Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mars triple treat: A fascinating book, an article, and a reality show proposal for a one-way trip

by Salman Hameed

A few things for Sunday.

Article: Last week's New Yorker had a fascinating and well written article by Burkhard Bilger on our changing perceptions of Mars. While it centers on two figures associated with the Curiosity rover, it starts with a longer overview. What struck me was the fact that some people not only imagined "canals" on Mars in the 19th century, but also saw the Hebrew word for Almight - Shajdai spelled out on the surface of Mars. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised then at the later claims of Face on Mars (these are all a result of human propensity to see patterns where none exist - known as Pareidolia). Here is the beginning of the article:
There once were two planets, new to the galaxy and inexperienced in life. Like fraternal twins, they were born at the same time, about four and a half billion years ago, and took roughly the same shape. Both were blistered with volcanoes and etched with watercourses; both circled the same yellow dwarf star—close enough to be warmed by it, but not so close as to be blasted to a cinder. Had an alien astronomer swivelled his telescope toward them in those days, he might have found them equally promising—nurseries in the making. They were large enough to hold their gases close, swaddling themselves in atmosphere; small enough to stay solid, never swelling into gaseous giants. They were “Goldilocks planets,” our own astronomers would say: just right for life. 
The rest is prehistory. On Earth, the volcanoes filled the air with water vapor and carbon dioxide. The surface cooled, a crust formed, and oceans condensed upon it. In hot springs and undersea vents, simple carbon compounds bubbled up to form amino acids and peptides. The first bacteria moved through the ooze; then came blue-green algae, spreading across the planet like a watery carpet, drinking in sunlight and exhaling oxygen, giving breath to everything that came after. Geologists call this the Great Oxygenation Event—the most momentous change in the planet’s history. It seems inevitable now: life’s triumphant march toward complexity, toward us. But like most creation stories this one is also a cautionary tale. It has both a Heaven and a Hell. 
In 1877, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew the first detailed map of Mars, he imagined the planet as an earthly paradise. He labelled one region Eden, another Elysium, others, on later maps, Arcadia and Utopia. Peering through his telescope on the roof of the Palazzo di Brera, in Milan, Schiaparelli had seen what looked like oceans, continents, and water channels swim into view. “The planet is not a desert of arid rocks,” he wrote. “It lives.” And his successors often took him at his word: the sharper their telescopes, the blurrier their vision. They saw mountains of ice and rivers of snowmelt, William Sheehan writes in his 1996 book, “The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery.” They saw fertile oases and a moss-green equator. They saw an irrigation system so linear and “trigonometric,” as the astronomer Percival Lowell put it, that it could only be the work of a highly intelligent race. Some even saw a Hebrew word for Almighty—Shajdai—spelled out on the planet’s surface. “True, the magnitude of the work of cutting the canals into the shape of the name of God is at first thought appalling,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1895. “But there are terrestrial works which to us today seem no less impossible.” 
By the time humanity got its first closeup view of Mars, a little less than a century after Schiaparelli mapped it, the planet had come to seem like a second, more exotic Earth. Books like “The Martian Chronicles” described a place of eerie desert grandeur, inhabited by slender, tawny beings given to strange hallucinations—Taos without the tourists. And though infrared studies suggested that its surface had seventy times less water than Earth’s driest desert, biologists still hoped for the best. “Given all the evidence presently available, we believe it entirely reasonable that Mars is inhabited with living organisms and that life independently originated there,” a study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded in March, 1965. 
The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it’s sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.
Book: Linked with the 19th century fascination with Mars and the discovery, here is an NPR review of a fiction novel set in Egypt. Equilateral by Ken Kalfus has a great premise and it is on my reading list:
The real-life premise is this: In the late 19th century, astronomers spotted what they thought were canals on Mars. Many of those astronomers theorized that, therefore, there must be life on the red planet. Kalfus' fictional astronomer, Sanford Thayer, is an Englishman who's obsessed with the dream of contacting the Martians. Thayer has
launched an internationally funded project to carve out an enormous equilateral triangle — 300 miles to each side — in the Western deserts of Egypt. Once it's dug out, the triangle will be filled with petroleum. Here's how Kalfus' somewhat pompous omniscient narrator describes the rest of the plan: 
"[S]ometime before dawn on June 17, 1894, at the moment of Earth's most favorable position in the Martian sky, the petroleum pooled in the trenches on each Side of the Equilateral will be ignited simultaneously, launching a Flare from the Earth's darkened limb that across millions of miles of empty space will petition for man's membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations." 
Throughout the opening chapters of his novel, Kalfus is so captivated by his own fictional fantasy of that giant triangular 19th century greeting card flashing into space that he's content to just elaborate on the details. He describes how 900,000 native workers toil deep in what Thayer calls "the Great Sand Sea"; those workers are under strict command not to deviate one inch in their digging lest the Martians mistakenly think that a geometrically imprecise triangle is a natural, rather than a man-made, phenomenon. That's why, when the workers stumble upon the tip of a buried pyramid as they're digging a 40-foot trench on one side of the Equilateral, Thayer orders them to bury the pyramid again and pour the pitch over it. At this point, we readers begin to catch on that Thayer, in the fine literary tradition of Englishmen abroad, has stayed out in the midday sun too long. 
The great lure of Kalfus' kooky novel, at first, lies in its central premise: The book even contains diagrams to help readers visualize the growing triangle and the astronomical glide of Mars and Earth relative to the sun. We feel the blistering heat and the invasiveness of little "daggered" grains of sand that scratch the eyepieces of Thayer's telescopes, even when they're carefully packed away in Chinese cedar cabinets. Given that this is a novel preoccupied with geometrical design, it makes sense that the main characters here — Thayer, his lovelorn secretary, his solicitous native servant, and the practical British engineer on the project — drift closer and further from each other in shifting triangulated alliances. But halfway through this little book, a more ambitious theme begins emerging. Without giving the startling particulars away, I'll just say that violence erupts in the desert, stirring up a veritable sandstorm of troubling philosophical questions, all of them having to do with whether or not we Earthlings even have the right to think of ourselves as embodying "intelligent life."

