Life Found on Mars


No, life has not yet been found on Mars, but imagine waking up to that headline. How would you react? The headline’s font would be huge on print newspapers—maybe one word per page, occupying the first four pages. Some bold papers might even put one letter per page and go so far as to have blank pages for the spaces. The point is, it would be big news.

So I ask again, what would this stir for you?

For me, the swirl would be thick with competing thoughts and feelings, tripping over themselves to get out. First would be the raft of questions stemming from pure curiosity. Is it DNA-based? Is it a separate start, or do we share some ancient microbial ancestor—possibly shuttled from one body to the other following a meteoric impact? What lessons can we learn about how life forms? Can we get the discovered lifeforms to call us Mama or Dada? Will they make good pets?

One can imagine the discovery team, whether at NASA or elsewhere, ecstatic with joy. The entire exploration establishment around the planet would likely be giddy. SETI folks would probably be unable to chew for a while, wearing fixed grins.

I would share many of these same reactions, for the pure joy of discovery and the novel opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a part of life on Earth. But then it dawns on me just how devastating the news might actually be for the human race.

I’ll start with the simple and obvious statement that the universe does not appear to be abuzz with civilization. As far as we can tell, galaxies look all-natural (boring). No intergalactic Las Vegas pops up. Within our own galaxy, all the peering and snooping in the world has not shown one scrap of credible evidence for a technological civilization. I fully understand how hard the job is, and that not having found evidence yet is inconclusive on the matter. But let’s call it disappointing, and disconcerting. At least we can say that the galaxy is not teeming with technological life in a web of vibrant interstellar commerce, complete with jackass adolescents playing pranks on us primates.

In the context of the Drake Equation, which is essentially the product of many probabilities geared to estimate the number of civilizations we could expect to hear from, the empirical answer samples to zero. This forces calculated outcomes of the Drake equation to be small—not terribly far from zero.

As time goes on, we have systematically increased the values of many of the individual probability factors: we know that planetary formation is ubiquitous around other stars. We know that rocky planets are common. Many lie in the habitable zone where water can be in liquid form. Meanwhile, the probability of detecting alien life only improves with technology and search time. So while all these factors have increased, the Drake product remains empirically and stubbornly small, meaning that the other unknown factors are forced to diminish. The probability of life forming, the probability of technological development of a species, and the duration of technological civilizations are collectively squashed with each new advance on the other fronts.

Now we imagine the earth-shattering news that Mars has life. Suddenly, one of those factors gets an enormous boost. This is especially true if the new lifeform represents an independent spontaneous start, not seeded from Earth or Earth’s life seeded from that on Mars. Even if sharing ancestry, the idea that life can get around and survive in wildly different environments after a traverse of space surely pumps up the probability of life thriving elsewhere.

But Drake still rounds to zero, in practice. So what factor takes the counterbalancing hit?

The reason the news would ultimately depress the hell out of me is that it would seem to put the chances of human civilization surviving for many millennia radically smaller than it might have been before hearing the news. If life is so common that the very next planet has it also, then it’s presumably everywhere in the galaxy. A huge unknown would have been lifted, and the associated probability for life soars. The remaining pieces suggest that technological life is either rare, short-lived, or both.

It’s harder to believe that technological development would be rare, once life takes hold. Around stable stars in stable orbits, evolution will promote various advantages, intelligence being one of them. The spark of life on Earth is the head-scratcher for us, not the more obvious trajectory of intelligence—which can be seen in lines as diverse from ourselves as dolphins, ravens/parrots and octopuses.

That leaves me with the sinking sense that finding life on Mars would be a devastating blow to our chances for a long technological run.

I’m not saying it would be the last nail in the coffin—just that our prospects dim noticeably. So while others dance in the streets, and I myself eagerly await more understanding of the new life form, I’ll take it pretty hard, on the whole. Surrounded by celebration, I picture myself as a surly loner—best avoided and ignored—baffling the partiers by demanding to know “what are you grinning about?”

P.S. This was a bit of a detour to the main thread recently, evaluating the big-picture perspective of our long term prospects and evolutionary insights. It does tie in to a section of the new textbook on the Fermi Paradox.  But in the next post, I will resume this existential exploration, asking the core question: to what end?

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9 thoughts on “Life Found on Mars

  1. Life could be very common in the universe, this Galaxy or even present in simple forms in some planets and moons of our solar system, but maybe, as billion-year life in our planet show or more than a hundred million years of all kind, size and shapes of Dinosaurs show, that thrived without requiring the high intelligence, culture and technology of the first Homo Sapiens… and even then, just how much time did the Neanderthal was hanging around without developing any extraordinary technology breakthrough?
    Nature really don’t show any preference at all toward super intelligence beings in our planet why would it be significantly difference elsewhere?

  2. If some species of dinosaur had at some point achieved the collective "intelligence" that distinguishes the human race from all other extant species, along with a planetary civilization comparable with our own, would we know about it? My guess is "probably not." But given that they ruled the earth for about 4X longer than Mammalia has, I for one would be surprised if they never did!

  3. One of the limits of the Drake equation is that it only cares about the prevalence and lifetime of civilizations that are interested in _communicating_ with the universe, or at least ones that are generating some sort of powerful signal for their own purposes. That's likely to be a small, possibly brief, subset of existing civilizations. A civilization that broadcast for a thousand years, say from 800-1800CE, and then went silent, would count as dead as far as Drake is concerned.

  4. I tend to agree with your general sentiment that, given the obvious prevalence of planets, the lack of any active signals is significant. The SETI folks searching talk about the size of the search space (number of frequencies/locations), but we have scanned a fair bit. Finding nothing so far IS significant.

    One other possibility is that technology is fundamentally limited and there is no “Star Trek” type future out there for anyone. We have already discovered the periodic table and, sorry, there are no magic “unobtanium” or “Dilithium Crystals”. Limits to physics, the strengths of materials, and the tyranny of the rocket equation will limit our ability to confine and control energy densities to the level needed for economic interstellar travel beyond small flyby probes that take thousands of years. So the answer is that physics dictates that we are stuck in our solar system. At least as biological creatures.

    However, that still doesn’t answer why we don’t hear anyone calling out to others across the great expanse. That great silence is still a mystery.

    • The outcome of the Drake Equation depends entirely on what you think L, the lifetime of a technological civilization, amounts to.

      I kinda like this version:

  5. One other thought. I often wonder if we would have ever become a highly technological species if fossil fuel was never an ancient geological phenomena. And what if most planets never had this “kicker”. I can certainly imagine water based intelligent species never using fire (a key materials transformation technology) and so not advancing and land species never experience our 200 year (and counting) fossil fuel binge.

  6. There is a load of assumptions in this monolithic concept of "life" that cannot really be justified. Whatever one's take on the details & the claims, this

    is an educational take on the sub-factors for the "Darwin-within-Drake" equation. Finding single-cell life on Mars (or Europa) would have very different implications than finding multi-cellular life. In fact, the former would imply the very opposite of what you propose here.

  7. Life on Mars, or lack thereof, says little to me about life elsewhere. There are simply too many variables we do not know the answers to, and maybe never will, as well as many we have likely not even considered. It thus has no implications to me as to how we come through this predicament.

    FWIW, I am a 1991 BSChE who has understood a good bit of our predicament since about that time, more so with every passing year, and have lived accordingly, similar to yourself. Your blog is wonderful. Your book is even better. I'll put it on the shelf beside William Catton's Overshoot. Thank you for your altruistic efforts.

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