Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.
Feynman could have been saying that about any of the sciences.
I have a personal obsession to study science in general, and space science in particular. This madness has been with me for as long as I can remember. I already felt it on September 12th, 1962, when, at the age of six, I saw President Kennedy on television, speaking as if directly to me. That was the day he committed America to literally reach for the Moon. I’ve never been the same. Neither has the rest of the world.
Logarchism is a political blog. What has my obsession with space to do with politics? I’ve written about this before. Politics, like science, sometimes gives practical results, but that’s not why we do it. Sure, practicality is the reason we give ourselves. Honestly though, how much of the rhetoric associated with politics, how much of the game playing and the issues that drive people to the polls, has actual practical value? Some, yes, but birth certificates? Seeing Russia? Really?
Many of these things serve other purposes. The real value of space science is not practical, unless learning about yourself, about reality, about how the universe actually works, is practical.
On August 6, less than three weeks from now, NASA’s latest mission to Mars is scheduled to attempt a landing there. The Curiosity rover — formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory — will go through a complex series of maneuvers that will bring its velocity from more than 13,000 miles per hour down to zero MPH, for a soft landing on another planet. And this will happen in about seven minutes. The whole thing needs to be entirely autonomous. That is, the craft has to land on Mars on its own, with no assistance from Earth. Mars is so far away at the moment it takes radio waves fourteen minutes to travel from there to here. If something goes wrong, we won’t even hear about it until fourteen minutes after it’s happened. By then, Curiosity will either have safely landed, or have fatally crashed, at least seven minutes earlier.
The rover is easily the largest and most complex to be sent to Mars. It’s about the size of a Mini Cooper — with a weather station, a robot arm, and a biochemical laboratory. All of it is cutting-edge technology.
There’s a practical benefit to think about. The technology to do something like this did not exist before the Mars Science Laboratory was designed and built. We now have new software capabilities, new biochemical medical advances, new robotic tech, and all of it specifically because of this mission.
But, like I said, that’s not why we do it.
The Curiosity Rover will land in Gale Crater, a part of Mars different from places we’ve put previous landers. Previous sites were chosen for ease of landing. Gale Crater was not. It was chosen for its geologic history, revealed by our earlier Mars orbiters. The processes that formed Gale Crater include not only meteor impact, but sediment layering from what is likely a truly ancient lake.
The previous landing sites were chosen because they are flat and dry and easy to set down on — rather like an arctic desert. Nothing could live there, and very likely, nothing ever has.
Gale Crater, on the other hand, could well have been a place where living things once thrived, perhaps a couple of billion years ago. The previous Mars landers were not designed to search for the remnants of life. Curiosity was. With this mission, we have a good chance of discovering whether life ever existed on Mars. We may learn how likely it is that Earth is home to the only living beings in the Universe.
The Universe is big. Really, really big. If we’re the only living things here, it’s an awful waste of space. If there is a god, then he (or she, or it, or them) is incredibly inefficient. And if there is no god, then we are an accident on a vastly Cosmic scale.
On the other hand, if two worlds within one tiny solar system — one system out of perhaps a hundred billion within our galaxy, which is one out of maybe a trillion galaxies — if two worlds out of the tiny sample we have available both have the capacity for life, then that virtually assures us that life not only exists, but is plentiful, throughout this unimaginably vast Cosmos.
Of what value is that knowledge, practical or otherwise? Will it affect job growth, or whether Iran gets The Bomb? Does it have anything to do with the price of gasoline, or with the next winner of American Idol? Does in impact the latest celebrity divorce?
It’s hard to say. Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect are topics for another time. For now: there is a direct impact on religious notions, on philosophical ideas, perhaps on the way we see ourselves. No one can deny that, for good or ill, religion impacts politics, nor that politics impacts daily life. If we truly had an understanding of the size of our universe, and of our place in it (are we unique, or are we common?), I find it hard to imagine this knowledge wouldn’t affect how we think about issues like global climate change or providing medical assistance to the poor. Do we risk destroying the only instance of life in the Universe? If not — do we want the rest of the Universe to know how truly stupid we are?
Maybe there will be “practical benefit” from reaching for the Stars. Maybe not. Personally, I don’t care. That’s not why we do it.
- NASA: Curiosity nears daring landing on Mars (wtvr.com)
- NASA’s free video game for Xbox Live: ‘Mars Rover Landing’ (+video) (csmonitor.com)
- The Xbox Kinect Will Satisfy Your ‘Curiosity’ About NASA’s New Rover (forbes.com)
- Nasa may not hear rover’s landing (bbc.co.uk)
- NASA’s Car-Sized Rover Nears Daring Landing on Mars (jpl.nasa.gov)