|Jennifer Tucker: The Mars Curiosity rover and the long search for ET||
In 1907, Journal editors had surveyed readers and asked: "What has been in your opinion the most extraordinary event of the [previous] twelve months?" Readers chose "not the financial panic which is occupying our minds"—Wall Street had been rocked by bank runs and plummeting stocks—but instead voted for the "proof afforded by astronomical observations … that conscious, intelligent life exists upon the planet Mars."
Few today might make the similar claim that Curiosity's progress is distracting them from the world economic crisis or troubling recent events in the Middle East.
Yet the possibility that exploring Mars could yield answers to enduring questions about life on the planet drives the rover mission.
Whether or not life could be detected on other bodies in the universe was one of the first questions to which the telescope, invented around 1608, was applied.
Galileo (1564-1642) was skeptical, insisting that the view of those "who would put inhabitants on Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the moon, meaning by 'inhabitants' animals like ours, and men in particular" was "false and damnable." By contrast, the 17th-century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, speculated that "there are inhabitants not only on the moon but on Jupiter too," adding that in the future, "settlers from our species of man will not be lacking."
Extraterrestrials were hot copy during the 18th-century "Age of Reason," when seemingly every thinker—including Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Paine—had much to say on the subject.
Although Isaac Newton was circumspect on extraterrestrials, he too was interested in the question, and his student, Richard Bentley, became the first author to address extraterrestrial life within a Newtonian framework.
As the historian Michael Crowe notes, the founding documents of many religious movements are filled with references to extraterrestrials, including the New Church, developed from the writings of the Swedish scientist and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Intelligent life on Mars
To suppose that intelligent life existed on Mars seemed to many no more remote than that intelligent life flourished in other parts of Earth. In 1882 (one year after work on the Panama Canal began), the British popular-science writer Richard Proctor suggested that what appeared to be telescopic evidence of "canals" on Mars provided strong empirical evidence that Martians were building "large engineering works."
In 1905, the first Mars photographs were taken with the aid of a powerful mountaintop telescope at Lowell Observatory in what was then Arizona Territory, using special filters and a mechanism for recording many consecutive planetary images quickly during moments of good seeing. Percival Lowell, the Mars photographer, amateur astronomer and former U.S. envoy in Korea, famously declared that "canals" seen in the Mars photographs offered "objective proof" of the reality of the existence of intelligent life there. He also described the photos as "doubt-killing bullets from the planet of war."
H.G. Wells, author of "The War of the Worlds" (1898), professed that Lowell's book, "Mars and Its Canals," made a "very convincing" case "not only for the belief that Mars is habitable, but that it is inhabited by creatures of sufficient energy and engineering science to make canals beside which our greatest human achievements pale into insignificance."
An illustration accompanying Wells's 1908 article for Cosmopolitan, the "Things That Live on Mars," bolstered the popular association of Mars with scientific modernity, avant-garde graphic design and symbols of Darwinian sexual evolution—evoked, for example, by a Martian girl dressed in a chic dress and stylish headband.
Lowell and Wells ultimately failed in their attempts to establish the existence of life on the planet Mars. The markings that Lowell saw were later shown to be illusions created by craters and other natural surface features on Mars. But their success at exciting the public's scientific imagination about the natural history of Mars in a new age of photography and mass media was dramatic.
While watching Mars today might not be as entertaining as when people believed that humanlike creatures lived there, the Curiosity program still makes for a good show: The NASA flight director known as "Mohawk Guy" (Bobak Ferdowsi) has become an "Internet sensation," NASA officials wrote in an official statement. "His image has helped popularize the Mars rover mission with young people, and modernized the general public's perception of NASA engineers and scientists."
Today, scientific evidence of conditions for life on Mars remains elusive—but because of the historic Mars mission, there is now an unprecedented chance to investigate the planet's age, its history of water and other traces of habitability, how its geological features were formed, and the nature of any organic compounds that may be found near the surface.
Mars intrigues us not only as a new scientific frontier. Curiosity is also science as spectacle: an exciting time for modern science, and an extraordinary way to observe science in action—in history, and in our own time.
(Source: The Wall Street Journal)
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader