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An Otherworldly Debate : People Around the Southland Try Out the Idea of Life on Mars

August 08, 1996|DAVID FERRELL and PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In Los Angeles, one of the galaxy's true hubs of confusion and uncertainty, this latest puzzle ranks as a real blockbuster: Is there--or was there--life on Mars? And will scientists find the answers in a hunk of rock that whizzed down from the sky 13,000 years ago in . . . uh, Antarctica?

Tourist Sebastian Puts, 11, of Canada, was one of untold thousands pondering those questions Wednesday, even while scientists were reporting possible evidence of cellular life in the ancient meteorite. Puts stood outside the planetary observatory at Griffith Park, pointing a coin-operated telescope in the general vicinity of Madonna's house.

His own conclusion: Why not?

"I think it's possible to have creatures on different planets," the seventh-grader theorized, "because . . . there's been sightings of UFOs, and they can't go by themselves. They have to have someone in there to drive them or something."

Why not, indeed? If nothing else, the announcements were more than enough to fire the intellectual passion of people young and old alike.

To some, the news was compelling evidence that humanity is not alone in the cosmos, a finding that would answer one of mankind's most profound mysteries.

To others, the purported contents of the four-pound meteorite--believed to have been blasted off the Martian surface by a crashing asteroid--smacked of pseudo-research, bad science fiction.

"It's ridiculous," said author Ray Bradbury, whose "Martian Chronicles" painted a far more vibrant picture of Martian life. "They don't have any proof. They're not even sure [the rock] came from Mars. It's a theory."

Bradbury compared the announcement to claims about UFOs and mysterious crop circles. He doesn't believe it for a minute.

"It's stupid," he said.

The Rev. Eddie Ray Thomas, pastor of the Greater Mt. Calvary Baptist Missionary Baptist Church, was just as skeptical, saying the notion of life arising out of a primordial soup in some Martian volcano just doesn't jibe with the Holy Scriptures.

"We just wouldn't buy that," Thomas said, speaking for those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. "Can't buy it. No, sir."

Meanwhile, over in Burbank, Jay Leno quipped in his "Tonight Show" monologue, "Personally I'm a bit of a skeptic. . . . Until I see photos in the National Enquirer or the Star, count me out."

Yet the skeptics seemed surprisingly few.

Father Gregory Coiro, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he was not surprised by the apparent discovery, adding that "finding life on another planet or solar system would not really impact on anything in Catholic theology because all of our theology has to do with the relationship between God and human beings."

If extraterrestrial life exists, Coiro said, the real question is whether other intelligent life forms would have the need for a Redeemer, or would they have somehow maintained an original innocence? Unfortunately, he added, "dealing with bacteria doesn't quite put you into that ballpark."

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Skeptics were difficult to find even at the Skeptics Society, an Altadena-based organization devoted to putting a hard spotlight on scientific controversies.

"Super, exciting, fabulous" is how Pat Linse, art director of Skeptic magazine, described the revelations she saw during a televised news conference. "I hope it's true. I wouldn't mind seeing larger life, too, if it's not like 'Independence Day.' "

Skeptics President Michael Shermer said humankind might have to change its whole mind-set. Life might be part of a naturally occurring process. If it can spring up on Earth and on Mars right next door, where else might it be?

Shermer suggests doing the math: "There's 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and roughly 100 billion galaxies in the known universe," he said. "There's just got to be one hell of a lot of life forms out there."

That may be news to some, but not to editors at Weekly World News.

"We do feel vindicated," said Sal Ivone, managing editor of the tabloid, which is about to publish--by overwhelming demand, he said--what he claimed are actual photographs of a more highly advanced Martian life form. While refusing to describe the exact nature of that life form, Ivone promised it will be "scary," but not like Elvis.

"We're way out in front on this story," he said. "We've been covering this since 1979, and we always joke that [the question is not whether] there's life on Mars, but is there night life on Mars?"

What with the barrage of extraterrestrial news in the tabloids, on TV and in the movies, many people seemed to react to NASA's news with little astonishment.

Out on the "Extraterrestrial Highway," Nevada 375 through Rachel, Nev., tourists from Los Angeles to Maine gather to stare into starry black skies for signs of life elsewhere, said Paula Clayton, manager of a bar and restaurant known as the Little A'Le'Inn.

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