Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Curiosity of Pipe Dreams
Life on Mars? Or, Life on Earth?

NBC News, 11th ‎August ‎2012: This week's arrival of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity set the stage for a potentially game-changing quest to learn whether the planet most like Earth ever had a shot at developing life, but follow-up missions exist only on drawing boards.

I sit late at night on the terrace off the sitting room of the top storey and gaze with curiosity up at the stars. The sky is so clear here where no city blurs the darkness with neon, so the heavens blaze with a thousand points of light. I point out to myself the recognisable luminescent clouds of burning gas and spinning rocks that humans named and have tracked for thousands of years.

There’s Saturn and twinkling beyond the edge of the crescent moon is Venus I think to myself, over there is Polaris beckoning me toward some distant location. Overhead are cloudy nebulae, tiny iridescent red giants and the streak of meteorites gathering wishes from lovers, though we know they are melting rock and ice burning through the atmosphere.

My pipe stands beside me, scenting the air with the aromatic fragrance of apple and honeydew, the water bubbling under hot coals, and I breathe in the dreams of infinity.

I’ve been accused of having the occasional pipe dream when I tell people my future plans, yet here I am. Most of those people are the type who never leave their hometown and expect their friends and family to do the same, for all time – as though their ancestors didn’t arrive from somewhere. Unfortunately, many grow old without experiencing the riches of other cultures first-hand and learning the independence and openness of mind that comes from frequent travel and living abroad. Do some people simply lack an innate sense of curiosity?

Are all forms of travel necessary to learn about the human condition? A few days ago I read an ‘open letter’ posted on Facebook that went like this: Dear religion, while you were arguing over which chicken sandwich it was okay to eat, I’ve landed on Mars. Yours, Science. What a load of rubbish. This intentionally antagonistic post is entirely misleading on several counts, and clearly written by someone whose lack of understanding in matters of theological debate is equal to their ignorance of science.

There isn’t a religion in the world arguing over which chicken sandwich is okay – for those that advocate giving up meat, chicken is simply off the menu, and for those that accept fowl eaters as part of their flock how chicken is cooked or served is of no relevance. Secondly, no one has landed on Mars. A camera landed on the surface and sent back photos of rocks and a rugged surface of what appear to be mountains – at extraordinary expense.

What if a person had touched down on the red planet? Does that disprove the notion of God? Not at all, for any God worthy of that title either created what exists beyond the firmament and is therefore independent of our trivial validation, or exists in some alternative realm that is not enslaved to the material, as we currently are. Does it fly in the face of religion? Well, only the most conceited and ridiculously obstinate forms of fundamentalist tripe that refuses to acknowledge allegory and metaphor as legitimate forms of truth and narrative.

A couple weeks ago Jeremy Paxman, a highly intelligent if somewhat arrogant television interviewer in the UK, got in a bit of bother when he said anyone who believes in the literal interpretation of the Genesis creation was “stupid”. Quite right Mr Paxman. However, anyone who doesn’t appreciate the marvellous imagery and symbol-laden telling of our origins with its revealed logic, veiled meaning and predictive sequence of events is also a fool and an imbecile. There is much to be learned about our sense of identity, and consequent to its importance in so many cultures over several millennia a whole host of subsequent literary and creative references to be found in this account (and throughout the entire volume of books we call the Bible) that anyone unfamiliar with the stories and tradition, poems and letters and myths and parables is lost to the world of art and ignorant in the revelation of history.

However, more importantly for the purposes of this post, what if people do visit Mars or any other planet? What good has come from the moon landing over 40 years ago? Teflon? Could the scientific advances made due to rocket-based space flight have come about by directing resources into more human-focused services? In what way has a person landing on the Moon changed life for the better?

Have we gained insight into the human condition or developed energy substitutes that free us from petrochemical dependence? No. Instead, we’ve now given up the shuttle program and resorted to missile based launches to throw inanimate machines into the void in hopes of capturing a photo for those who care about irrelevancies such as where in the universe there might be another planet with earth-like properties.

If we locate another potential life-sustaining rock spinning around a star somewhere on the other side of the Milky Way what knowledge will be gained? Oh look, two hundred million light years away is a probable planet that might possibly have some potential for life forms. Did we need to spend billions upon billions to acknowledge chance through ‘scientific’ corroboration? We will never be able to physically arrive at any planet orbiting a star many millions of light years away – certainly not in our lifetime, and not without entirely revising Einstein’s equations. Talk about pipe dreams!

I wonder whether modern astronomers are actually more enlightened than ancient astrologers from China or Greece. They have telescopes capable of seeing into the past – for that is what we see when we look to the sky at night – light from prehistoric suns, but what more have they taught us?

If a star is a million light years away that means it has taken a million years at the speed of light to reach earth. Given that it takes about 8 minutes for light to arrive on earth from our own sun, and it takes several days for our rockets just to reach the Moon, and Mars is but a stone’s throw in the vastness of space, just try to imagine how far away those stars are from us. Perhaps you’ll need a pipe to dream that far into the future, or rather, the past.

