“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator. This is how Dr Lucy Berthoud, a Professor of Engineering Design at the University of Bristol, ended her talk ‘The best-selling show: Is there life on Mars?’. Part of the Best of Bristol lecture series, it was a riveting presentation. Then again, how can something suggesting I may well be visiting my grandchildren on Mars not be? The only other BoB lecture I attended was called ‘Knowing the Impossible: the colour of dinosaurs’, and although JiaQi next to me was legitimately dozing, I was extremely impressed.
Dr Jakob Vinther spoke just as passionately about distinct melanocytes of fossilised dinosaur feathers as Dr. Berthoud did about her work in the European Space Agency on a rare interplanetary project with opportunity that arises once in sixty thousand years.
To summarise Prof Benton and Dr Vinther’s talk:
Dinosaurs lived in a time we can never know completely of, but yet know so much about as a direct result of various scientific advancements. Fossilised samples, though our primary and most abundant source of information of that age, do not reveal a whole lot.
Or do they?
A team of palaeontologists at the University of Bristol were able to determine the colours of a handful of dinosaur species through the study of fossilised cells. That absolutely blows my mind. Although the talk touched upon some more topics, this was enough to make me marvel at how far we have come as a race.
It also got me thinking about extinction – one unexpected catastrophic event wipes out an entire species and, in a way, resets the planet. Humans have existed for such a short amount of time in the universal timeline that is seems negligible; much has happened before us and much will happen after. I am obviously biased in my opinion, but I believe there is something slightly extraordinary about us, something that by an incredibly lucky set of events, led to a special species. At least in this solar system. Or even on this planet.. How much of the past is yet to be decoded?
Which neatly brings me to Dr Berthoud’s talk:
The prerequisites for life are raw materials/ nutrients, an energy source and liquid water. The basic essentials for a carbon-based life form, for life as we know it. