2016 : WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT [SCIENTIFIC] NEWS? WHAT MAKES IT IMPORTANT?

Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration, Director of Research, Harvard Business School; Co-author (with Elizabeth Dunn), Happy Money
There Is (Already) Life On Mars

This year, members of the Mashco-Piro tribe—previously viewed as one of the few remaining "uncontacted" peoples—emerged to make increasing contact with the outside world. But this was less than a heart-warming story: as is so often the case with such contact, members of the tribe were vulnerable to unfamiliar diseases such as influenza. These active efforts to become "contacted" create a problem for countries like Brazil which have initiated far-sighted "no contact" policies to allow such tribes to choose seclusion. As José Carlos Meirelles, an Indian protection agent in Brazil, put it: "If they are seeking contact, we must welcome them in the best manner possible. We must take care of their health, block out the boundaries of their territory, give them some time to adjust to the madness of our world."

This year, we also learned more about the role of Catharine Conley, "planetary protection officer" at NASA, who has the job not of finding life on Mars but of protecting Mars from life on Earth. Scientists agree that life exists on Mars, if only in the form of microbes from Earth that took an accidental interplanetary ride. Despite the best efforts of NASA—which include sterilizing and sometimes even baking spacecraft—some life slips through. Much like the "no contact" policies for uncontacted peoples, NASA has protocols that keep rovers on Mars far from "special regions" where bacteria from Earth might thrive.

But, what happens when life on Mars chooses not to wait? All of recorded history shows that life tends to find life—or more likely in this case, lichens tend to find lichens. Surely we should apply the lessons learned from centuries of genocide (accidental and intentional) of indigenous peoples on this planet to nascent forms of life on Mars. "If they are seeking contact, we must welcome them in the best manner possible. We must take care of their health, block out the boundaries of their territory, give them some time to adjust to the madness of our world."