Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Life on Mars

Phoenix has landed safely on Mars, to great exaltation. Now we're going to find out if there ever was life on Mars.

Why do we care so much?

Mind you, I don't object to scientific exploration for its own sake; we know a number of very useful and interesting things that we found out while just looking to see what was there. But we sent men to the Moon, and we've sent a number of exploring space craft to Mars, and we've landed three craft on Mars now, and the justification seems to be not, what does the place look like? but, is anybody else there?

So far, nobody else is there. I'll go farther and make a prediction, which the Phoenix team at JPL will be spending the next 10 years or so trying to disprove: nobody else ever was there. There has never been life on Mars. There certainly has never been our variety of life on Mars, the kind that's based on liquid water. And not on any of the other planets in this system either.

All our science fiction is based on the assumption that we're not alone. Writers have peopled "space" with a delightful and amazing population of "aliens", from Andre Norton's Zacathans to Larry Niven's K'zin to Anne McCaffrey's telepathic species and beyond (and I haven't read nearly as much sci-fi as some people), with one specification for all these unlikely creatures: we can talk to them.

Apparently, talking among ourselves isn't enough for us, despite the fact that we spend more time fighting each other than talking. Why would we think we'd do anything with "aliens" except fight them, given how we treat each other?

Based on the evidence I've seen, reading all the astronomy articles in Scientific American and other lay journals for 30 years, Ockham's Razor seems to imply that there isn't anyone else out there. We're asking these questions because of a long sequence of coincidences that produced a planet with enough water, and the right temperature range (most of the time), and the right chemicals, and so on, that over millions of years a mammalian species evolved which developed the ability to - ask questions.
(And before you bring it up, no, I don't buy the argument that God created all this in 4004 B.C.) Most of the planets we've been able to observe so far are prima facie unable to support life - wrong temperature range, not enough carbon or oxygen, etc. Most of the stars we've been able to observe are prima facie unable to support life - too big, too hot, too small, too cool. Stars like our sun are a minority. They aren't rare, there are just a lot of other types.

In other words, we are unique, and we are alone, and we'd better learn how to get along with each other, because there isn't anybody else out there to get along with. As the "mindfulness" people say, wherever you go, there you are.

But it fascinates me that we're so convinced that we aren't alone, that we spend really large amounts of money and time trying to find "them." Even if, in the case of Phoenix, the definition of "them" would be some evidence the Mars may have supported liquid water in which some kind of single-celled life form may have lived long enough to reproduce for awhile.

Whatever it was, if it was, I guarantee we wouldn't have been able to talk to it.

Why are we so desperate to find "them"?? Do we think they have Answers that we don't have? Or do we just think that if "they" can survive on a planet, then we could move in and take it over from them? (An unfortunate but likely supposition; and in the case of the current Mars, patently absurd.)

If you really want to contemplate "life on Mars," go read Edgar Rice Burroughs' wonderful Mars series: John Carter, Warlord of Mars. They're great.


  1. I'm inclined to agree with your points here 100%, with the following caveats:

    1) As James Burke, the author of that PBS documentary called Connections remarked over and over again--it was the dominant thread, really, of his whole program--that technological progress is a hit or miss affair, but the most dramatic leaps forward are the result either of mistakes, or of facilitations that occur unintentionally, as a result of trying hard to do something unrelated. He cited hundreds of such instances in his narrative. The space race, and our ventures into space for scientific exploration, have resulted in a number of new discoveries, which would NOT EVER have happened had we not been venturing out and trying to solve these related problems. This is a side benefit of scientific research, and may be of greater value than the solution to what we usually think is the main purpose of our efforts. Trying to clone animals may eventually help in curing genetic diseases, for instance. Not necessarily, of course--but that's the point, we can't predict what ancillary benefits may result. That, of course, does not justify the enormous price-tags for such effort(s). But it does seem to make more sense to conduct modest space exploration, than to make pointless wars against ideological enemies on earth. Beyond Mars, there is no current trend of probable technological facility that promises to enable us to get anywhere beyond our immediate solar system; if there's no life on Mars, we can pretty well pack it up and wait a few hundred years until our science invents a time machine. That's also how I feel about atomic energy. Given the current state of our knowledge about nuclear fission, we shouldn't be relying on it to produce electricity, until we have solved the problem of nuclear waste. DItto with coal. It is quite likely that these two dangerous technologies can be of use to us, but we need patience: It might be another 50 years before science can run a "fusion" version of nuclear power, or until we can "scrub" coal burning to eliminate the carbon pollution. We should wait until we're ready to do it right.

