Humboldtians in Focus

Tracking Down Evidence on Mars

Interview with Dirk Schulze-Makuch

Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch is sure that we are not alone in the universe. A conversation about life on Mars and intelligent aliens.

The US Mars Rover Opportunity took these pictures of its own tracks on Mars. Opportunity was employed to investigate the geology of the Red Planet and discovered the first indications that water did exist at some point on the Martian surface.
The US Mars Rover Opportunity
took these pictures of its own
tracks on Mars. Opportunity
was employed to investigate the
geology of the Red Planet and
discovered the first indications
that water did exist at some point
on the Martian surface.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
University

Kosmos: Mr Schulze-Makuch, how do you become an astrobiologist?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: I’m actually a geoscientist. My research was originally into microbes that exist under hostile conditions and might for example be useful in combating oil spills. Then I became involved with NASA, who were interested in discovering microbes that also live in a difficult environment, namely on Mars. So I increasingly began to conduct research in the field of biology. But because I’m not a biologist by trade, I think I’m far more open to ideas about how life could be structured differently from what we know and expect. It’s fascinating to imagine what we could learn from alien life.

Kosmos: For example?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: If we were really to discover multicellular life on some other planet, we might for example ask: Does cancer exist there? How has this form of life solved this problem, or other challenges? That could be incredibly useful in medicine, in materials science and many other fields.

Kosmos: How likely is it that we will find life on Mars?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: In view of all the evidence I think it’s highly likely. For example, we found magnetite chains in a Mars meteorite discovered in Antarctica in 1984. These chains are typical traces of magnetotactic bacteria, which also exist here on Earth. And we know of no inorganic process that could explain the existence of such chains. We were able to detect methane, which is usually of biological origin on Earth, and we know that there was a large amount of water on early Mars. We have a reinterpretation of the results of the Viking life detection experiments of the 1970s. If you take all that together, it would be very strange indeed if there were no life on Mars. It’s even possible that life on the two planets is related, and that life spread from Earth to Mars or vice versa.

Gazing at Mars: Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch thinks life has probably developed in other parts of our galaxy as well as on Earth.
Gazing at Mars: Astrobiologist Dirk
Schulze-Makuch thinks life has
probably developed in other
parts of our galaxy as well as on
Earth.

Photo: private

Kosmos: How could that have happened?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: For example by travelling in a meteorite. Microbes are quite capable of surviving such a journey, as tests have shown. We have for instance placed microbes on the Space Shuttle and on satellites, and they made it through their trips into space.

Kosmos: Those are possibilities and evidence. What would have to happen in order to really find and prove the existence of life?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: Well, many would only consider it proof if they saw a probe from Mars under a microscope and the microbes waved back at them (laughs). And even then one might question whether they were not contaminations from Earth. But I believe it is only a question of how much we invest in our search. If we were to carry out a mission today, like the Viking probes back then, but with our current knowledge and technology, and if we landed them in suitable locations, for example where there is methane or water, we would probably find life.

Kosmos: Including multicellular or even intelligent life?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: Probably not on Mars. But the billions of suns and planets in our galaxy alone make it unlikely that life would not have arisen and evolved anywhere else. It’s just that many circumstances have to come together to make it possible. On Earth it took four billion years for intelligent life to develop. Microbial life is always the beginning. But the step up to multicellular life is a difficult one, and the step from there to intelligent life is even harder. Social beings that use complex technology, such as humans, will be rare. But that they don’t exist at all? That would be strange, and would raise more questions than anything else.

Kosmos: The five books you have published on the subject also include a novel, “Voids of Eternity: Alien Encounter”. How did you come to try your hand at science fiction?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: I just liked the idea of letting my imagination run a little wild and publishing my ideas as a novel rather than a scientific article. Of course I had to make the science it does contain easy to understand, and then wrap it all into an adventure story. A little like Jules Verne, who fascinated me even as a child and an adolescent.

Kosmos: Your novel contains even several types of aliens ...
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: Yes, for example there are microbe-like creatures on Titan that are as big as stones and move very slowly because it’s very cold there. And then there is an intelligent species, a meta-intelligence similar to termites but much bigger. Creatures that have a social structure, in other words. It’s like colony-forming insects on Earth: the individual is fairly stupid, but the mass is intelligent. That is a highly successful model that may not have evolved as far as human beings on our planet, but it is entirely imaginable that such an intelligence might have evolved further elsewhere and use technologies – to an even greater extent than humans.

Kosmos: In your book, conflict arises between this species and humans ...
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: Exactly, and the question behind that is how do you manage to make first contact with an intelligent alien species without causing serious misunderstandings like the ones in my book? Just think how difficult we already find it to communicate with other intelligent species on Earth, squid for example. It doesn’t work because they are so different, although they are in fact distantly related to us. We sometimes can’t even decipher the writing used by ancient human cultures! What, then, do you do when you really discover an alien species? They might think in completely different ways than we do. It’s a lot more complicated than some people imagine.

Kosmos: Does revealing oneself to be a science fiction author damage one’s reputation as a scientist?
Dirk Schulze-Makuch: To be honest, I’m not worried about that. My scientific books are sometimes also framed in generally understandable terms because they deal with interdisciplinary topics. And those publications are quite well respected. In my case, the novel perhaps simply demonstrates creativity and does no harm. The astrobiologists among my colleagues are just more open-minded. Maybe it comes with the job (laughs).


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Dirk Schulze-Makuch Dirk Schulze-Makuch
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Georg Scholl

Professor Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch is an astrobiologist at Washington State University in Pullman, USA. As a Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award Winner he conducted research in the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin.

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