Reality Show: Who knows when a human mission top Mars will ever take place. However, it seems that the chances for an earlier mission have gone up because of Mars One - a non-profit group. The Idea is to make a reality show of the first explorers on Mars - and we will all pay big bucks to see them prepare and then travel - one way - to Mars. The idea of a one-way travel to Mars has been around for a while and I see it as quite reasonable. After all, (some) humans have always been explorers and this will be a continuation of that tradition. Here is a bit about the idea:
But Mars One stands apart in very important ways: First, it will strive to be self-financed by selling the astronaut selection process, launch and landing as a reality television show. Second, the lucky winners will live out their lives in an inflatable habitat on another planet.
"If somebody's an outdoors person who says, 'I need my mountains, I need to smell the flowers,' then it's not the mission for him," says Norbert Kraft, the group's chief medical officer. 
Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp says that the idea of selling the trip as prime-time television really seemed doable after he saw the revenue numbers from the London Olympics. That event garnered more than $4 billion in just over three weeks, he says. With that in mind, the mission's $6 billion price tag "is actually a bargain." 
In fact, there will be a lot more to watch than the launch and landing. Even today, visitors to the Mars One website can check out public videos from applicants and vote on who they like the most. Those liked more will be more likely to go on to the next round of astronaut selection. Future rounds will be televised: Participants in each nation will square off against each other with only a single participant making his or her way to years of training. That final round will be an internationally broadcast show in which six teams of four vie for the chance to get voted off of Earth.
Here is the call for applicants:


1 comment:

Akbar said...

So what if a country, say North Korea, puts a man in the payload bay of one of its missiles and hurls it 'one way' through the atmosphere, will it make the first North Korean astronaut? It is the return mission that counts, otherwise it wouldn't be Edmund Hillary but George Mallory who scaled the Mt Everest first. The world should better spend more resources in space technology to make a return manned trip to Mars possible, sooner than later than buring people's wealths and souls in useless wars, otherwise oppotunist enterpreneurs like these will keep on popping up and cashing in people's enthusiasm through one way tickets to doom.