Dr. Neal F. Lane


Physics Colloquium
University of Wisconsin

September 6, 1996

Martian Meteorites and Modern Science: Stories, Subplots, and Future Success

Good afternoon and greetings. I want to thank the Physics Department for inviting me to present this colloquium, and the entire university for making me feel so welcome here in Madison. I owe a special thanks to Chun Lin, my Ph.D. thesis advisor and long-time mentor, plus Wilmer Anderson and so many others for arranging my itinerary.

I know we have roughly an hour allotted for this colloquium, but please rest easy; I don't intend to use all that time for my talk. I want to leave plenty of time for Q&A and discussion. The principal purpose of visits like this one is to hear what's on your mind and try to answer your questions.

One comment I want to make at the outset relates to the level of institutional support for research. Several colleagues at NSF reminded me that your research in physics, polar science, and countless other fields is greatly strengthened by the support provided by the university and the people of Wisconsin. The Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) project in particular, has benefited immensely from this support. This says to me that the state clearly sees the economic potential of the solar neutrino industry.

My talk today is not about the solar neutrino industry or the future of Wisconsin's economy. But I have chosen a subject relevant to both topics and to the future of all Americans. I've amended my title from what you've seen on the posters. The full title is now, Martian Meteorites and Modern Science: Stories, Subplots, and Future Success.

My intent today is to share with you two stories about science in America today--stories about how science and technology are revolutionizing our world and how we see our place in it. The first of these stories concerns the now famous meteorite, ALH84001, from Mars and the possibility--and I stress the possibility--that it contains fossils from ancient microbial life forms. This is an exciting story with potential implications that reach well beyond science and into philosophy and perhaps theology.

The second topic I want to discuss is the role of the science and engineering community in shaping the uses and benefits of information technologies in our society. That story is equally revolutionary--though more for economic than philosophical reasons.

Both of these stories contain subplots that I believe reveal much about the future of science in America. The subplots are what I want to examine most closely with you today, because they hold the key to the future success of science and engineering in America.

When we think about subplots on television, in films, or in books, they generally add spice to a larger storyline. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek series, the main storyline was usually something mundane like saving the universe from total annihilation. The writers would also throw in a subplot or two to fill out the episode, usually something about Captain Kirk running into an old flame. It certainly seems to be a "small universe".

I began to get the impression that Kirk's old flames were among the most populous species in the galaxy. In any event, in these episodes, the main storyline could usually stand on its own. The subplots simply added fluff, filler, and comic relief.

In science, the opposite is true. Without the subplots, there is no story. Scientific discoveries and advances often, usually represent the combination and coalescing of numerous different avenues of research.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the story of the now-famous Martian Meteorite. If you read the newspaper articles or watched the TV news accounts, you got the story in a nutshell: scientists in Antarctica find a meteorite from Mars, slice it up, take pictures of it, zap it with lasers, and presto!, they find potential signs of ancient microbial life. A nice, concise, orderly storyline with no loose ends. Or at least that's how the story looks at first glance.

But the real story comes through only by examining all the different and seemingly unrelated subplots that needed to come together in order for there to be a story in the first place. Why were scientists in Antarctica looking for Meteorites? How do we know the meteorite is from Mars? What technologies allow us to see details in structures on the scale of 20 nanometers, or to detect the chemical signals of life after 3.6 billion years and a wayward journey through the solar system?

I won't attempt to go into any detail answering these key questions, certainly not do justice to the complexity of the science involved--the article in the August 16th issue of Science does that quite well--but I do want to highlight the story they tell about modern science. In many ways it's a familiar story to all of us. It is a story about the inherent unpredictability of fundamental research, the importance of leading-edge instrumentation and facilities for research, the requirement for a strong, stable national investment across the full spectrum of science and engineering fields, and the need to engage the public and build appreciation for our efforts in research and education.

Our story begins with the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, a project funded by NSF's Office of Polar Programs. NSF is responsible for supporting the U.S. presence in Antarctica by maintaining research stations, logistics, operations and research projects such as the meteorite searches that yielded ALH84001.

If one were to ask, what's the ideal way to find meteorites, you might get the following answer. Find a huge open space, lay out a equally huge white bedsheet, and pick up whatever falls on it--provided it's a rock. Antarctica provides the huge open space, and the Antarctic ice sheets provides a reasonable proxy for a huge white bedsheet. Then scientists go out and pick up whatever falls on the ice sheets. As the ice sheet flows the meteorites are carried along and gathered together toward the end of the flow--against the mountains. By studying the meteorites arrival, one learns about the ice flow which was a main reason for the study.

