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Olympus Mons and our ‘life on Mars’ obsession 5 March 2009

Posted by admin in geoscience, Mars, solar system.
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Over the past 24 hours quite a few stories have appeared in the media about a paper in the journal Geology on Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano. Can you spot what they have in common?

Here’s a hint: the ‘big question’ in the last headline is ‘whether the Red Planet had – or still supports – life’. Life on Mars is clearly what the Geology paper is all about.

It isn’t, of course. The paper concerned, Patrick K. McGovern & Julia K. Morgan, ‘Volcanic spreading and lateral variations in the structure of Olympus Mons, Mars’ (discussed here at The Volcanism Blog three weeks ago) is, as its title indicates, about the geology of Olympus Mons – specifically, why the volcano is the shape it is. The ‘big question’ of life gets a mention in the final paragraph.

An implication of the paper’s thesis – that Olympus Mons is underlain by clay sediments – is that there might be a reservoir of water beneath the volcano in which conditions suitable for thermophilic life might have been maintained. They only mention it in passing.

I suppose it’s understandable that Martian life is always going to have a higher media profile than Martian sedimentary geology. Is that healthy for science, though? And is there a danger that our Martian discoveries are always going to be viewed through the distorting lens of our ‘life on Mars’ obsession?

  • Patrick K. McGovern & Julia K. Morgan, ‘Volcanic spreading and lateral variations in the structure of Olympus Mons, Mars’, Geology, vol. 37, no. 2 (February 2009), pp. 139-142. [Link to abstract only]

The Volcanism Blog


1. Boris Behncke - 5 March 2009

Good comment on the life-on-Mars-mania, which personally I find rather a pain in the neck. Why should there be life on Mars? That planet is interesting enough without it, as, by the way, the whole rest of the Solar System. Rather than being obsessed with life somewhere else than on Earth, we should maybe get our own things sorted out and get in harmony with the enviroment whose guests we are.

2. Ilvar - 5 March 2009

The funny thing is that there is life in Mars… Opportunity has a few frames showing it as tiny filaments running at the edge of rocks, of which the most infamious is the “parachute” or “cushion” filament.

I agree that the planet is interesting enough with or without life. What I do not agree is for the “let’s put some order here at home and then…” Since God and Hell know when, we have putting things in order at our home, house, motherland and fosterland. We even had a nearly 1000 year homecleaning! What did we get? Apart of uncountable wars and a pestilence that wiped out a third of Europe, nothing else. And a future “Eco-Friendly” Middle Ages ain’t going to be better.

3. Jason P. - 7 March 2009

No, it isn’t really healthy, particularly since it leaves open the possibility that if life is never found on Mars, that will greatly reduce the interest in the planet, and potentially in planetary science in general.

as the previous commenter said, the planet is interesting enough regardless of the presence of life, and this focus on astrobiology is not healthy for planetary science.

But I could just be saying that because my research interest, Jupiter’s moon Io, has absolutely no chance of having life (as we know it) living there.

4. mjkbk - 8 March 2009

“Our” obsession with life on Mars? Don’t you mean the NEWS MEDIA’S obsession? It’s science filtered through the eyes of the infotainment-obsessed (and frequently science-illiterate) press–who seem to want nothing so much as an episode of “Star Trek” to come true.

5. volcanism - 8 March 2009

The ‘our’ is merely a linguistic convention, but I take your point. There’s much truth in what you say. In this case there’s almost nothing in the original scientific paper to justify the use the media have made of it.

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