Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity on Mars

I just watched Curiosity land on Mars. Did you? The excitement in the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA was contagious. Mars is a long way away, by Earth standards, and it appears everything went as hoped.

As usual, I was thinking too much as I watched. All my life my mom has told me I think too much, so this is no exception.

Curiosity. What a perfect name for a vehicle that travels through space to another planet, manages to land in spite of great odds, and starts sending back photos of its own shadow almost immediately. That's our little space rover.

It's just one example of the really fucking amazing things humans have done. We are seriously smart, capable, persistent, courageous beings. The progress we've made in the past 100 years is almost unbelievable. Doctors do surgery on babies in utero and take gall bladders out through a straw. Scientists find particles so tiny we can't see them -- only where they've been. We've cloned a sheep. The entire planet is connected through the internet. Some guy carves sculptures in pencil leads. Walking on the moon is old news. I could sit here all night and list the impossible things humans have done and will probably do in the future.

Dalton Ghetti pencil-lead sculptures
We are amazing.

And yet also this week I read that the ice sheets in Greenland suddenly turned to slush in only 4 days. The polar ice caps are in the same shape. That scares me. I saw Waterworld at least 3 times. It wasn't pretty. And we watch in sorrow as many species that share the planet with us either pass into extinction or hover on the brink. AIDS continues to ravage populations all over the world. We still smoke cigarettes, eat high fructose corn syrup, and watch Kim Kardashian on TV. We argue about whether gay people should be allowed to marry and whether to eat fast food chicken while children starve right under our noses. I could sit here all night and list all the fucked up things humans have done and will probably do in the future.

I can't tell where we're headed, how the scales will tip: utopia or dystopia. We're like little kids playing with a magnifying glass: sometimes our curiosity leads us to an impossibly tiny world that's beyond the perception of our eyes. And sometimes we just sit around and fry ants on the sidewalk.

So we're looking for life on Mars. I have to wonder: What if our looking affects the outcome? How much junk have we left up there so far? Will anything we find there save our polar ice caps? What if there really are martians?

From Mars Attack

I don't have answers. I rarely do. This shit gives me existential angst, so I focus on whining about rude people on the bike path instead of the sheet of slush that is now Greenland. The size of the universe and the relative smallness -- no, the relative insignificance-- of our lovely blue planet ..... of us ... It all makes these things seem unimportant. And yet, at the same time, it makes us seem so very important.

What if we really are the only ones out there in all that vastness? What do you think? Are we?


  1. I would be amazed if we were the only intelligent (sorta) beings in this vast place, but, if we are not alone, where are the others?

    1. It's a really big universe. The likelihood that we would find each other is in the realm of impossible. We've only recently been able to see planets other than those in our solar system -- or at least the impression of other planets. Any intelligent beings who had the technology to both find and get to us probably wouldn't recognize us as intelligent.

  2. I am torn. I think it is important to learn and advance science, but lately I keep hearing about the debt, the needs of our citizens and the money could do so much good here on earth. It is very exciting to watch and I am amazed by their accomplishments. I would like to think we are not the only ones here..

    1. One thing I remind myself is that the technology that comes out of NASA often has far-reaching applications in other fields of science. There's an exhibit at the US Air Force Museum about all the common inventions that came out of research and development for NASA and other manned flight organizations.

      But I too am conflicted, Winnie. Nothing is simple.