Flavin's Corner
11-19-99
Note: Hyperlinks are no longer checked.

No Going Back

     The timeless admonishment, "Be careful what you wish for," is knocking at
the front-door of the noble house of science.  Once, there was New Age
mumbo-jumbo, Erich von Däniken quackery, sensationalist National Enquirer
claims, American students with abysmal test-scores in their knowledge of
science (with students in other countries scoring much higher), a growth in
religious fundamentalism and the pseudoscience of Creationism, as well as the
perennial claims about Atlantis, UFOs, and angels, ...and many wished that
science would somehow become popular, hip, cool, or at least better understood
by average Americans.  Well, the media has recently deluged us with films,
television shows, books, magazine articles, newspaper accounts, and endless
hours of radio talk-shows, about ..."science," but much unscientific speculation
(read: silliness) has come along for the ride.  There's no going back, practically
speaking, and no one should want to.

     Though it's beyond the scope of one column to tackle all of the unscientific
speculation the media has showered upon us, there are two areas of debate I
wish to discuss here: claims of (non-Norse) Europeans in America before
Columbus and theories of life beyond Earth.  I suggest the media inappropriately
responded to the primary scientific speculation of these two areas of debate,
others (including the media) extended unwarranted conclusions, which combined
to create a body of secondary speculation.  Such additions usually misrepresent
the initial claims of the scientists involved.  Debate is essential, but that "body of
secondary speculation" is always unscientific, often confusing, and sometimes
dangerous.

Before Columbus and the Peopling of the Americas:

     The latest revision in pre-Columbian American history (henceforth, American
prehistory) and the media's "reporting" of it, began with the journalist, Dave
Schafer, in a July 30, 1996 Tri-City Herald article, "Skull likely early white
settler," and concerned the 8400 (previously thought to be 9200) year old
skeleton now known as "Kennewick Man."  Schafer quoted the forensic
anthropologist, Jim Chatters, as saying, "I don't know what to think yet, it's a
little ambiguous," followed by, "But it has a lot of European characteristics."  By
Dec. 20, 1996, another Tri-City Herald writer, John Stang, would describe legal
motions filed by believers who claimed the skeleton represents an "ethnic
European," "ancient Celts from either Spain or the British Isles," and "ancient
Scandinavians." [Bruce Johansen, Reilly Professor of Communications and
Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has an online
article, "Great White Hope? Kennewick Man, the Facts, the Fantasies and the
Stakes," which masterfully explores Chatter's involvement and the subsequent
media-hype of this ancient skeleton (as of Spring, 1999).  Click here to read.]

     Chatters' verbiage, as a preliminary (read: primary) hypothesis, shouldn't have
been used to support the ensuing, widespread accusations that somehow
"science" was wrong in its approach to American prehistory, though that's
exactly what happened.  The media, by linking the story of Kennewick Man to
problematic sites (Monte Verde, Meadowcroft, etc.) and anomalistic skeletal
remains (Spirit Cave Man, Luzia, etc.), sought to expose "science" as riddled
with mistakes.  The media was selfish, concerned only with a cash-driven
agenda, and attempted to turn a minor story into a major one.  When Rep.
Barbara Cubin of Wyoming argued for a reassessment of Native American land
and water rights, speaking of non-Indians in America "ten centuries ago," she
contributed to a dangerous body of secondary speculation.  Chatters, as a
scientist, is encouraged to form a hypothesis or model, and then test, prove, or
challenge his own suggestion.  Just because something might be so, doesn't
...make it so.  Yet, many were off and running with their own silly (and selfish)
agendas.

     Mathematics is the only exact science--all other pursuits are subject to new
data and a reappraisal of old data.  Scientists involved with American prehistory
have painstakingly constructed the best model available that fits the data culled
from years of hard work.  When this model is challenged with new data (from
archaeology, linguistics, genetics, epigraphy, or other disciplines), any
replacement model must fit (read: explain) the old data as well as the new.  A
court seldom convicts on a single shred of evidence (ideally), the medical
community rarely supports a treatment not thoroughly tested (in a perfect
world), and it's unreasonable to expect American prehistorians to be effected by
public opinion, private agendas, or shoddy scholarship.  They eagerly await new
data, reasonable arguments, and the correction of mistakes or the improvement
of previous models.  Why shouldn't they?  That's science!

