Always look on the bright side of (martian) life…

Right, I’m going to have a personal rant here. I’m giving you all fair warning, so if you’re only here for the pretty pictures, or the science, this might not be the post for you. But hey, it’s my blog, something’s bugging me, and I need to vent, so stay and read on, or click that little red box with a cross in it up at the top right there and go, it’s up to you. :-)

Ok.

There’s a lot of what’s now called “internet buzz” about the imminent announcement from the MSL team about whatever the hell it is that they have or haven’t found in the dust samples scooped up, eaten and analysed by by the rover. And while some space bloggers and writers have been going absolutely gaga over the story, insisting that NASA is about to announce the discovery of anything from traces of martian amino acids to the actual dried up, fossilised bodies of martian critters, quite rightly, serious science journalists have been covering the story rather more responsibly, urging caution, suggesting everyone calm down and just wait for the MSL team to tell us what they’ve found. Which I agree with, and support, totally.

But

It seems to me there’s now an undercurrent of hostility towards the story, and some people are now going too far the other way. Waaaay too far. It’s gone from sensibly urging caution and patience, to dismissing or even mocking the science results before they’re even announced to the world. This is wrong, very unfair, and very disrespectful to the MSL science team too. They can’t win, can they? If they had told everyone what they *thought* they *might* have found right away, without waiting for confirmation, they’d have been ripped to pieces by the media and the scientific community alike. They’re now being criticised for holding on to the story until they’re sure what they’ve got, and for revealing their findings at a major international science conference instead of to a few bored-looking journalists at a hastily-arranged JPL media conference. Give me a break. Give THEM a break.

So, what has MLS found? We don’t know. The smart money is going on the discovery of organics, which – despite what some grinches will tell you – will be an important step towards answering the question of life on Mars, past or present. But some commentators and bloggers are now treating the SAM discovery with derision even before it’s announced, and downplaying the significance of the discovery of organics, and sneering at the whole idea of life on Mars.

This isn’t a new thing. Anyone speaking or writing about “Life on Mars” now faces hostility from many sides. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the whole ALH84001 thing, when Clinton stood on the Whitehouse lawn and said what he said. Or maybe it was the methane thing, or the repeated “historic discovery” of water on Mars by one orbiter after another. But somewhere along the line it became fashionable and trendy to look down on martian astrobiology, and on those who are interested in it and passionate about it.

So, while many people are unmoved by the imminent science conference announcement, and some are actually looking forward to it being over so things can “get back to normal”, I’m counting the days, and will count the hours and minutes, until it’s made and we all know what’s going on because I find it incredibly exciting and inspiring.

Why? Simple. They’ve found Something. We don’t know what that Something is, but it’s Something, Something exciting enough to get scientist John Grotzinger excited enough to describe it, wisely or not, as “Earth-shaking”*. That was, perhaps, a poor choice of words, because it led to this blood-soaked cyber feeding frenzy of rumour and guesswork, but I personally think it’s fantastic that a serious, cautious scientist has been so excited by something he’s found, after many years of hard work, that he maybe let his emotions get the better of him for an unguarded moment and let out the beaker equivalent of a clenched fist “Look at that! Yes! get IN there!” Whatever he’s found it’s got him excited, and that means I”m excited too.

* (UPDATE: since writing this post it’s become clear – and has been pointed out to me by several people too – that John never actually used the term “Earth-shaking, it was the NPR journalist who said that. I’m happy to make that correction here, and want to acknowledge my own mistake in this rather than just change the post. )

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here thinking “They’ve found life on Mars! Woo hoo!!!” I know that they haven’t, because 1) MSL isn’t designed to actually do that, and 2) such a discovery could not, in this modern age, be kept secret, it just couldn’t. Word would get out. And I know that this “discovery” isn’t going to change the world, or herald a new scientific age, but it’s still an amazing thing, and we should be celebrating it more, not shrugging our shoulders with a grumpy “huh”.

