Philosophical Society of Washington

The Issue of Life on Mars and Its Implications on Science and Philosophy

Gilbert V. Levin
President, Biospherics, Inc.

2127th Meeting Abstract
Friday, February 9, 2001 at 8:15 P.M.


The Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment on the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars created a persisting controversy. The criteria for the presence of living microorganisms in the soil were met. However, other data led to a scientific consensus that a life-mimicking chemical oxidant, not living organisms, had caused the reaction.

Until 1997, the author maintained the neutral position that the LR results were consistent with, but not proof of, a biological response. He spent more than two decades in laboratory work, reviewing other relevant Viking experiments, and continually assessing new reports on microorganisms found in extreme environments. Then, in 1997, he concluded that the LR response was biological. In stating so, he answered the principal arguments that had prevented this conclusion. Some shift in scientific opinion has been occurring. NASA is responding by publishing a web site to make the LR data available for new studies.

In addition to presenting the LR data and supporting evidence, Dr. Levin will challenge the bases of those, still in the majority, who deny the possibility of life on the Martian surface. Citing the chain of conditions necessary for his view of Panspermia, he shows that no weak link in that chain between Mars and Earth exists. He makes the case that life on either planet implies life on the other.

Scientific acceptance of life on Mars will advance its study to the highest priority. Outcomes will depend on the relationships between terrestrial and Martian life forms. Commonalties or differences in genetic processes will determine the path of basic and applied research. Studies of the origin of life and evolution will be greatly accelerated Public acceptance of the existence of extraterrestrial life will be, perhaps, even more far-reaching. Philosophy and religion will have to adapt to this new assault on anthropocentrism. Examples of reactions encountered by the author will be cited.

About the Speaker:

Gilbert V. Levin is Chairman and CEO of Biospherics Incorporated, Beltsville, Maryland, a firm he founded in 1967 to do research, and provide services and products in environment and health. An environmental engineer, Dr. Levin invented the PhoStrip® process for the microbiological removal of nutrients from wastewater discharges to protect water bodies. He also developed methods for the rapid determination of the microbiological quality of water and wastewater. Through his development of sensitive techniques for the detection of microorganisms, he became interested in the possibility of microbial life on Mars. He was selected as an Experimenter on NASA's Mariner 9 Mission to Mars in 1971 and on its 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The Viking results, indicating the presence of living soil microorganisms, remain to be confirmed by future Mars missions. His inventions, the subject of some 50 patents, while primarily concerned with microbial processes and analyses, range from cancer detection to planetary exploration to the treatment of diabetes. They include the use of non-caloric sugars as sweeteners in food products and beverages which his Company is now developing. An awardee of the NASA Public Service Medal, the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland prize, The Johns Hopkins Whiting Medal and The Johns Hopkins Distinguished Alumnus Award, Dr. Levin received his B.E., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from The Johns Hopkins University, where he served as a Trustee and is currently a member of its National Advisory Councils on Engineering and the Library. His many professional society memberships include the Sigma Xi, and he is a member of the Cosmos Club. He resides in Annapolis, Maryland.

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