The ancients looked up to the sky and creatively connected the dots to give names to groups of stars; we still call these collections of twinkling lights the constellations. They didn’t really believe those stars were crabs and scorpions or winged horses and raging bulls, however, they recognised that giving semblance of order to those pinpoints of illumination enabled people to use the gift of imagination to better characterize understanding of relationship to these distant objects. Now we ‘discover’ new stars every day as we peer further into the void, and we number them or give them the name of their ‘discoverer’, and who remembers or cares about these practically invisible dots other than committed astronomers.

When I was a child I believed in space exploration and even built replica Apollo and Gemini rockets when that dream was so close to reality. (Though I wonder now about those landings: not the argument of conspiracy theorists on plastic flags, but rather the improbable physics of force of propulsion without resistance of atmosphere).

I’ve read both scientific journals and fantasy fiction on space travel and future development of colonies in distant places, seeing the human race as potentially space conquering beings whose future was among the stars.

Of course, I’d love the excitement of the solar system and black holes and all the other weird phenomena to capture the imagination of today’s youth the way my friends and I were captivated during the Apollo 11 mission, but, I would rather we allocated those funds to eradicating poverty than pictures of lifeless mountains on dead planets.

If you think those pictures of Mars are amazing, look at Earth and see some truly awesome sights, then work to protect our planet rather than sitting idly at a telescope and gazing with irrational unfulfilled curiosity into the emptiness of an airless space.

Personally, I prefer mountains on earth with shades of greens and browns rising where rivulets of glacial water enriched fertile soil, to sandy and rough ochre tinged precipices offering strength to vegetation clinging on their edges, through to jagged ashen peaks cutting majestically into the crisp thin air of a life-sustaining atmosphere.

I like our salty oceans and fresh water lakes, turquoise and sparkling clear or murky with algae that glows emerald and jade as it feeds the underwater world, that magnificent variety of life that exists at depth.

I love the forests and jungles teeming with animals and insects of every description that together create an ecosystem we depend on. They deserve our concern as they slowly diminish due to our exploitative intervention in the natural habitat. The many facets of life here on our own planet should be the first priority of science and its extraordinary capabilities in this century.

America’s National Broadcasting Corporation news program reported on 1st ‎August ‎that just over half of the counties in the U.S. are now labelled ‘natural disaster areas’ following the announcement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture added 218 counties in 12 states to the list. Half the nation is deemed a natural disaster yet they spend billions sending cameras to Mars to take pictures of dry and lifeless red mountains that humans are unlikely ever to walk upon. If we do discover water under the surface of Mars will we send giant tankers to collect it for the thirsty back on Earth? They should go back to the drawing board.

Life grows from visions of something better for those who create reality from imagination of purpose and a healthy curiosity, but let’s recognise the truth of existence. We all need Earth to stay healthy; without it we are nothing. Travel is an eye opening experience and discovering the Earth we live on is an astonishing way to encounter ourselves and the culture we create, I recommend it to everyone. In the meantime don’t be deceived; there is no escape to other planets regardless of what science fiction novel or film you might believe in. The idea of space travel to supplement our dwindling resources or discovering alien life that will save the human race from self-destruction is the real pipe dream.

Science can and should play its part in developing solutions to the problems faced by our world. What I’m against is wasting billions on flights of fantasy that put pipe dreams into perspective as plausible calculations of life than a pointless venture by a few into the vacuum of the unattainable.

The only people who benefit from this endeavour are Peter Pan types who never grew up and still think of themselves as explorers of distant stars – the ‘trekkies’ who can’t accept reality and so indulge fantastical dreams of playing astronaut, and of course the military industrialists who wage war on freedom with their spy satellites, nuclear missiles and Reagan-funded laser beams.

Scientists would convince you they have answers to the questions people pondered since the earliest humans attained self-awareness, and they wish to relegate all religious experience to the realm of ethical enquiry. Unfortunately, this seems to be a symptom of the times we live in, an age of information over imagination.

Scientists can only provide a diagram of what already exists; they describe facts of nature in mechanistic terms or replicate observable events, but they don’t create life. An astronomer merely sees what is and always has been, and provides an account of truth that changes with every age, from medieval scholastics to enlightenment rationalists, from Persian astrologers to the mystics of Orthodox Christianity, from Egypt to Peru.

This is the age of the scientist and engineer, most of whom lack the humanistic vision of a creative God who endowed the genesis of life with a spark of spirit, though they frequently tamper with the very foundations of evolution; this too will pass.

Look to the stars and try to calculate the uncountable billions. Look to your heart and feel the beating pulse of age. Look in your lover’s eyes and see the smiling reflection of time’s breath. Look at the sun and recognise the colour of dreams. Look within and appreciate the supremacy of love. Look at us all and sense the opportunity of our age.  Look out, for there are those in this world who would steal this moment to replace wonder with fear and truth with the façade of power.

Look to the future and hope that we can still dream through the marvel of imagination, because that’s where truth is. When that truth is shared amongst equals it becomes authentic. Indeed, fulfil our infinite curiosity, but if you want answers to age-old questions or solutions to today’s problems, look inside your mind and see the light of those stars shine like constellations as thoughts connect to create ideas – that’s where we live and where dreams become reality.


There are no rainbows on Mars!

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