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FQXi BLOGS
April 20, 2014

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: Another World [refresh]
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Blogger William Orem wrote on Jan. 6, 2013 @ 01:25 GMT


Here's a vacation photo from this past summer. It's taken on Mars; I went there, along with thousands of fascinated others, on the vehicle of the Curiosity rover and the vehicle of my imagination. I, for one, have yet to come home.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory has been a clear success, especially give the its knotty landing protocol and the distressing history of Mars-mission botches. We humans are once again driving around on an alien planet, this time with much more advanced equipment for soil analysis, climate studies, and geological work. When chief scientist John Grotzinger made his now-notorious slip, claiming "one for the history books" had been discovered on the angry red planet, the blogs went a-buzz with speculation. I myself didn't expect microbial fossils, but nor did I rule them out. (Actually, I expected confirmed indigenous organics.) It really doesn't matter, though; there's a broader way in which it's all for this history books at this point. Think what it means that humanity has reached a place where we can be disappointed by a not-so-spectacular finding . . . on a different planet.

Take a look again at this image. I find it quite possible to put myself there, on that rocky hill, without much of an imaginative leap. These may be the first views of regions our descendants will one day inhabit, the equivalent of frontier land. Alternatively, if the microbes that started the evolutionary tree currently branching out all over Earth came originally from Mars, then we are once again looking at home--not in a relatively near future, but from our unimaginably remote past. Very little of what we discover on our celestial neighbor can really be trivial.

NASA named the subsection of the Gale crater where MSL touched down "Bradbury Landing Site," in honor of the writer who died just a few months before contact. It was an appreciation in which many shared. Last summer I myself wrote a tribute piece to Ray Bradbury that ran on the Psychology Today website, talking about his influence on my own youth. Bradbury was a master at humanizing the idea of travel to Mars--the science was all wrong (not that he cared), but the psychology was very right. But it isn't Bradbury, actually, nor Edgar Rice Burroughs, nor H. G. Wells I think of most when musing on these images. It's Carl Sagan, and the observation he makes in *Pale Blue Dot*, that--after the various planetary probes, after the Mariners and Pioneers and Voyagers--the other planets in our Solar System have now become not mythical gods, not wandering lights in the sky, but actual *places*. You can't go to Mars or to Mercury just yet, but you can conceive of doing so, in the same way you can conceive of going to the North Pole. Thanks to science, the night sky has started to become graspable to the imagination.

That's my experience of what the MSL has already brought us, regardless of what may yet be uncovered. Relaxing here quietly, taking a moment aside from my day, I can sit cross-legged in that chilly Martian sand. I can feel it, gritty against my thighs. I can squint against the incessant blowing dust, and hear the wind storms moaning across those distant mountains.

More: I can leave Curiosity behind, and walk over that hill of rocks, just there, so close to the hand. I can pick them up, feel the rusty weight, somewhat less than they would have on my home world. I can dig my thumbnail into their jagged surfaces. I can swing my legs over the edge of that cliff and watch the sun set, from a perspective no one in history ever had before. Mars is now a place to go.

It's all imagination, for the moment. I'm not suggesting anything else. But I'm there, on Mars, just as much as Curiosity is there.

We're all there, now. We've made it.

Another world.

.

this post has been edited by the author since its original submission

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Thomas Howard Ray wrote on Jan. 8, 2013 @ 11:14 GMT
Hi William,

What a beautiful piece. "It's all imagination?" Who's to know when imagination becomes knowledge, except the one whose imagination waits for knowledge to catch up?

All best,

Tom

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FQXi Administrator Brendan Foster wrote on Feb. 4, 2013 @ 22:10 GMT
Thanks for the piece William. I wonder if this post got a little lost with the holidays, so I am giving it a bump.

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Zeeya wrote on Feb. 5, 2013 @ 14:15 GMT
Thanks for the link to your tribute to Ray Bradbury, William. I have to admit, I've only read Fahrenheit 451. I should read more of his work.

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