     From within the very academic community that the media and others have
teased and taunted, Dennis Stanford, chairman of the anthropology department
at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, has
recently suggested Ice Age Europeans ("Solutreans" from Iberia, c. 17,000
BCE, to be specific) somehow crossed the Atlantic Ocean and inspired or
impacted upon the Native American culture, c. 11,000 BCE, termed "Clovis,"
from the unique, bifacial lithic points discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, and
which bear a slight resemblance to Ice Age European lithics.  Stanford's
Solutrean-Clovis hypothesis is one of the wildest suggestions I've encountered in
years, I personally giggle at the idea, but I trust Stanford to pursue his model,
investigate it, and maintain a scientific approach.  Others have already accepted
the idea of Ice Age diffusion between the Old and New Worlds and are taking
aim at other models of American prehistory.  This is wrong and Stanford would
be one of the first to attest to this.  A maybe does not make it so...

     Last month's "Clovis and Beyond" conference brought many exciting ideas to
the table of discussion.  Land migration across Beringia is now regarded as "a"
method of entry into the New World, as opposed to the "only" way.  The
investigation of ancient maritime activity will undoubtedly add much to our
better understanding of American prehistory.  The so-called "Clovis Barrier"
was unofficially broken years ago, as scientists concerned themselves with
models that would explain genetic and linguistic drift in the Americas.  Such
pre-Clovis sites as Monte Verde and Meadowcroft show promise and lend
support to earlier suggestions, rather than (as the media and others would insist)
stand in opposition.  It begins with ideas, but ends with facts.  That's science!

Facts, Fictions, and Life beyond Earth:

I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape.  I knew that I was on
Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness.
from "Under the Moons of Mars," by Norman Bean (Edgar Rice Burroughs),
All-Story Magazine, Feb. 1912, later published as A Princess of Mars.

     Though previous astronomers had noticed certain physical features of the
Martian surface which resembled straight lines, it was Giovanni V. Schiaparelli
who first described them as "canali," or channels, in 1877.  This description
would inspire Percival Lowell to declare before the Boston Scientific Society on
May 22, 1894, that the "network on Mars hints that one planet besides our own
is actually inhabited now."  And so began the modern belief in life beyond Earth,
expanded upon with the fantastic literature of Wells, Burroughs, and others,
even though science eventually dismissed the "canals" on Mars as illusory, an
idea advanced by Eugene. M. Antoniadi in 1909. [Note: a comparison between
the drawings of Lowell and Antoniadi is available here (in Estonian).]

     It's safe to credit Hugo Gernsback and his "Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of
the Year 2660," in Modern Electronics (serialized 1911-1912), with instigating
"science fiction" as a distinct literary genre, the 1938 radio-adaptation of H. G.
Wells' The War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles, with establishing the present
gullibility of the American public, and Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories
and founder of Fate Magazine, with introducing the public to the term "flying
saucer" and all of the subsequent hysteria attached to UFOs. [Note: For the life
of me I can't seem to get the HTML to work properly for a Deja News link to a
recent Usenet post concerning Ray Palmer.  Run a search yourself for this
fascinating article by John Keel.  Keywords: Ray, Palmer, flying, saucer in
alt.fan.rawilson.]

     The alleged "crash" of an extraterrestrial spacecraft at Roswell, New Mexico,
in 1947, over two decades of Project Blue Book by Air Force Intelligence to
determine the validity of various claims, the recent study by John Mack of the
Harvard Medical School which concluded that "alien abduction" must be real, as
it's the only model which explains a majority of the facts involved, as well as
other out-of-this-world speculations and arguments, contributes more to science
fiction than to science.  Now, this is not to imply that science isn't interested in
investigating the possibility of life beyond Earth--to the contrary, they are!

     With the Oct. 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik, Russia may have beat the U.S. in
the race to place a satellite in orbit (and, later, with the flight of Major Gararin
on April 12, 1961, putting the first human into orbit, as well), but once the
American space program got underway with Gemini and Apollo, the financial
resources and government commitment to exploration matched, surpassed, and
continues to outdistance Russia, as well as all other nations. [Sorry, the previous
was an unabashed, pro-American plug!]   Regardless of nationality, all mankind
should take pride in our first steps into space and continuing quest to explore
and understand the universe around us.

     The scientific interest in the possibility of life beyond Earth did not arise from
theology, superstition, psychological dysfunction, or urban myth, but rather was
formulated from models about the origins of life on Earth and the existence of
planets orbiting the countless suns in the vastness of space.  Life beyond Earth,
therefore, is a suggestion deduced by science from data and is not a product of
silly claims.  All investigations must start with a suggestion--the next steps
determine if the investigation is serious (read: scientific) or not.

