Martian Organics 9/30/22

Science with Richard Bleil

Big news was recently reported by NASA, specifically that organics have been discovered on Mars.  This is a huge discovery.  Clearly, if there are organic compounds on Mars, that means that there must be, or must have been, life on Mars.


The Vitalism Theory tells us that organic compounds can only be made with the action of a living organism, hence the name “organic chemistry”.  Or, at least, that’s what it told us, until Friedrich Wohler create urea, an organic compound, from inorganic materials without the action of microbes.  This was the beginning of the end of the vitalism theory, and the theory was nearly completely abandoned by the nineteen twenties.  Today, a hundred years later, a dink by the name of Bleil is referencing the works of Wohler in a blog explaining that the presence of organic compounds does not mean there was ever life on Mars.

An organic compound is any compound that contains carbon and hydrogen.  Is it possible that organic compounds could be on Mars without life?  Well, the most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen, coming in at about seventy percent of all elements on earth.  Hydrogen is the fuel of the stars, including the sun, where nuclear fusion is converting the hydrogen to helium (the second most abundant element at roughly 28%).  The third most abundant element is oxygen, followed by carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe.  That means that organic compounds are any compounds made from two of the four most abundant elements in the universe.

I’m actually surprised that iron is not higher on the list.  As an aside, the iron nucleus is the most stable nucleus on the periodic chart.  I’ve often wondered how it is that both fusion (making larger elements from smaller) AND fission (making smaller elements from larger ones) both produce energy.  Thermodynamics tells us that this should not be the case, and the truth is that it is not.  Any elements LIGHTER than iron will produce energy via fusion, while any elements HEAVIER than iron produce energy via fission.  Iron, itself, does not produce energy either on fission or fusion because it’s so stable.

Anyway, the point is that you don’t have to have life to produce organic compounds, just carbon and hydrogen.  They never did release the specific names of what organic compounds were discovered on mars, although it looks as if they are aromatic sulfates.  A sulfate is a group containing sulfur and oxygen.  Aromatics are ring-like organic structures, which are highly stable, containing carbon and hydrogen. 

So is there life on Mars?  Well, I don’t know.  It sure is a romantic notion to assume that there is or was life on mars.  It’s been a favorite theme of science fiction for eons, but the presence of organic compounds does not indicate that there was.  I guess that I should mention that, to have organic compounds present on Mars, does imply that the elements necessary for life, at least as we know it, are at least present.  At some point on Earth, there was no life, but there were the necessary elements.  It’s been suggested that these elements and simple organic compounds that resulted were present in what is often referred to as the ”primordial ooze” when something happened to set in motion the events leading to life. 

Who knows, maybe that something was a probe from another planet carrying microorganisms to earth.

Often I’ve referred to carbon as nature’s “Legos”.  Most elements, when they bond to other elements of the same kind, that bond is very weak, and the compound is always unstable as a result.  For example, peroxides, that contain an oxygen-oxygen single bond are almost always shock-sensitive explosives.  They are so unstable because of that oxygen-oxygen single bond.  Carbon, on the other hand, is the exception to this bond.  Carbon-carbon single bonds are about as strong as single bonds between carbon and any other element.  This means that carbon can form compounds by bonding to itself, and since each carbon will form four bonds, that means that each carbon can bond up to four other carbons. 

These carbon chains can be very long.  For example, polymers can be dozens, hundreds or even thousands of carbon-carbon bonds long.  You body, even as you read this, has a protein that is about three hundred thousand bonds long.  So Mars clearly has carbon and hydrogen, and the carbon can form stable compounds that can potentially be very long, but they’re just compounds.  It doesn’t mean that the there is or has been life on mars.  Even amino acids, the building blocks of proteins necessary for life have been detected on meteorites.  My recommendation is that you let your imagination fly.  It’s fun and romantic, but don’t get your hopes up. 


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