It's a complex search, involving a mix of challenging logistics just to get research teams to the Antarctic and enable them to work there, as well as advanced mountaineering to navigate the ice sheets and clean-room techniques to avoid contaminating the samples. But it's also an immensely successful program. Antarctica has now yielded some 16,000 meteorites, roughly half of the world's meteorite samples.

NSF, NASA, and the Smithsonian work closely together under a memorandum of understanding signed in 1980 to provide for the collection, special curatorial handling (NASA responsibility), classification, disbursement to researchers, and long-term storage of Antarctic meteorites.

The meteorite containing the carbonate clusters that some think may be fossils was found in 1984 by a seven person team funded by NSF. It's named ALH84001. "ALH" is for the Allan Hills region of the Antarctic. "84" is for 1984, the year it was found, and the "001" puts it in sequence with others found.

One of the great ironies of this story is that the viability of the U.S. research presence in Antarctica is now jeopardized by budgetary constraints and delayed investments in new facilities. That's an issue I know a number of you, especially Bob Morse, Francis Halzen, and the AMANDA team, follow very closely, and that we hope to resolve in coming months. A panel headed by Norm Augustine of Lockheed Martin is assessing future options for the U.S. Antarctic Program and the South Pole Station in particular, as we speak. I encourage all of you to stay tuned to this important issue.

The next subplot involves the origin of ALH84001. Twenty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that meteorites were never pieces of the moon or other planets. We didn't think that chunks of planets could break off, achieve escape velocity, and then one day arrive on the Earth. In 1981, however, scientists determined that a meteorite found in Antarctica was of lunar origin, as it matched samples brought back by the Apollo program. That turned the conventional wisdom on its head.

It was only a few years later that another Antarctic meteorite was determined to be from Mars. Meteorites of course don't come with a return address, so this was no easy determination. The unique mix of gases trapped inside the meteorite--the concentrations of Xenon, Krypton, Argon 36 and Argon 40, Neon, Nitrogen, and Carbon Dioxide--were a 1:1 match with Martian atmosphere measured by the Viking landers. In technical parlance, that what's known as a "smoking gun."

We have now determined that a dozen meteorites found on the Earth originated on Mars, and half were found by the NSF Antarctic search.

I like to joke with Dan Goldin, who you all know heads NASA. I ask him, why should we spend all this money to send spacecraft to Mars? Mars will come to us, and we can find pieces of it in Antarctica for one one-billionth the price of a planetary mission. As you might imagine, Dan had a ready answer for that question.

In any event, the Martian origins of the Allan Hills meteorite only bring us to the beginning of this story. The next subplot involves the scanning electron microscope images that revealed the complex nano-structures embedded within fractures in the rock.

To me, this is a key subplot, because it exists only because of the most modern scientific research and instrumentation. Scanning electron microscopes have become commonplace tools found in laboratories throughout the world. But we all know each one of them is essentially a particle accelerator that owes its existence to the advances in technologies coming out of elementary particle, nuclear, and atomic physics of recent generations. That's a point I'll return to throughout this talk.

This brings us to the fourth and most compelling subplot I want to discuss in the story of the Martian meteorite. We've found the rock. We are confident it's from Mars. We've got the tantalizing images of the segmented, carbonate clusters from scanning electron microscope--nano-cheetoes as some have called them. Now it's time to ask what's in these microstructures.

That's when Dick Zare and his team at Stanford enter the picture. As some of you may know, Dick now chairs the National Science Board, which is essentially NSF's board of directors. By day, he's a physical chemist, who gets support from NSF's program in experimental physical chemistry as well our AMO physics program, as well as from other agencies.

As part of his ongoing research, Dick's lab has developed an innovative microprobe two-step laser mass spectrometer. They developed it to study elementary gas-phase chemical reactions. They have now found another, quite unexpected use for this technique--identifying and mapping the location of PAH's, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in meteorites.

PAH's can arise for a number of reasons, including the breakdown of living organisms. Their presence in the Martian meteorite at high concentrations, while not proof, is to many the strongest evidence of all that these microstructures were once living creatures.

Lost in much of this discussion is the fact that the level of resolution yielded by Zare's technique was not achievable just 5 years ago. He developed it for an entirely different avenue of research, and it is probably safe to say the last thing he ever expected to do with it was zap meteorites. But it nevertheless has provided what is perhaps the key piece of this tantalizing puzzle.

I hasten to add that all of the findings pointing to biological origins of these structures are preliminary, and alternative explanations exist for each one. They could result from inorganic processes at high temperatures, as opposed to organic processes at low temperatures.

Ralph Harvey, who leads NSF's Antarctic Search for Meteorites, published a paper in Nature earlier this year concluding that the carbonate structures and the PAH's resulted from inorganic processes at high temperatures. This debate and discussion will unfold over the next few months, and it should be great fun to watch.

