Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College, has written a piece in the New York Times yesterday called Some Things Are Better Left on Mars, where she argues that the risk of infection by Martian lifeforms far outweighs any scientific gain from bringing back rock and soil samples. Given that we know organisms on Earth can survive in extremely harsh conditions, and the terrible lessons we’ve learnt from history of the first encounter between human populations without resistance to novel pathogens (e.g. the Americas and influenza), why should we risk it?

I’ll tell you why: her two main reasons are totally worthless. Firstly, organisms adapt to survive within a narrow range of conditions; while humans can live almost anywhere on the surface of the planet, we cannot live underwater, nor can we live underground at high pressures or temperatures above 50C or below -50C (and this is a generous estimate). We can’t live in an atmosphere that doesn’t have a particular pressure of oxygen, and there are plenty of chemicals that would be harmful or even fatal to us. Similarly, there are organisms that can live above 50C, or at high pressures or in different atmospheric mixes – but those organisms would drop dead, or at the very least become totally inert in any environment other than that which they are adapted to.

Mars has an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than ours, mostly carbon dioxide, with a completely different chemical environment, much less water and much colder and dimmer. The planet is exposed to different radiation, different winds and different weather cycles. There is no environment on Mars, even underground, that remotely resembles Earth or more importantly, the human body. There may well be extant life on Mars in the form of extremely hardy micro-organisms adapted for low temperatures, low pressures, carbon dioxide atmosphere and low nutrients. They probably have a very slow metabolism due to a lack of energy inputs. If you put any of those organisms in the mostly water, 37C environment, high pressure and alien chemical environment of a human body, they would die.

And this ties into the argument that we should be afraid of novel organisms because of the influenza plague. Sure, we’d have every reason to be wary if there happened to be humans (or even remotely mammal-like organisms) on Mars, since they’d have provided an environment for pathogens to evolve that’s similar to our bodies. But there aren’t.

Even supposing that we did bring back harmful micro-organisms from Mars, the safety measures proposed for any sample return mission are nothing short of gargantuan. The samples would be returned to the highest class of biohazard facility, at or above the level required for highly infectious lethal human pathogens such as ebola; namely, sterilised, pressurised, air-tight facilities with multiple layers of redundancy and safety. There would certainly be a purpose-built facility for any sample return missions. I’ve also heard proposed for sterilising the returning spacecraft with a rocket exhaust while in orbit.

I find it totally puzzling why the New York Times would run such a badly-informed article as this, and I’m also confused as to why Judson would wish to make herself into a fool by writing it. Perhaps she does have a good reason for opposing a Mars sample return mission; unfortunately for all of us, it isn’t in her article.

Ares Express 3

Ares Express Issue 3 is now online – this week’s issue covers a talk I’m giving to the Oxford University Society Society in a fortnight, in addition to a selection of the best threads from the New Mars forums and interesting Mars news from around the Internet.

Fourth Rock

Instead of watching the Superbowl last night, I ended up catching A Life Less Ordinary, which was assuredly a better experience than seeing American Football and Janet Jackson. It’s a much more quirky comedy than I thought it would be, and could in some ways be seen as a proto-Moulin Rouge; it even has a dance number compete with bizarre and unreal imagery! It also brings up the number of singing Ewan MacGregor films that I’ve seen up to three (Moulin Rouge and Down With Love being the other two). Time will only tell if Obi Wan Kenobi breaks out into song in the next Star Wars movie.

In other news, Scarlett Johansson has become a topic of contention in our kitchen. Previously, Julia Stiles was the undisputed winner of our ongoing ‘most attractive girl’ competition (voted for by both men and women), for her sterling performance in Ten Things I Hate About You and her generally acerbic yet intelligent outlook on life. Comments such as ‘probably a demon in the sack’ were heard at the last vote. The arrival of Lost In Translation has changed all of this now – I’ve defected to the Scarlett Johansson camp and am trying to convert the waverers, who at the very least agree that Scarlett is definite contender for the throne, if not actually in pole position.

Finally, Oliver Morton (writer for Science and Wired) has a well-hidden weblog called MainlyMartian that has some interesting insights onto the current Mars missions and the fate of Beagle 2 in particular. Definitely worth checking out for its insider view.

Ares Express Issue 1

Ares Express – I’ve just finished writing the first issue of a new weekly newsletter at New Mars that will highlight the best threads and discussion in the forums, as well as links to Mars news across the Internet. I’m hoping that the bulk of subsequent issues will consist of submissions from forum members.

