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Life on Mars

A Dilemma Case in Planetary Geology



Co Authors:

Bruce C. Allen
Physics Department
University at Buffalo

Clyde Freeman Herreid
Department of Biological Sciences
University at Buffalo
herreid@buffalo.edu

Abstract:

This case explores the question of whether there was ever life on Mars and in doing so explores how we define life. The backdrop for the case is the 1996 revelation by NASA of evidence of life on Mars. Through a fictionalized account of the events, the case explores what constitutes life as well as the ethics of announcing scientific discoveries directly to the public instead of following the traditional process of peer review and publication. The protagonist of the story is a young planetary geologist who must decide whether or not to join his colleagues at a press conference announcing the "discovery."  Originally designed for a course in planetary geology, where it was used in the last class in the semester as a capstone experience, the case could also be used in a general biology class to discuss the characteristics of life.

Objectives:
  • Examine how science is conducted using a real-world scenario.
  • Consider the characteristics of life and note how any one characteristic is not sufficient alone to define it.
  • Gain practice in evaluating evidence for claims made by a scientific team.
  • Consider the consequences of publication of a scientific claim without peer review.
  • Consider an ethical dilemma faced by a scientist who disagrees with his peers.
Keywords: Meteorite; Mars, scientific discovery; characteristics of life; definition of life; evidence of life; NASA
Topical Area: Ethics, Scientific method, Science and the media
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Dilemma/Decision, Discussion
Language: English
Subject Headings: Geology   Earth Science   Biology (General)   Science (General)  
Date Posted: 02/05/1997
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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