Once again I am astonished to see credentialed scientists claiming to have found a significant paradigm-shifting signal among the noise of a chaotic and complex system. In this case, using the very issue of a pattern of complexity to draw a conclusion that a NASA experiment detected some form of extraterrestrial life on Mars.

As a bit of a background, let us consider the random and chaotic nature of clouds …


At one time or another, everyone has looked skyward to see a recognizable pattern in the clouds. But, the problem is that this recognition is an artifact produced by your brain attempting to resolve what you are seeing into some form of recognizable pattern so that you can further process the information. Does this mean that there is an elephant in the clouds or that there is any significant meaning to your sighting? Of course not.

Another example of this phenomenon can be gleaned from computer modeling experiments by Stephen Wolfram, the computational genius behind Mathematica. Wolfram found that simple computer instructions could, over time, create complex shapes which bore a remarkable resemblance to physical objects such as shells, leaves and other objects. Is this a computational artifact? Or is this the way nature actually works? Although the patterns are recognizable, do they somehow indicate that this is the basis for physical phenomena – especially when the information contained in the pattern reveals nothing about the underlying structure of the object or its essence.

Does this cellular automata example represent a virus, a galaxy or what?


Example of false conclusions from pattern recognition ...

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NASA Photo Captures Elephant on Mars

NASA has photographed an elephant on Mars.

Not really, but there's a striking resemblance.

The photo, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter , features terrain that looks like an elephant's eye and trunk.

"This is a good example of the phenomena 'pareidolia,' where we see things that aren't really there," University of Arizona planetary geologist Alfred McEwan wrote on the university's HiRISE website.

He wrote that the image shows a dried lava flow in Elysium Planitia, the youngest flood-lava province on Mars. (More)

 So is there life on MARS?

“Abstract: The only extraterrestrial life detection experiments ever conducted were the three which were components of the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars.”

“Of these, only the Labeled Release experiment obtained a clearly positive response. In this experiment 14C radiolabeled nutrient was added to the Mars soil samples. Active soils exhibited rapid, substantial gas release. The gas was probably CO2 and, possibly, other radiocarbon-containing gases.”

Overlooking the ethical questions of contaminating another planet with our spoor, what you have here is a chemical reaction between an external substance and its environment. Nothing more nor less.

Extrapolating to the clouds …

“We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data.”

“Measures of mathematical complexity permit deep analysis of data structure along continua including signal vs. noise, entropy vs. negentropy, periodicity vs. aperiodicity, order vs. disorder etc.”

“We have employed seven complexity variables, all derived from LR data, to show that Viking LR active responses can be distinguished from controls via cluster analysis and other multivariate techniques.”

“ Furthermore, Martian LR active response data cluster with known biological time series while the control data cluster with purely physical measures.”

Inconclusive at best, a plea for additional funding at worst … 

“We conclude that the complexity pattern seen in active experiments strongly suggests biology while the different pattern in the control responses is more likely to be non-biological. Control responses that exhibit relatively low initial order rapidly devolve into near-random noise, while the active experiments exhibit higher initial order which decays only slowly. This suggests a robust biological response.”

Looking at the cellular automata output that looks like a shell, a leaf, a virus, a volcano may be suggestive, but it is hardly conclusive and the degree of the unknown is so overwhelming as to make the supposition meaningless.

And the big finish: life on MARS …

“These analyses support the interpretation that the Viking LR experiment did detect extant microbial life on Mars.”

Supporting an interpretation is far from the results from recognizing and analyzing any known biological markers. To claim there is life on Mars using complexity analysis is tantamount to saying that the analysis of cloud data supports the interpretation that some life might be living a parallel existence in the clouds.

Bottom line …

This is one of those media-hyped findings based on computational artifacts that produces nothing tangible other than money to support institutions, personnel and projects.

Life on MARS remains an open question until some space vehicle can return with pristine and uncontaminated samples for analysis. Or a better laboratory vehicle can be dispatched.

I am not disparaging the individual scientists or their attempt to ascertain the truth; but I do fault the media types who breathlessly report that we may have found life on Mars. From a pure scientific inquiry it would be nice to know the answer about extraterrestrial life, but I suggest that the money spent on this type of space exploration would be better spent improving clean water systems and sanitation here on Earth. Dealing with microbes and disease rather than looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

I am further reminded that Nobel Laureate Dick Feynman used to say that if your experimental results were not Earth-shattering, map the data to the complex plane and look for computational anomalies.

-- steve

Reference Links:

Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments

Universality and complexity in cellular automata - Wolfram

Cellular Automata as a Model for Dynamic Leaf Structure

“The physical system of leaf expansion can be effectively simulated using the cellular automata method. The model developed in this study was able to accurately simulate the growth of leaves, by assigning numerical values to leaf properties. By appropriately selecting the precision of the step increment values, the calculated output can further be improved to reflect the natural leaf growth patterns.”

No leaves were hurt or produced in this experiment. – steve

“Nullius in verba.”-- take nobody's word for it!

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