Life on Mars?
by James Tabor
Those of us on this half of the planet will wake up to the news this morning. The SUV-sized Mars rover named Curiosity has landed! In a hand-clenching final seven minute descent, without any contact from earth due to the 14 minute delay in radio transmissions between Earth and Mars, which is 154 millions miles away. The nine-month journey ended at 1:32am EDT. I had intended to stay up to watch but ended up falling asleep early last night. Of the dozens of news stories this report from Reuters, with photos and video links, I found to be one of the best. The details on the landing are fascinating and the jubilation of the NASA folks at Pasadena and elsewhere is infectious–somehow akin to cheering one of our gold metal Olympic winners, but much more.
There have been dozens of attempts to reach Mars from earth with only six successful landings, see the list here. Most of us remember the spectacular live transmissions from Phoenix in 2007. The Curiosity rover is in an entirely new class with a $2.5 billion price tag for the mission. It is a full nuclear powered mobile science lab that, if successful, will tell us more than we could have ever imagined about not only Mars but the origins of our Solar System and most important, perhaps, the existence of life on our planet and potentially elsewhere.
The discovery of anything resembling “life on Mars” would be the biggest news of the century–or maybe any century. Most scientists are convinced that what we call “life,” that elusive borderline dividing the “organic” fro the “inorganic,” is not some mysterious “missing ingredient” that must be supplied by a Creator from outside our physical universe and its laws of physics and chemistry, but rather a process thereof. The miracle of life is the miracle of complexity, no less marvelous or wondrous than the idea that God somehow injects into “dead matter” a mysterious entity called “life.”
Life seems to be more related to “complex process,” and if such be the case death is the breaking down or decay of that process. I was talking to a biologist friend of mine some years ago, who happened to be a firm believer in God as Creator, who worked with deep-frozen human tissues. His specialty was human reproductive cells, namely sperm and ovum, surely the among the most marvelously complex structures in the universe, with their billions of strands of DNA information and the ability to generate human life itself. He pointed out to me something I had never really thought about before. When those cells are lowered in temperature, slowly and carefully so as not to damage any of their delicate structures, all metabolic processes within those cells cease. There is no movement, internally or externally, it is as if they are quite literally “frozen in time.” They need no oxygen, no exchange of energy, no excretion to exist. By any common definition of life they are dead. Structurally they have the “complexity” intact, but there is no process we can identify with life. Without the cold temperature they would of course begin to decay and deteriorate and be unrecoverable to us. But then when they are brought back, slowly again, to a proper temperature, they suddenly begin to function normally again–they become living cells with all their functions and capabilities intact. I had never really thought of that before, not that I had any firm scientific opinions about the mysterious process we call life, but this idea of a “dead” frozen cell, that returns to “life,” has stuck with me over the years.
His point to me was that although he believed in God as Creator he did not believe that God took away some mysterious entity called “life” from these cells in their frozen state in his lab, carefully monitoring them, but then replaced it when they returned to normal temperature. His understanding of God was more that of the Grand Engineer, the Intelligent Designer, who created the complexity in the first place, with the process we call “life” as an outcome or attribute of the design.
The first verse of Genesis 1, that marvelous Creation Hymn of the Hebrew Bible, has been mistranslated in most versions of the Bible. Most of us can quote it from memory: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” The first word, bereshit/בְּרֵאשִׁית is actually part of a temporal clause and it is better translated something like this:
When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and darkness was on the face of the deep.
Rather than an independent state about the origin of the heavens and the earth–i.e., that God created “something from nothing,” as it has been misread for centuries, it is actually a description of the state of the earth–chaotic and covered with water, before the creation of life in all of its teeming forms, both in the waters and on the land. In other words Genesis 1:1 is not about the origin of the universe but the structured design of life upon this particular planet. A very few English versions, like the Jewish Publication Society Holy Scriptures, reflect this meaning though most have stuck with the old and familiar, in order not to alienate readers.
Whether we will find evidence of any life on Mars, or even conditions condusive thereto, past or present, remains to be seen but either way this latest Mars landing is surely “one great leap for humankind” and one for which we as a country and a culture can be justly proud.
- The same word is used in Jeremiah 26:1 and means “At the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim . . .” or, “When Jehoiakim began to reign . . .” Compare Jeremiah 27:1; 28:1; Isaiah 49:34 for more examples [↩]