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Published: Friday, 11/30/2012

News from red planet puts us on red alert

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

And with that comment to a NPR science reporter, a NASA scientist set off a flurry of media and Internet speculation about what the Mars probe Curiosity recently discovered while digging just beneath the planet’s cold desert surface.

Methane gas? Traces of water?

Either of those would be big discoveries, of course, but hardly “one for the history books” considering scientists have speculated for a while that methane and water are on the planet.

My hopes — no doubt tainted by my own dreams — are that for the announcement to be truly worthy of history, it must mean that we’ve discovered evidence of life on Mars: meaning a fossil or current microscopic life. A distant second to that would be the discovery of the building blocks of life.

NASA has since backed off the implied magnitude of its discovery, saying Monday’s news conference will be “interesting” rather than “earthshaking.” Naturally, there will be those who believe the space agency found evidence of life on Mars, and now is being forced to cover it up because we humans simply couldn’t deal with the truth that we are not alone in the universe.

Such a declaration, after all, would be the greatest discovery in human history to this point, followed closely by fire and air-conditioning.

This also would be almost guaranteed proof of other life forms in our galaxy. If life can exist in two separate planets in our meager solar system — not to mention the possibility of Saturn’s moon Titan — then how much more likely is it that living organisms can be found on billions and billions of planets?

And that is a true game changer.

But when, or if, we discover alien life, the news at home may not be received so favorably by everyone. As Carl Sagan posited in his novel Contact — and in its subsequent film adaptation — interactions with aliens could push some religious zealots to extremism and acts of terrorism. Consider it a defense mechanism to protect their belief that God couldn’t possibly have created life on another world other than Earth.

If NASA made the announcement Monday that it had discovered life on another planet, would there be similar protests to greet such news?

Or would such a history-making discovery of life on another planet fundamentally change us? Perhaps knowing we’re not alone in the inky void will unite us as a nation and a world to push beyond our celestial boundaries and, to quote the Star Trek mission statement, “to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Unfortunately, just as likely is that we would simply go about our business, and react to this monumental discovery with a shrug, as the major news is quickly consumed by the more pressing and routine concerns of troubles in the Middle East and struggling economies. Besides, how can alien microscopic life compare to lightsabers, laser blasters, transformers, and an eight-foot creature from another world that bleeds acid? Real-life science ain’t got nothin’ on Hollywood.

My fear is that it’s going to take a lot more than microscopic Martian life to impress us at this point in our development.

For a species capable of such big ideas and dreams, we can be rather small-minded in the face of giant discoveries.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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