Wednesday, 8 August 2012

campus martius or thunderbirds are go

The successful landing of the Martian rover, Curiosity, is an outstandingly impressive accomplishment in itself, but the speculation and wonder to follow are to boast, I think, even bigger triumphs of the imagination and engineering. Despite all the creative practice that writers of fantasy and science-fiction have delivered over the decades, a wonderful range and vocabulary to describe what alien life might be like, the universe is still not granting to humans the license to be prepared or even to not overlook, not recognize it when it is there. It would be equally novel and significant, surely too, if there was no evidence of life, past or present.

 A full complement of sensors and gauges is there to divine for water and peer closely into the soil, after our own biases, and this array of equipment represents the best that technology can produce and ought to certainly find some trace and something unexpected. Not to discount the capacity for imagination and resourceful, but we’ve really nothing of precedent to compare this to—European explorers, perhaps, mistaking the Americas for the coasts of India or dinosaur fossils for dragons, other personifications and prejudices, and it’s hard to hold the human mind to any standard and disabuse anticipations. There may be no shadow or pale in evidence, a footprint or channel, visible, sequences and chemistries may not happen in human-sized time, and it could be a dreamy, escaping contagion, possessing or inspired, that do resemble the supremely unaccountable and unexplainable lunacies that are described in myth and lore and their modern incantations of magical-thinking or science-fiction, like the Colour Out of Space (DE) or the Andromeda Strain (DE). I also wonder about how scientific systems of classification might be re-enforced or upset: would a genus or family be a coherent and valid idea elsewhere? Would like kinds necessarily be present and identifiable, or only individuals or colonies? What would that do for our sense of order and predictability and want to catalogue and name things? Come what may, this mission promises discovery and may show that curiosity is insatiate.