Think about it, just take a moment to backtrack and think about it. We designed and built a nuclear powered rover, hurled it away from Earth on the top of what was basically a very long bomb, landed it safely on a hostile alien world using untried technology, drove it away from its landing site to an area of rich geology mapped by *another* amazing spacecraft orbiting that alien world, made it scoop up and eat martian dust, and then an unbelievably complicated and advanced laboratory cocooned inside the rover found something exciting in that dust. When the hell did we start taking that for granted? When the hell did we start looking down on, or ridiculing, that? I can’t get my head around it.

Ok, so MSL hasn’t found the dried up husks of martian critters in its dusty snack, and it hasn’t coughed up the gritty remains of the fossilis of Barsoomian bugs, but if it’s detected organics of any kind in that soil sample, simple or complicated, native or incomers from meteorites, after we’ve been hunting for them for all this time, after Viking’s infamously inconclusive results, after the tragic loss of Beagle 2, that’s incredible, an astounding achievement, and another piece in the puzzle of the existence of life on Mars.

Yes, I said it – Life on Mars. Oops, I said it again, see? I hope that didn’t offend anyone. I know that “life” has somehow become a four letter word to some scientists and writers, an obscenity almost, and even a casual mention of it in an article or blog post about Mars is about as welcome  as dog dirt on a wedding dress, but I just wish people would be honest about it. Come on! For all the noble words about ‘advancing science’ and ‘adding to Mankind’s knowledge’, we’re not spending all this money going to Mars to “ooh!” and “aah!” over the rusty red rocks and the windblown dirt’; we’re not investing all this time on collecting enough  data to allow us to accurately model the weather systems; the scientists aren’t dedicating their careers and their lives to finding out how cold it is after sunset. No. It’s all, all of it, being done to see if there is life on Mars now, or ever was life there, and to help us plan for taking life there in the future – us. People.

So yes, I’m looking forward to The Announcement, whatever it is, because it’s new science, from Mars, which is incredible in itself, but even more incredible when you consider the bigger picture, the higher goal – the search for extraterrestrial life. Whatever John Grotzinger tells us when he takes the stage on Dec 4th, I’ll celebrate, because he and his team deserve to have their work celebrated, and because we’ll be a little closer – maybe just a very little closer, maybe just a single step closer – to the day when we learn if Mars had, or still has, life.

You see, I want to know, I NEED to know, if there’s life Out There. It’s one of my passions, one of my personal beliefs, and has been ever since I was knee high to R2D2. The possibility of extraterrestrial life fascinates, intrigues and inflames me, in my core. That might sound sappy, or naive, but that’s just the way it is. It’s part of me. I’m 47 now (WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?), and my adult passion for space exploration and astronomy manifests itself in computers, magazines, telescopes and cameras. I blog about it. I spend hours making pictures from raw images sent back by Opportunity and Curiosity. I download .pdf  files of scientific papers and books and read them on my phone in my breaks. I give talks to schoolkids and community groups, standing at the front of modern classrooms or damp church halls, ‘spreading the word’ about space. It’s all distressingly grown up.

But

Inside I’m still the same space mad kid who fell in love with the universe before he’d even learned how to ride a bike. I’m still the same 7 year old who sneaked back into school in breaktimes to hide in the library, reading the astronomy sections of the science books while everyone else ran around the playground outside, shouting and screaming. In *here* I’m still the same kid who was given a telescope for Christmas by his ever tolerant and supportive mum, and who felt his heart almost jump out of his chest when he looked at Mars through it for the first time, seeing its tiny, Spangle-orange disc shimmering in the eyepiece on a frosty December night, wondering if that dark, almost-not-there shark tooth shape on the disc was Syrtis Major, and if the white dot at the top of the disc actually was its polar cap. I’m still the same teenager who sat glued to the TV watching “COSMOS”, and feeling something shift inside me, Carl Sagan’s vision and poetry triggering an emotional earthquake inside of me which I’ve never recovered from, and hope I never do.

So, ok, no life on Mars. Fine. But it’s Something, Something New, so let’s try to drop the cynicism and embrace the moment, shall we? Because this is an amazing time to be alive, and we should enjoy every minute of it.

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11 thoughts on “Always look on the bright side of (martian) life…

  1. Birgit says:

    Yes Stu, my sentiments exactly , so let it be written. I hope, the Martian has Life for long, long Time.

