The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets. Kathy
Sawyer. xii + 394 pp. Random House, 2006. $25.95.
When it comes to telling stories, science writers and scientists are
at a disadvantage in that, unlike novelists (who are free to create
their own reality), they must reconstruct events accurately. But
once in a great while, science offers up a tale as compelling as any
found in fiction and someone comes along who is equipped to tell it
well. In The Rock from Mars, journalist Kathy Sawyer
realizes the full potential of a great science story in all its
multidimensional complexity and richness.
The rock here is meteorite ALH84001, named for the place in
Antarctica (Allan Hills) and the year (1984) it was found. Sawyer's
account encompasses the details of the rock's discovery, the
painstaking analysis that revealed its Martian origins, the
surprising suggestion that it might contain evidence of past
(fossil) life on Mars, the high-level political ramifications of
that revelation, and the media frenzy and scientific firestorm that
ensued. The book doesn't focus exclusively on the hot topics of
extraterrestrial life and the origin of life on Earth; Sawyer
manages to work in crucial information on geology, planetary
science, meteoritics, biochemistry, microbiology, geochemistry and microscopy.
Going beyond the tough-enough task of popularizing scientific
material, Sawyer includes realistic, credible descriptions of how
scientists work and interact. Her biographical vignettes of the
researchers investigating ALH84001 offer insight into how their
personal lives affected, and were affected by, their scientific
roles. She clearly got to know these players well, and in the course
of covering their discoveries for the Washington Post, she
presumably observed some of the action firsthand. I have no way of
knowing whether the details she includes about people's personal
interactions and feelings are correct in every particular, but she
captures the social milieu of science perfectly. ALH84001 is one of
several meteorites that are generally acknowledged to have come from
Mars because they contain trapped gases that match the Martian
atmosphere. David McKay, a geologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center,
assembled a team that discovered in the rock a variety of surprising
characteristics at a microscopic level. They found carbonates
suggestive of liquid water flow on Mars at the time they formed,
organic substances usually associated with life, bits of magnetite
similar to the "compasses" found in some bacteria, and
tiny structures within the carbonates that were reminiscent of forms
of microorganisms on Earth.
These findings were based on meticulous studies, and the scientific
papers that McKay's team prepared concentrated on the hard results,
with a cautious suggestion regarding implications for life on Mars.
However, no amount of caution could control how the story would be
told by others.
When the Administrator of NASA, Daniel Goldin, was told about the
findings of McKay's group, he quickly grasped the scientific issues.
A major aspect of his job was to then sort out how to handle the
information—to decide who needed to know immediately
(President Clinton) and what preparations should be made for public release.
The political story is riveting, and involves events and people
familiar to the general public. The book's publishers want you to
know that ALH84001 brought down Bill Clinton's spin doctor Dick
Morris, because of what Morris leaked to a $200-an-hour call girl. A
sex scandal in the Clinton administration still sells. However,
Sawyer does show, with insider descriptions of meetings and
discussions, how seriously the rock affected the Clinton White
House. From the perspective of the 21st century, I gasped when
reminded that we once had leaders with such understanding and
The first article from McKay's team suggesting that the meteorite
contained fossil life ("possible relic biogenic activity")
was slated to appear in Science on August 16, 1996. But
news about the discoveries began to leak out the week before, so the
fateful press conference at which McKay and his colleagues explained
their discoveries was moved up.
The ALH84001 story is a case study of the role of public relations
in the operations of modern institutions. The Dick Morris connection
is one example. Most eye-opening, and described in detail, was the
interaction between the public relations staffs at NASA and at the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes
Science) leading up to the press conference. Insight into
the NASA press office is especially timely considering its recent
alleged attempt to stifle discussion of global warming.
In showing how publicity considerations are crucial to agency
management, Sawyer not only departs from the official NASA story
line offered by the PR people, but she turns it inside out. We see
how the public handling of scientific results can affect the
research process itself.
