Life on Mars! (Or maybe not)
November 26, 2013
It was July 1996. After 25 years of employment as a physicist in industry and academe, I had just set out on a second career as a children's science writer.
I was confident in my decision, yet a bit uneasy. Although I had three books to my credit and a fourth well underway, to make it as a self-employed writer, I would need a steady flow of ideas. Where would they come from?
I didn't have to wait long before I found out. As I write in Martian Fossils on Earth? The Story of Meteorite ALH84001 (Millbrook Press, 1997), my answer came in dramatic fashion from the Johnson Space Center. "On August 7, 1996, meteorite ALH84001 became the most famous rock on Earth. That day, a team of scientists led by David S. McKay of JSC made an astounding announcement. They believed that meteorite ALH84001 contained chemical evidence and fossils of ancient Martian microbes. Life may have begun on Mars at about the same time as it began on Earth!" [emphasis added]
As soon as I heard the news and saw the pictures of the meteorite and micrographs of its internal structures, questions began to swirl in my head--the same questions that would have intrigued me when I was the age of my readers. How was Meteorite ALH84001 discovered? How can we tell that this meteorite comes from Mars? How do we know the age and history of ALH84001? Did Martian microbes look like this? Do other Martian meteorites show signs of life? What do these findings suggest about the life in the Universe? Do all scientists agree about the meaning of these findings?
Within a day, I realized those questions plus a few others were the outline of a book, one that could convey how science really worked. Science is not about the answers we find, but about the questions we follow. Despite the excitement about possible life on Mars, the title would end not with an exclamation point but with a question mark. And every chapter title would be a question as well.
I faxed my outline to a favorite editor, whom I was scheduled to meet for dinner on a trip to her part of the country a week later. At the restaurant, she told me that my idea was accepted and fast-tracked. Shortly after the Sojourner Rover sent back its first pictures from the surface of Mars in July 1997, the final edits and layout of Martian Fossils on Earth? were complete. By September of that year, finished books were available.
At that point, I knew that I had what it took to thrive in my second career. And I had a niche as well. I still write about other topics in science and technology, but I am best known for inviting my young readers to follow their questions about planetary science and life on other worlds.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.