     S.E.T.I. (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) grew out of the radical
proposal of Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ("Searching for Interstellar
Communications*," Nature, Vol.184 no. 4690, pp. 844-846, Sept. 19, 1959),
that microwave radio signals were a viable means of communicating in space,
and the 1960 efforts of astronomer, Frank Drake, who independently reached
the same conclusion (shades of Darwin, Wallace, and the theory of evolution)
and conducted the first radio search for extraterrestrial signals.  The following
year saw the publication of R. N. Schwartz and C. H. Townes' suggestion to use
a laser ("Interstellar and Interplanetary Communication by Optical Masers,"
Nature, Vol. 190 No. 4772, pp. 205-208, April 15, 1961) to communicate in
space and, conversely, to scan the heavens for evidence of wave laser use by
extraterrestrials.  Today, both the microwave radio and optical ranges are
searched regularly by a loose (although extremely dedicated) coalition of
governments, universities, and private-sector researchers.

     The study of the biodiversity of Earth amazed scientists when it was
discovered that "life" could survive and prosper in some of the most inhospitable
places on the planet, i.e., volcanoes, near deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the cold
Antarctic and Arctic environs, and can even tolerate the "Old Faithful" geyser
and other hot-springs at Yellowstone National Park.  Marveling at the
perseverance and fecundity of life-forms, the next logical step was to look
elsewhere for signs of microbial life, and Mars was, and remains, the nearest and
likeliest candidate.

     When the Viking 1 Lander touched down upon Martian soil on July 20,
1976, it carried a sophisticated, miniature laboratory designed to conduct three
tests for life on Mars.  From NASA's first grant in the area of biological sciences
in 1959 ($4485 to Wolf Vishniac**, a professor of biology at the University of
Rochester, N.Y., to design "a prototype instrument for the remote detection of
microorganisms on other planets"), through the highly successful Mariner 9
mission in 1971, a tremendous effort was made to answer the popular question:
"Is there life on Mars?"

     As these things go, perhaps on some level of quantum irony, there was
originally a fourth test scheduled for Viking 1, but it was dropped in early 1973
as being the least likely to produce dependable results.  The "fourth" test was
known as the "Wolf Trap," an instrument which would photoelectrically detect
the growth of organisms in a controlled medium, and grew out of the NASA
grant of 1959.  After the test was dropped, Vishniac achieved a successful
demonstration at the South Pole, discovering "life" in a barren area determined
to be "sterile" according to previous scientific studies.  Unfortunately, Vichniac
fell to his death in the Asgard Mountains, Antarctica in late 1973, and never
lived to see the landing of Viking 1 on Mars.

     The three biological tests performed by Viking 1 produced unclear and
indeterminate results, were of little or no use to science, but the tests still have
active supporters.  On July 4th, 1996, the Mars Pathfinder (renamed the Carl
Sagan Memorial Station, after the late astronomer) landed with further scientific
instruments, however the mission didn't include any tests for "life" on Mars.
Next month's Mars Polar Lander will conduct several tests, but none specifically
for "life."  It looks like the question of "life" on Mars may have to wait until the
missions of 2003 and 2005, with the declared goals of returning soil samples to
Earth, although some believe the question was answered in 1996.

     On August 6, 1996, speaking about NASA's claim to have found evidence of
life in a Martian meteorite, President Clinton held a press conference on the
South Lawn of the White House and commented, "If this discovery is confirmed,
it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science
has ever uncovered."  Despite Clinton's later sly ambiguity during his
Jones-Lewinsky testimony, the qualification "If this discovery is confirmed..."
was sound and appropriate.  Just because a claim is made, even from NASA,
does not ...make it so.  Science demands every theory be tested.

    The next day, August 7, 1996, NASA administrator Dan Goldin, introducing
a panel which would discuss the extraordinary claim, thanked Clinton and
admitted that the president had asked that "the discovery is subjected to the
methodical process."   Less than 24 hours later the debate would go public with
a newspaper article, "Similar UNM Meteorite Study Found No Evidence of
Mars Life," about a previous study by the University of New Mexico's Institute
for Meteoritics which didn't find significant evidence to support the NASA
claim, but were careful not to contradict it either.

