Paul Andersen: What Earthlings will learn from Mars
The words being written about the Mars rover “Perseverance” are excitingly prophetic and beautifully poetic. The allure of space and planetary explorations create moods of great expectations about the unknown vastness we confront in the cosmos.
“Three-and-a-half billion years ago,” speculates science writer Dennis Overbye in the New York Times, “waves splashed and streams surged across this dusty expanse on Mars now known as Jezero Crater. On a nascent Earth, chemistry was coagulating toward the exalted state we call life.”
Mars is of particular interest because of its nearness to Earth and the evidence of possible life there. This liberates the imagination to conjuring game changing extraterrestrial links.
Overbye poses a question astronomers, philosophers and science fiction writers have long wondered: “Whether nature ran the same experiment there as on Earth. Was Mars another test tube for Darwinian evolution?”
And if so, whatever truncated the Darwinian progression on the barren Martian landscape hopefully won’t happen here on Earth. This is heady stuff for earthbound mortals who may be on the verge of discovering a linkage to life beyond our home planet.
The science of space now takes on a sense of mysticism for penetrating the dim secrets of the cosmos by shedding light on understanding through the illumination of technology.
Some argue that reaching for the stars is a mistake, that our first need is to focus our attentions on the here and now of Earthly priorities. But if life on our green/blue planet came from elsewhere, there’s no mistaking the importance of reinterpreting our genesis.
“No longer will you be laughed out of biology class for speculating that life actually evolved on Mars first and drifted to Earth on a meteorite,” suggests Overbye, “or that both planets were seeded with microbes or proto-life from somewhere even farther way.”
This may be unsettling for those who base their faith in scripture. If earthly life can be traced to Mars, what does that say about the Judeo-Christian creation story? “How many things have been denied one day,” pointed out Jules Verne, “only to become realities the next!”
Human genesis is a lingering question that demands a probe into the unknown mysteries that surround us, mysteries uncovered perhaps by a glorified dune buggy on Mars.
“So,” Overbye writes, “humans have sent their progeny across time and 300 million miles of space in search of long-lost relatives, ancient roots of a family tree that might be traced in the Red Planet’s soil.”
The rocks collected by Perseverance on the surface of Mars may bring haunting revelations. Overbye writes that these samples, which will return to earth starting in 2031, “will be scrutinized for years, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, for what they might say about the hidden history of our lost twin and, perhaps, the earliest days of life in the solar system.”
Reflecting on these mind-spinning possibilities, I asked my wife at breakfast last week what she thinks the rover will discover on Mars. After rubbing the sleep from her eyes and having a sip of coffee, she gazed at me and said, “dust.”
Hmmm, I replied, spooning up a bite of oatmeal.
“And what do you think the rover will discover out there?” she asked.
Hmmm … that Earth is an irreplaceable and beautiful planet. That Earth is the one home of humanity and of all life, as we know it. That Earth is invaluable and precious and contains all that’s essential to appreciating human existence and that all of this may be found in dust.
“When I orbited the Earth in a spaceship,” reflected Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, “I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is. Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it!”
Similar sentiments have been shared by other space travelers, evidence of the deep impact of a rare vantage as humans become outsiders looking back in.
Elon Musk says he wants to put people on Mars. If they are like Gagarin, these future travelers will, upon their return to Earth, vow never again to leave a haven whose atmosphere shields the life-sustaining biosphere to which we owe everything.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.