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Life on Mars

A Dilemma Case in Planetary Geology


Author(s)

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 Areas

Ethics, Scientific method, Science and the media

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division

Format

PDF

Type / Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Discussion

Language

English

Subject Headings

Geology  |   Earth Science  |   Biology (General)  |   Science (General)  |  


Date Posted

02/05/1997

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