In any event, regardless of how the story of ALH84001 turns out, these subplots still tell an immensely powerful story about the future of science in America. Progress and success always require leading-edge tools, the best people working on the best ideas, an appreciation for the fact that research often takes us in unexpected directions, plus a strong and stable national investment in both research and infrastructure that cuts across all fields of science and engineering. These subplots also reveal another crucial ingredient in the recipe for success, the active engagement of the American people.

When we look across science and engineering, we can see similar stories and subplots developing, both in terms of the excitement they generate and in terms of their potential impact on society. These don't always generate banner headlines about little green men or microbes. But they nevertheless hold the potential to revolutionize how we remedy social ills and spark economic growth. In fact, there is wide agreement that we are entering an era where science, engineering, and technology will exert greater influence on daily life than at any time in human history.

Our future as a society is one where all citizens will be active learners, reliant upon leading-edge tools from science and technology. Our era is often described as the information age, where knowledge has become the most valuable resources. Leaders and thinkers as diverse as Peter Drucker and Carl Sagan and Newt Gingrich and Al Gore all agree that knowledge has surpassed labor, capital, and natural resources as the key to quality of life and economic growth. We are beginning to focus on information, knowledge and human capital to understand and assess our nation's potential in an increasingly competitive world.

This is not so much a vision of the future, as it is a challenge to shape a future that has already arrived. Albert Einstein once said, "I never worry about the future; it comes soon enough." I believe the science and engineering community, especially the physics community, has a central and leading role to play in making sure that the arrival of the information age benefits all Americans and represents an era of growth and progress for the country.

So, the second story I want to touch on is information technology--but more important, its knowledge or intelligence potential.

I think there is no disputing the arrival of the information age. Personal computers reside on virtually every office desktop and have moved into over one-third of U.S. homes, according to the latest statistics. The Internet attracts tens of millions of users each day, even after discounting the estimates for doublecounting and other survey biases.

Despite these compelling statistics, our society has barely begun to reap the benefits offered by this new era. Yes, computers are becoming ubiquitous, but most serve as little more than glorified typewriters. Yes, networks and networking tools are a commercial success, but their immense potential for revolutionizing communication and collaboration remains largely untapped. Far too many people equate producing mass quantities of information with the generation of knowledge that is organized, integrated, evaluated, accessible, and therefore truly valuable. And, we are becoming band-width limited--the networks are becoming clogged.

Some of you may recall an editorial Vice President Gore wrote for an issue of Science that ran this past April. He introduced the metaphor of distributed intelligence. It is a complicated metaphor, based on applying the principal of parallel processing to social challenges and economic progress.

It rests upon the notion of giving people the ability to communicate virtually instantaneously with each other via different media, as well as giving them access to the information they need and to the tools they need to transform that information into useful, productive knowledge. One could say that this involves all of society getting wired, except that it won't always involve wires.

This idea can take on an air of science fiction until one realizes that there is nothing fictional about the pace of scientific and technological progress we are witnessing. This vision of distributed intelligence in the information age is all made possible by a rapid succession of achievements in different areas: semiconductor materials and devices, optical science and technology, electronic and photonic components, algorithms, computational platforms, communications links, software systems, and the like.

The interconnections of the systems and the software which enables this revolution are incredibly complex--as are the types of interactions and instruments made possible by these complex systems.

We need to understand and develop ways to manage the complexity of these systems, just as we need to better understand and appreciate how they can enhance our ability as individuals to think creatively, digest information, and one would hope live fuller, more productive, and more enjoyable lives. It's a tall order, and it all begins with a new spirit of leadership and commitment from the research and education community. That is an important goal to keep in our sights at all times.

One emerging thrust in NSF's portfolio is something we call learning and intelligent systems. It represents the coalescing of many diverse areas of science and engineering--from cognition and linguistics to computing and algorithms. For example, what psychologists have learned about the temporal thresholds for brain functions like language recognition relates directly to what computer scientists have learned about computer-based speech recognition systems.

We now are able to weave together these different threads of research. They shed light on how we humans learn and acquire information, and how this differs--or does not differ--from how learning occurs in other organisms and in human-made systems.

There are so many connections across disparate fields of science and engineering that one gets the sense of being on the verge of a revolutionary set of breakthroughs. Some have even compared the potential societal impact of the information revolution to the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. Others have noted that we must work to ensure that the effects are positive, as the printing press was, and not let us say mixed like the also-heralded innovation of television.

Physics, of course, is embedded in all of this. Any challenge involving computational science and engineering is likely to involve physicists of some sort. Even when we examine usage of NSF's supercomputing centers, we find that mathematical and physical scientists consume over 50% of the cycles.