      AH84001, as the Martian meteorite is designated, is thought to be a rock
formed 4 1/2 billion years ago, ripped from Mars some 16 million years ago,
flew around the Sun for a long time, before finally crashing in the Antarctic
about 13 thousand years ago.  The NASA claim is that microbial life on Mars
left "carbonate globules" when the rock initially formed, and those globules are
described as "mico-fossils" or nanofossils.  Within a couple of months of
NASA's claim, allowing time to study the evidence, many scientists from around
the world were questioning methodology and interpretation.  Some suggested
that coating a thin slice of the Martian rock before examining it under an
electron microscope alters the evidence, while others cautioned that one's
"micro-fossil" is anothers' naturally produced artifact.

     The debate is far from over, it looks like President Clinton got his wish as far
as NASA's claim being subjected to the "methodical process," but many see
positive results from the whole experience.  Suggestion, model, theory, testing,
debate, more testing, more debate, and, sometimes, consensus...  What's
important is the debate and the sharing of ideas.  NASA's claim may eventually
be dismissed, but the "process" has strengthened and enriched our ability to
suggest and accept new ideas.  We're better for it...

     As far as life beyond Earth is concerned, an important observation was
recently made by Apollo 12 astronaut, Pete Conrad, "I always thought the most
significant thing we found on the whole goddamn Moon was that little bacteria
who came back and lived and nobody ever said shit about it."  Bacteria on the
Moon?  Perhaps...

     When Apollo 12 touched down upon the Moon on Nov.12, 1969, one of
their assignments was to retrieve the camera from the unmanned Surveyor 3,
which had landed two and a half years earlier.  After returning to Earth, the
camera and some other materials brought back from Surveyor 3 were found to
contain Streptococcus mitis, the common bacteria which produces strep-throat.
It would appear that the bacteria hitched a ride to Moon, survived without air,
food, or water, in a way chilly environment, and recuperated nicely once it got
back to Earth.  And, as this line of argument goes, there may be other examples
of the strep bacteria aboard Surveyor 3 at this time.  So, there is life beyond
Earth, but ...it originated here! [Note: The claims of Streptococcus mitis
surviving in space and some examples still on the Moon have been challenged.
It's been suggested there was contamination after Apollo 12 returned to Earth
and there are no terrestrial microbes presently on the Moon.  I guess ...only time
will tell.]

The Method and Message of Science:

     The path which began with Babylonian astronomers, inspired the so-called
"presocratic philosophers" who, in turn, cleared the way for our great Greek and
Roman thinkers, which wound through Arabia, India, China, and back, turned
into the road of science under Copernicus, Newton, and Descarte, became a
vertible turnpike with the likes of Einstein and Plank, and, today, is a wide
superhighway capable of supporting travel to places as yet unimagined.  This is
science!

     Some declared after the "Clovis and Beyond" conference that it was an
exciting time to be involved in the study of American prehistory, a sentiment, I
imagine, that's shared by scientists in such fields as genetics, physics, astronomy,
artificial intelligence, and more.  It's an exciting time to be alive!  Still, others
suggest pragmatism, view science as "closeminded," seek to discover their own
path, and wish to discount millennia of scientific efforts because they favor one
(or several) "new" ideas.  I suspect a certain amount of gullibility at work, here,
with more than a touch of unscientific methods involved.

     The sensational (and way silly) prime-time television specials about aliens and
ancient "science" are successful entertainment.  The major magazines which run
articles that challenge the theory of evolution and defend the "history" of The
Bible always seem to do so around religious holidays.  Newspaper accounts
about "mainstream scientists" and the implication that they're either lying or
incompetent appear to be co-written with libel attorneys.  And the radio
talkshows?  I'm embarrassed to admit my utter contempt for them.  It seems to
be a question of louder, faster, weirder and the audience will follow.  I miss the
late astronomer, Carl Sagan, a lot...  He answered their louder with softer, faster
with slower, and weirder with weirder still.

     There's no going back to pre-scientific innocence and we'll all just have to
struggle to keep up with the latest theories, experiments, and breakthroughs, all
the while maintaining a healthy skepticism regarding fantastic claims.  I'm
reminded of the cautionary ending to the sci.skeptic newsgroup FAQ: "Starting
a scientific revolution is a long, hard slog. Don't expect it to be easy. If it was,
we would have them every week."

*Thanks to Philip Morrison for the reference to his classic paper.
**Larry Klaes, Vice president of the Boston Chapter of the National Space
Society graciously refreshed my memory about Prof. Vishniac.

looking ahead,
Rick

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