Monday, August 31, 2015

Answering rhetorical questions: Mars edition


I'm going with, signs the Internet has lost its mind. 

Though that's not entirely right. People have gone apecrap over alleged liferocks on Mars for a long time, at least since NASA first began landing leisure suit-clad spacecraft on its surface in the 1970s. I remember reading a NASA engineer's words in the 1990s that "not one of the rocks has gotten up and walked away." Or, as Charlie Sheen put it around the same time, "Looks like Arizona, tastes like chicken."

That doesn't mean I don't find Mars fascinating; I do. I'll never forget the first time I saw photos from the Red Planet, during a planetarium show in third grade. I couldn't believe they existed! Ever since then, they've continued to blow my mind, especially as the photo technology has gotten better.

I also believe in life on other planets. With the universe as infinite as it is, with all of its galaxies and solar systems, we cannot possibly be alone. Any solar system with a rock orbiting its parent star at Earth's distance is ripe for some macro-Petri business.

But here's the thing. 

Even if there is life on Mars, it's probably microbial. The planet's atmosphere is roughly 95 percent carbon dioxide and 2 percent nitrogen. It's also what astronomers refer to technically as "really freaking cold." And again, no one's ever captured any life in five decades of camerawork. Anything that does seem to suggest the presence of intelligent life — such as the Face on Mars — turns out to be a fluky trick of light.

Hoping for nearby extraterrestrial life is a lot like believing in any given conspiracy theory — it's sexy and exciting. You want to feel like there's something more than there is, and there's the additional kick of "knowing" something that someone allegedly wants covered up. Never mind that the evidence is circumstantial at best, and that you really have to want it to be true for it to make sense.

I get that. Reality is all too often less fanciful that we wish it was. We don't want to concede that Mars is inhospitable to any sentient life forms. We don't want to acknowledge that even if there is life on other planets, those planets are so far off our radar that we'll almost certainly never reach them. Hoping for life on Mars is our best bet to meet some space creatures, and we know it. Hence the persistent search for artisan rocks on the Red Planet.

Sorry to be a pooper. But did you see the awesome supermoon the other night? That was real!

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