We also know from experience that the most promising technologies and their most productive uses often originate with physics and physicists. The World Wide Web has its roots at CERN. And, the forerunner of Netscape--Mosaic--was created at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois as a general purpose tool for all research fields.

The physics e-print archive at Los Alamos funded by NSF has laid the foundation for the digital libraries now being established around the country.

Physicists at Cornell's Electron Storage Ring--CESR to most of us--needed a way to collect and distribute huge amounts of data in real time, which has led to pathbreaking work on fault-tolerant systems.

The AMANDA project based here at UW will also push the technology envelope in such areas as remote observation and developing algorithms for data reduction. You should all bear in mind that there are no T3 lines to the South Pole. We have to rely on aging satellites with transmission speeds measurable in kilobits per second. That creates the need for data reduction techniques and filters that do not exist today.

The list just goes on and on, and broadens to technologies in many other areas. Physics will undoubtedly continue to push the technological state-of-the-art in pursuit of best research and most challenging problems. Today, however, we need to exercise new leadership to forge links with other fields to speed and smooth our society's entrance into the information age.

Wisconsin in my mind is a natural place to catalyze these complex connections. This campus is home to much of the world's very best science and engineering, and you have the added advantage of housing the National Institute for Science Education as well. (By the way--be sure to have a look at the Institute's Web magazine called "Why Files"--very impressive.)

NSF established the Institute specifically to bring together faculty and students from different fields in order to push the boundaries of teaching and learning and mathematics and science. It seemed to be a natural fit with Wisconsin's excellence in research and education generally, and I encourage all of you to share your ideas with Denice Denton and others at the Institute.

Before we go to Q/A, let me turn briefly to a somewhat sobering subject that makes clear why these connections are so important. In all my wild-eyed optimism and excitement about the state of research today (and I am optimistic and excited). I've not talked about the realities of the outlook for research funding.

When it comes to research funding, I often tell people the devil is not just in the details, it's in the totals. You may read about so-called "out-year projections" of NSF's or NASA's budget through the year 2002. They're not very good. Still--we don't place great currency in those projections, because those numbers are revisited every year by the President and the Congress, when they set the actual budgets for the year.

The aggregated totals projected for the major categories of Federal spending do deserve our attention, particularly the category known as domestic discretionary spending. This includes most of what we think of as the day-to-day running of the government -- parks, highways, prisons, NSF, NIH, NASA, most of DOE, NEA, NEH, EPA, DoED and scores of other programs and agencies. You might be surprised to learn that this category makes up less than 1/6th of the total Federal budget.

Even more surprising and of real concern is that this small slice of the pie is slated to bear a lion's share of the spending reductions needed to balance the budget. In fact, this 1/6th slice of the pie is expected to drop to 1/7th of the pie by 2002 according to most projections. That reflects a decline in purchasing power of some 20 percent.

Again, while we can't predict with any precision how this will affect NSF or any other agency, we do know that there will be increased competition for funds from this shrinking slice of the pie. We also know that for several decades, federal support for R&D has tracked very closely with total domestic discretionary spending.

It would be folly to ignore the real possibility that the federal investment in research, including that in universities, could decrease in real terms by 20% or more over the next 5 to 10 years if trends continue as they are now. In a way, this Nation is getting ready to carry out an experiment it has never run before to see if we can reduce the purchasing power of research investment by 20% and still be a world leader in the 21st century. That is a high risk experiment.

But before we let these dark clouds rain on our parade, let us remember that we are not helpless bystanders in this debate. When it comes to budgets and politics, the best advice comes from the great sage, Yogi Berra--"it ain't over until it's over." He also said "when you come to a fork in the road--take it"--So let's take it! My best advice to you to all of us is to reflect back on the stories and subplots I've shared today. It took the combination of different avenues of research to bring us the tantalizing possibility of ancient extraterrestrial life, just as the coalescing of different areas for science and engineering can create increased opportunities for all Americans in the information age.

These are two very different stories with very different subplots. Yet each holds the potential to revolutionize our society and our worldview in one way or another. Both also provide revealing insights about the future of science and our future course as a community. You may know many similar stories that convey the same powerful message about the value of research--in all fields of science and engineering--and the often unexpected benefits that flow to our society.

To close, I'd like to review four lessons these stories teach us about what is required for future progress and success in science and engineering:

I know that when one first examines my list, it appears that the first three items are under our control, while the fourth can seem well beyond our control. But, I would argue that all four are inseparably linked. In fact, I am convinced that if we demonstrate the leadership and initiative needed to fulfill the first three, then the nation will deliver on the fourth.

Thank you again for inviting me to join you today, and I look forward to your questions and comments.