Tuesday, Aug. 13, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
NOT SINCE Victorian astronomer Percival Lowell discovered the Martian canals have scientists -- and the media -- been so crazed about the prospect of life on the Red Planet.
"Life on other planets?" banner headlines suggest.
We hear the question over and over until it sounds as monotonous as the scratchy recordings of radio signals that early 20th-century researcher Nikola Tesla swore came from Mars.
The reason for all the excitement: a potato-size Martian rock that was chipped away when an asteroid collided with the Red Planet 160 million years ago.
The rock, after floating around in space since the time of the dinosaurs, eventually got sucked in by the Earth's gravitational pull.
And when our modern-day eggheads studied the strange Martian potato, they find hydrocarbons (found in living things) and microscopic shapes that resemble fossils.
Have we really found evidence of life on other planets?
And if there is life on Mars, does that mean there is intelligence elsewhere in the universe?
I decided to find out for myself.
First I stopped by the Aztec Casino, in the shadow of the Stratosphere on Las Vegas Boulevard North, to ask Darrin Race, a local Elvis impersonator, whether he thinks there is intelligent life on other planets.
But Darrin was not available. He was changing into his white fringe jumpsuit and practicing his newest number, "Kissin' Cousins."
Undaunted, I searched for Francis, another Elvis impersonator who usually works Dini's by the Sea in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego.
"I'm looking for Francis," I asked a bar patron.
"Who's he?" the patron replied.
"He's an Elvis impersonator. But he doesn't dress like Elvis. He wears slacks and a nice sports shirt. That's 'cause he dresses like Francis."
The bar patron stared at me as if I were from another planet, so I headed back to Las Vegas.
Upon my return, I stopped by a gentlemen's topless cabaret, and I asked some of the intoxicated gentlemen who were nimbly slipping dollar bills under the elastic straps of a dancer's garters if they think there's intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
"Sure, but do they dance?" a bleary-eyed gentleman responded.
Finally, I stopped by a casino coffee shop, took a seat at the counter and listened to the sound of middle-aged women forever dropping their hard-earned quarters in brutally cold slot machines.
I asked a waitress if she thinks there is intelligent life on other planets.
"You'd have to prove it to me," she said as she poured me a cup of coffee.
Then she asked if I would mind sliding over to another seat.
"Elvis always comes in around this time, and you're sitting on his favorite stool -- the one in front of the jelly doughnuts."