  2. Jon says:

    So say we all ;)

  3. Paul Scott Anderson says:

    Well said, Stu. :-)

  4. James Adams says:

    I’m 57. I remember being on the playground at school in 2nd grade listening to my transitor radio on the progress of a manned Mercury flight. I remember sitting in my grandparents living room watching the grainy image of Neil Armstrong on the freaking moon! I was up and watching on-line when Curiosity landed. I cried. If they have found organics on Mars, I’ll be more than satisfied. Curiosity has achieved one of it’s goals. What a marvelous machine. I don’t want to take my last breath on this earth not knowing if there is life elsewhere, and finding organics is a great first step.

  5. ted says:

    Stu…very very well said my friend.
    The only thing I am excited about is usually NASA scientists don’t make comments like he did which means its probably a big discovery. And yes they are right to do their due diligence and announce it within scientific protocols…otherwise we will all be relegated to a world where pseudo science is touted as fact and innuendo and agenda rules the day read: all the incessant conspiracy websites and aliens have invaded us web sites and cover up web sites blah blah blah.
    Nicely written here STU and NICELY said. Bravo.

  6. Jeff says:

    Echoing Jon – “So say we all”

    Well done, Stu.

  7. Anne says:

    This post makes me happy. Yes, I want my country’s scientists to be careful and cautious and practice excellent science – but I also want y’all to be in love with what you’re doing, and this post reminds me that you are. Very cool indeed.

  8. Kevin says:

    I found my way here thanks to Scott Maxwell, someone I follow on Twitter. While always fascinated by space, other worlds, etc, I sadly did not end up in a career geared towards it, so I’m more of a couch astronomer, living vicariously through those out there who get to do it.

    Years ago, I read articles, and watched videos, detailing our accomplishment of landing a set of roaming, rolling rovers on Mars.
    Over the past several years, I’ve taken the time to watch Nasa broadcast the shuttle launches, even sneaking and doing it at work when it wouldn’t be on my off time. With that same fascination and childlike excitement you describe, I watched us humans, frail and mortal as we can be, reach for the stars, and defy what people a mere 100 years ago would have thought impossible.

    It was with those same feelings that i sat at my computer, nearly 4 months ago, determined this time to not simply read about a major event, and watched JPL, including Mohawk Guy, land this life sized, nuclear powered piece of science awesomeness on a planet that, while our neighbor, is still very far away. I smiled and laughed as the first picture came in, and a second round of excitement and joy went through the room. Many months and 7 minutes of terror behind them, the rest was the fun part.

    So when I heard about Curiosity having made a discovery, I became excited. Could it be life? Could it be proof of life? Could it be something that would make sending humans there a lot more viable? (And on a joking note, was it twinkies?!?!) I wondered, and the Twitterverse wondered, and the web wondered. Then I began to see exactly what you are talking about.

    First it was the grumbling “It better not be another discovery of water” and then it was “It is probably something stupid, something 2.5 billing dollars wasn’t needed to find” etc. Like you, I could understand that, maybe “One for the history books” was a bad choice of words, but I highly doubted it would have evoked that kind of reaction from the scientists if it was more discovering of water.

    I waited, and now that I know the date, I will wait, like you, counting down when we get to find out what was found. Because even if it is just a step, even if it is just something small that was discovered, it paves the way for thought, and dreams. People like myself, couch astronomers and enthusiasts, we still think, and we still dream. And people like those at JPL, MSL, and others, who do what they do, are the ones that allow us to dream. It saddens me that some people out there, just can’t appreciate the awesomeness, the sheer magnitude of what it means, to get a discovery from a rover on mars. Has our society become so used to technology, that it can’t be wowed anymore, unless by ships full of Greys landing on the white house front lawn saying “We come in peace?” Even then, I fear, the twitterverse would likely have it listed low on the list of trending topics, below “#BeibersNewHair” “#SheWoreWhat” and “#ImSoBoredRightNow” *Shakes his head*

  9. markadler says:

    John never said “earth-shaking”. It was the reporter (Palca) who said that, and then John was mis-quoted as saying “earth-shaking” by other journalists.

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