space from Mars some sixteen million years earlier, probably by the impact of an asteroid hitting the planet, and had “wandered the inner solar system until 13,000 years ago, when it fell to Antarctica,” writes Carl Zimmer in Smithsonian. “Scientists ... found that the rock ... contained a combination of minerals and carbon compounds that on Earth are created by microbes. It also had crystals of magnetic iron oxide, called magnetite, which some bacteria produce,” and “an electron microscope view of the rock show[ed] chains of globules that bore a striking resemblance to chains that some bacteria form on Earth.” The significance of these findings is still widely debated today. During his tenure, Goldin supervised the Mars Pathfinder, Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, and the International Space Station -- and, following his 1996 announcement, put his focus on unmanned Mars space probes. Today he runs a company that produces neural computing hardware.

"Dan Goldin rightly reasoned the biggest possible positive public relations coup for his agency, and therefore for its continued budget, would be if it discovered unambiguous evidence of life somewhere elsewhere in the Universe, besides on Earth. . . . One of the legacies we see today of that judgment is the almost weekly flow of new planets being discovered orbiting nearby stars. If life does exist outside of our solar system the easy bet is that it exists on planets, so we better find planets to look at for direct evidence of life. We have been able to infer the existence of very large planets by carefully measuring star wobbles, and more recently we have detected smaller planets by measuring their occultations, the way they dim a star as they cross between it and Earth." --Rodney A. Brooks, Edge.com

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.