Who wants the Gobi Desert?

Bruce Sterling, SF writer, has pointed out that the Gobi Desert is far more hospitable than Mars, so before we ever settle Mars we’ll have settled the Gobi Desert (i.e. not any time soon). He also points out that by the time we have the ability to terraform Mars, we’ll be doing much more interesting things.

Sterling is missing the point here. People don’t want to settle Mars just because it happens to exist, they want to settle it because it happens to be very interesting. The Gobi Desert is not that interesting and it does not require settlement to find out whatever little that is interesting about it. However, Mars is a giant world-sized sandbox of possibilities that could tell us about the origin of the solar system, the formation of planets and perhaps life in the universe. There is no more closer or easily-reached place than Mars for finding those things out. Robots and other kinds of unmanned exploration can find out a lot from Mars, but scientists are agreed that humans beat the pants off robots when it comes to science and discovery, and that they will probably continue to do so for the next few decades.

Given that we may want to explore Mars and that using humans may be a very good way to do it, a permanent human settlement makes sense where the settlement of the Gobi Desert does not. The terraformation and material exploitation of Mars, however, is a completely different issue.

The Road to Mars is Paved with Money

I haven’t been following the Beagle 2 Mars Mission anywhere near as much as I ‘ought’ to be, but I loved this quote from the lead scientist of the project, Colin Pillinger.

Interviewer: What happens if you find life on Mars?
Prof. Colin Pillinger: I’ll find it a lot easier to get funding for the next mission

Spoken like a true scientist.

Crescent skies

There’s something undeniably romantic about a crescent moon in the clear evening sky, hovering over the rooftops in a scene straight from the cover of a ’50s ‘Amazing Stories’ magazine. Usually they have more than one moon, and the sky is pink, and the rooftops are either a barren wasteland or soaring, spiralling towers, but the important thing is the crescent moon, which is exotic and wonderful on this planet, let alone any other one.

When I was in Australia, I completely failed to notice that the moon waxes and wanes in the opposite direction than it does here in the northern hemisphere, or indeed that shadows fall in a different way. A friend from South Africa mentioned that this change threw her completely when she first came to England. It’s no surprise that she was affected by this more than me, given the vast and excessive amounts of artificial lighting we have here. I think it was only last December in Utah that I ever realised just how bright the full moon can be, and how sharp it can cast shadows.


I try to make a point of just reading, not posting to, Star Trek messageboards; there’s some fun stuff that gets said there but I just don’t feel like I have the time or patience to get involved.

However, after I watched the latest Enterprise episode (Anomaly) – which was unusually entertaining and well done, I thought it’d be worth seeing what other people felt. As I expected, everyone else seemed to like it although there were a few people who said that the episode was highly derivative.

To be precise, the episode featured a kilometres-wide sphere that contained several fusion reactors; the sphere appeared to be generating a number of bizarre spatial anomalies and wasn’t working properly – and by the end of the episode, it still wasn’t explained (as it should be! Some things are better left unexplained, at least at first).

A few unimaginative folks latched on to two facts – it was a big sphere. Therefore, obviously it was a ripoff of either a Dyson Sphere, or a Death Star, both of which have obviously been in science fiction before. The simplicity of this thinking of just astounding; it’s as if it doesn’t matter what’s inside the sphere, or what it does, or its history – if it’s a big sphere, then it’s a ripoff. And never mind the fact that Dyson Spheres were not, in fact, invented by Star Trek, but Freeman Dyson – or the fact that there have been big spheres in space in SF since the beginning of last century.

Thus enraged, I wrote a long reply enumerating all of this, and more, and was then asked by one wag, ‘Name one SF story that has featured big spheres in space before.’ Just one? I could name half a dozen, beginning with Doc Smith’s Lensman.

There are a lot of things to criticise Enterprise on, but claiming that it’s ripping off other shows and stories because it has a big sphere in it is unbelievably shallow. There’s more to science fiction than Star Wars and Star Trek – if only people would bother looking for it.

What Galileo Saw

What Galileo Saw – the New Yorker has a compelling account of the legacy of NASA’s Galileo deep space probe. The article describes the almost fatal problem the probe encountered in transit and the heroic effort of NASA scientists to try and salvage the mission, as well as the unparalleled discoveries it made at Jupiter.