Sawyer's account also offers insight into NASA's culture in the
early 1990s. According to her, the agency at that time was "an
engineering organization built on the bedrock of politics, with a
pork barrel perpetually rolling through"—a place with
great credibility problems, where there was no correlation between
scientific merit and grant allocations or other rewards. She shows
how the ALH84001 research affected NASA's organizational vision,
enhancing somewhat the stature of science within the agency and
leading to an emphasis on biological origins. Now the Bush
administration is trying to reverse that change and slash NASA's
Because of its subject matter, the work of McKay and his colleagues
would have been explosive no matter how much they had downplayed it.
Sawyer correctly notes that leaps of imagination have always been a
key part of the real scientific method. But those leaps are
dangerous to the people making them, something that McKay and his
team members knew as they integrated their several lines of evidence
into a dramatic hypothesis.
The acrimony started early, when NASA invited a designated
skeptic—paleobiologist William Schopf—to participate in
the press conference about the 1996 paper in Science. The
idea was for an outsider to provide critical caveats about the work.
Over the following years, many other scientists took sides, and
positions became entrenched as the level of virulence rose.
Sawyer does a nice job of summarizing the scientific issues and the
personal positions of the many players. She describes Schopf as
being thoughtful about the importance of questioning authority in
science. Indeed, he had made his name by challenging the canonical
belief that life on Earth originated not long before the Cambrian
period. He had found what he believed to be microfossils of
organisms almost 3.5 billion years old. His contention regarding
ALH84001 was that it was missing the clear biological cell
structures he saw in his own pre-Cambrian rocks. So at the press
conference, he was cast in an unaccustomed role: He was the
authority resisting a new idea.
Ironically, Schopf eventually found himself defending his own famous
discovery of early life on Earth against charges similar to those he
had raised about the work of McKay's group. Not everyone is
convinced that Schopf's microscopic forms are fossils. That battle
came to a head during a debate between Schopf and a critic of his
work, Martin Brasier, at NASA's 2002 Astrobiology Conference. Sawyer
reports that afterward, "a Washington Post
reporter" asked Schopf whether he thought he was now in the
position in which he had put David McKay back in 1996. Was that
reporter Sawyer, developing material for this book?
The venue for that debate was significant: Before the mid-1990s, who
would have thought that the origins of life on Earth would have been
within the agency's purview, let alone central to its mission?
Sawyer makes a convincing case that the rock from Mars was the
catalyst for this transformation.
McKay and his colleagues had done careful research, made major
discoveries and proposed a daring hypothesis. Many, but not all, of
their claims were borne out by further investigation. Sawyer says
that ultimately the McKay group conceded that "some (though not
all) of the wormlike microfossil shapes" in the rock
"seemed to be bits of naturally formed clay or ridges of
mineral," and that "the rock was . . . loaded with
Earth-born contaminants that apparently had seeped in with Antarctic
meltwater." Nonetheless, in many ways the group's work
transformed scientific and institutional thinking.
They paid heavily for it. What they had to endure is described, with
surprising frankness, by one of their detractors, who is quoted in
the chapter titled "At Daggers Drawn" as saying that the
McKay group "felt that they were being mistreated when in fact
they were being treated with the same contempt [as] . . . anybody
that would try and shake up the current paradigm." Apparently
contempt is viewed as a perfectly normal and appropriate response to
anyone who thinks outside the box.
Scientific trailblazers are routinely treated roughly. For the
scientific community, there is value to sticking with a paradigm
until it is definitively proven wrong. As Sawyer says, the
scientific process eventually brings out the truth: "What kept
the process honest and fruitful, in the end, would be the collective
interactions of the tribe of interested scientists."
In the long run that is true. But should creativity and innovation
be rewarded with contempt? Scientists may smugly believe
that any worthy player will tough it out. Indeed, people like Schopf
and the members of McKay's team have been tough enough to play the
game, although doing so takes an emotional toll. The problem is that
we do not know what science is losing in the process. What does a
young, talented person make of a profession that rewards initiative,
care and creativity with contempt? How many are driven to more
sensible career choices?
Anyone who is contemplating a career in science, who wants to
understand what scientists do, who is curious about where scientific
knowledge comes from, or who is interested in life, the universe and
everything should read this book.