Wait, What Do You Mean There’s No “Life” on Mars?

Hello, friends!

The other day, someone wanted to pick a fight with me.  This person said to me in a forceful, almost rude tone, that there is absolutely no chance we will ever discover life on Mars.  If you know me at all, you must surely know: them’s fightin’ words!

Except before this conversation could escalate into a full blown argument, it became apparent (to me, at least) that we were not actually talking about the same thing.  You see when I talk about life on Mars, I mean life of any kind, including microorganisms—especially microorganisms.  This other person was using the word “life” to mean, specifically and exclusively, intelligent life.

No, I do not expect we’ll find intelligent life on Mars.  There are no canals, no cities—none of that stuff Percival Lowell once imagined he saw in his telescope.  Nor do I expect to find non-intelligent animals or any kind of plant life.

The best we can hope for is that there might be Martian microorganisms hiding under a glacier, subsisting off a trickle of meltwater.  And to be honest, I’m not overly optimistic about finding even that much life on Mars.  But to say it is absolutely impossible?  No, I cannot agree with that.

And after explaining what I mean when I talk about life on Mars and what my expectations actually are, this person conceded (grudgingly, perhaps) that I might have a point.  Thus what could have been a bitter and fruitless argument turned into an opportunity to educate someone about the science of astrobiology.  Why?  Because I asked the question “Wait, what do you mean by life?”

Language is not as precise a tool as we often imagine.  People sometimes use the same words to mean very different things, leading to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and unproductive arguments.  I think a lot of those arguments, both big and small, could be avoided if more people would stop and ask: “Wait, what do you mean by (fill in the blank)?”

Next time on Planet Pailly, am I too judgmental?  We’ll find out in this month’s posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

20 thoughts on “Wait, What Do You Mean There’s No “Life” on Mars?

  1. I’m frequently struck by how many arguments amount to people yelling past each other with different definitions.

    And life is particularly hard to define. I suspect if we ever do find it somewhere else, it may ignite a furious debate on whether it is in fact life, and the definition of life. Imagine, for instance, if we find something like viroids floating in some kind of soup.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I have a chemist friend who’s never accepted that the word “organic” has been stolen from him by the popular culture. Every time I see organic apples (say) in the grocery, I have to giggle over the idea of silicon-based apples.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Maybe the talk about “organic” would be a good time to remind people that apples are metallic. 🙂

        Did you see the article in the January (December?) Sky & Telescope about life on Mars? It was a really interesting read. They’ve had a couple of stories about Mars in recent months that I bet you’d love.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. No, I guess I missed out. I bet they were good, though!

        I sort of cycle through different magazine subscriptions every few years, and Sky and Telescope isn’t currently on my list. When Scientific American runs out, maybe I’ll switch.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Judgmental? Not for me to judge!

    Life on Mars? “Maybe if I get there on a Saturday night. Things could be really hopping then. ”

    (Seriously, I am judgmental. I analyze everything. Drives people nuts. )

    Liked by 2 people

  4. We all have “opinions” on the chances of extraterrestrial life, advanced or primitive and mine are not very optimistic – but the correct answer is that we don’t know – and we should not be afraid to say that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been having some issues with WordPress myself of late: “like” buttons not working, subscribe buttons disappearing, and so forth. I don’t know what the deal is. You could try switching to a different browser. I switched from Safari to Firefox, and that seemed to help.


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