LETTERS: Funding for science found on Mars?

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The Independent Online
Sir: What a relief to see Charles Arthur spoil the sport of those Martian enthusiasts ("Let the Martians come to us", 9 August).

I am an astronomer, and while my kind may enjoy greater public appeal than most other scientists (no mice, no BSE, lots of big colour pictures) we do get embarrassingly expensive at times. Whenever some $1bn extravagance winds up in the swamp, I find myself furtively avoiding those colleagues across the road in life sciences who are struggling for rat feed and wretched for a week if they crack a Pyrex flask.

However, Mr Arthur is unjust to paint us all as rabid alien-hunting trekkies: if there really are fossils on Mars, this discovery is as important to those unravelling life on Earth as it is to those who seek (or fear) it elsewhere. One of the great frustrations to those many scientific disciplines concerned with the origin and evolution of life on Earth is want of a comparison: we have, as yet, only one example of a life strategy and so it becomes terribly difficult to isolate those features of it which are indispensable and those which are not (could, for instance, some other system replace our genetic code?). To uncover an independent fossil record - or better, genetic code - would have fantastic impact upon many fields of research. But it is here that I must praise Mr Arthur for bringing us humbly back to Earth: we simply do not have the technological ability to usefully (let alone economically) mine for Martian fossils. There is plenty of work to be getting on with down here (which could do with some of that nice Martian money) even if it is not so glamorous or photogenic as a trip to Mars.

JUSTINE KELLER

Glasgow

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