    2) Given the multiplicity and distances of the known universe, there is little doubt, given the law of averages, that conditions nearly identical to those which obtain on our planet, have existed, do exist, and will exist again, somewhere among these millions of galaxies. The obvious problem is that without a way of overcoming these distances, and the time they imply, we're not in a position to find them, much less visit them. Therefore, we'll have to content ourselves with fantasies about what they may look like, and what our encounters might be like. Presuming an alien technology sufficient to overcome the existing limits is also not out of the question, but the likelihood of this other species of being locating us, out of the myriad numbers and distances, approaches mathematical absurdity. Given this, I'm confident that "we're not alone"--but my guess is that earth's creatures will be long gone before anyone "discovers" us. By the same token, we may only be one of millions of such limited examples of animate matter, most of which have lived and died and are long gone.

    That's the weird part. Everything we see in the universe is already millions of years behind us. What we're seeing is literally so far in the past, it precedes the appearance of our own planet, not to speak of events that have transpired on it.

    Time and space dwarf us. We have no conception how insignificant we are. How tiny is a neutrino? We're so small a thing in the universe, we simply don't count. That's humility on a grand, er...miniature scale.

  2. Boggart7:50 PM

    Curtis, thumbs up! And yes, I read David Weber, and John Ringo, and some of the rest as well, but I don't think we'll really get there anytime soon. As you said, wherever there is.

  3. Anonymous9:21 PM

    I am intrigued by wondering about whatever the hell is, wherever and whenever it is, was, or might be. But I have found myself troubled by speculation that included going somewhere else in spaceships to get away. I think it is becoming more and more apparent that we had better get it as right as possible here, because for human life, and all the rest of the extant life on earth, this is it, period. We will survive or disappear here, not somewhere else.

    I was a big fan of Star Trek when it first aired (I was in college), but mostly because of the issues for humankind raised in the story lines, and I used to get angry at the end when they would stop short of where the story line should have led, presumably so they could keep as much of the "centrist" audience as possible.

    I enjoyed the imaginative appeal of the series, just as I enjoy all sorts of imaginative literature, including science fiction. And I am a fan of scientific exploration and inquiry for its own sake, because I do believe that one of the raisons d'etre is to learn things until rigor mortis.

    But an obsessive quest for signs of life on Mars does seem to me to be misguided. Simply exploring everything we can reach because it seems to me to contribute to the pleasure of existence and the evolution of the human mind really appeals to me.

    A misguided quest for an answer to a question there is little reason to ask is a different story. And Bush's reason for going to Mars is reprehensible. He wants the US to control space militarily. Luckily Democrats in Congress have different ideas.

    Anonymous David

  4. Boggart5:57 AM

    However, once we get "out there," assuming we do get "out there," the military will be right there, too. We have territorial waters off individual countries. It will happen in space as well. No matter what we do or where we go, we take ourselves with us.

  5. Anonymous2:32 PM

    Good point, boggart. All too true.

    Anonymous David

  6. It was pretty exciting to see the photos today of the ice at the bottom of a trench dug by pathfinder.

    I'm generally a small-government libertarian, but I'm totally supportive of funding scientific research and space exploration in particular. It is amazing that we went to the moon and haven't gone father for almost 40 years.

  7. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Hard to argue with the excitement of scientific exploration.

    Anonymous David