Martian neighbors? Don’t bet on it

We’re not alone in the universe, or so several scientists would have us believe. Planetary experts from NASA and other institutions told a captivated international audience Wednesday that a Martian meteorite — which apparently landed on Earth some 13,000 years ago — may contain microscopic fossils of single-celled organisms. Although this is unquestionably an impressive finding, scientists’ childlike enthusiasm about the discovery — it could represent “a turning point in human history,” said astronomer Carl Sagan — should be tempered.
After all, this is not “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” or “Independence Day.” Yes, perhaps life, albeit on a limited scale, did (or does) exist on Mars. But it’s unlikely that the possible discovery of such life will amount to much more than fodder for dinner table conversations. We tip our caps to researchers who believe they may have found evidence of organic life on a planet other than our own, but would remind them that the dead cells in question — if they were indeed cells at all, and not mere cracks in the mud, as one critic suggested — are at least 3.5 billion years old.
In the event that the evidence is somehow authenticated, what next? President Clinton pledged to support an expansion of the space program in an attempt to dig deeper, both literally and figuratively, into the Mars mystery. Clinton said the implications of the supposed discovery “are as far reaching and awe inspiring as can be imagined.” Had we the ear of the president, our question, considering the extreme age of the rock in question, would be why? What’s the big deal? Is the nation really going to be awed by an aged rock?
Well, stranger things have happened. But we can’t help but imagine that the fervor about the findings has been fueled largely by Hollywood, where the unbridled desire to find something significant beyond our atmosphere has been displayed in movies for years. Wouldn’t it be great if, somewhere on the Antarctic permafrost, scientists stumbled upon a massive vessel built of a strange metal, containing smiling jelly-like creatures? Yeah, and the next thing you know, there will be a run on Reese’s Pieces.
For days and months to come, millions of backyard telescopes will no doubt be trained on our reddish-colored neighbor, in hopes of finding a blip of movement that will quiet the naysayers — ourselves included. Perhaps we should be prepared for eventual, incontrovertible evidence that something, or someone, else is out there.
For many, it’s exciting to think that aliens could travel to Earth in monstrous ships, in search of intergalactic kinship, natural resources, or romantic liaisons. But such an occurrence, wish as we may, is unlikely. Nevertheless, we fully expect a slew of letters to the editor if — or perhaps we should say when — we’re proven wrong.