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January 8, 1997

Zare ponders life on Earth, Mars and beyond

By Kaushik Mukherjee

Despite the conventional wisdom, visiting a professor at Stanford is somewhat intimidating, especially when the professor in question is well-known in the scientific community and teaches your chemistry class. But Chemistry Prof. Richard Zare, a tieless man reclining on a couch in his spacious office, projects an air of informality.

The subject of his impending trip to Antarctica is on everyone's minds. As the chairman of the National Science Board, Zare must address the many issues involved in Antarctic exploration. For example, he cited the high costs of transporting equipment to the bottom of the world, as well as the limits imposed by being environmentally responsible.

"We can only leave footprints and take away memories," Zare said.

Despite the difficulties involved with research in Antarctica, Zare still believes that further research involving the ozone hole, astronomy and bacteriology would increase the understanding of one of the least-known parts of the planet.

Beyond Earth lies a universe full of planets, each with the potential to offer information about a different form of life.

"When I was young, I went to zoos, and that was life," Zare said. "Imagine my surprise when I found out that most life was undergound."

Recently, Zare investigated a meteorite found in Antarctica. By analyzing the relative abundance of different types of atoms in the rocks with a team of researchers, he was able to determine that the specimens did not originate on Earth - indeed, they seemed to be Martian.

Using a home-built device called a mass spectrometer, the research team found organic compounds of the type deposited by bacteria. Also found were minerals which are often deposited by bacteria. Using scanning electron microscopes, the team found traces of "microfossils," which could again be residue left over from bacteria.

Zare, however, "maintains a level of healthy skepticism." He stressed that, although he has confidence in his data, the rest of his analysis is only a theory.

In fact, two papers published in Geochmica et Cosmochimica Act, the journal of the Geochemistry Society and the Meteoritical Society, suggest alternative explanations for the presence of the organic compounds.

Zare said further research in this area can only help us determine the exact nature of the discovery the team made. Therefore, according to Zare, the existence of life on Mars is still an open question.

He has laid out his theory before the scientific community, and now awaits more research to add evidence in support of or contrary to his claim.

Further research will most probably include other teams of researchers who will try to analyze more meteorites taken from Antarctica in an attempt to reproduce his results. He even believes that human exploration of Mars is "our destiny in time."

Zare has always been interested in science, graduating with degrees in both chemistry and physics. In addition to his research goals, he is strongly devoted to teaching.

He believes that teaching causes him to question his own beliefs. He even describes science as "schizophrenia" - a delicate balance between daring to dream a fantasy and being hit with harsh reality.

Zare's "schizophrenic" tendencies seem to be absorbed at the moment in the very broad question of the nature of life. Eventually, he theorizes, scientists should be able to create life, in some form.

However, the ethics of such actions will be judged by the "Prometheus paradox." According to the Greek legend, the Titan Prometheus gave man the gift of fire, which enabled him to cook food and enemies alike.

Zare said the creation of life by human hands poses a similar set of possibilities: It can be created for good or evil intents.

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