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August 2001
Vol. 31, No. 8, p 1.
Chemist at Large

Table of Contents

Michael J. Block/Editor

To Mars . . . and New Zealand

Fly me to the Moon and let me play among the stars.
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.
—Bart Howard

Opening art by Loel Barr
Loel Barr

Neither Mr. Howard nor Ol’ Blue Eyes could have foreseen that spring, on Mars at least, would be very controversial. Martian spring, in whichever hemisphere, presumably involves some sort of climate change as the planet tilts toward the Sun, but is there also a resurgence of life, as happens on Earth?

In last May’s issue of CI, Charles W. Schmidt gave an account of what is and isn’t being done to determine whether there are any organisms on the Red Planet. Charlie also suggested to us editors that we get in touch with Barry DiGregorio, the director of ICAMSR, the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return, if we wanted a provocative article.

So we did, and the result was the article The dilemma of Mars sample return. It’s long, but I hope you read it all the way through. Whether or not you think there’s even the remotest possibility of life on Mars, and whether or not you think that if there is life, it might wreak havoc if brought to Earth, I think you’ll enjoy it. If you take exception to some of his arguments, so much the better.

I personally find any in-depth account of the U.S. space program fascinating. This is probably because my teenage and college years coincided with the Sputnik era, when the space race between the United States and the USSR took on the characteristics of a holy war. Astronauts and cosmonauts became the folk heroes of the time, and no television show was so important that it couldn’t be preempted by a launch or a landing.

In recent years, the space program has been more honored for its past than in its future. Films such as Apollo 13 and The Dish make the program seem almost quaint. Did men really walk around in black horned-rim glasses and short-sleeved white shirts with skinny little ties and say “A-OK!” with a straight face? And were women really relegated to the role of waiting anxiously for their astronaut hubbies to return home so that they could make them a pot roast?

But I digress. If I were a 35-year-old microbiologist, I wouldn’t mind cavorting around the Martian landscape looking for DNA or a reasonable facsimile. (Note that I don’t expect to find any macrobiology on Mars.) But I have a feeling that no one has been born yet who will go to Mars as a 35-year-old microbiologist. So we’ll have to wait until some robot lands there, scoops up Ziploc bags of soil, and brings it back for us to study. But “Not so fast!” says Mr. DiGregorio. And now you can go to The dilemma of Mars sample return.


We’ll always have New Zealand
May 2 was a lovely day: Pauline Hamilton walked—er, e-mailed—into our lives. Ms. Hamilton is a pharmacist by training, but with two young kids at home, she’s become a freelance writer. (Digression no. 2: You know the Internet had a lot to do with that. I think it’s wonderful.) She asked if we’d like a story on the New Zealand pharmaceutical industry, and when she suggested spicing it up (no pun intended) with Maori herbal medicines, we jumped at the chance.

Many of us conventional scientists discount the benefits of herbs, or are afraid of their side effects, but you’d think that after a few thousand years, indigenous cultures would have discarded them if they didn’t work. So the story of these herbs, and the work that a French nun did to develop them, is worth telling. Beth Mitchell of our production staff took an interest in Mother Aubert and put together the sidebar on her life. You won’t even see this on the History Channel, but you will see it here.

Just the day I wrote this, Pauline asked if she could do some more for us on biotech from Down Under. (Contrary to popular belief, the double helix doesn’t twist the other way down there.) We’ll see. It depends on whether someone sends us an article first on drug development on Mars.


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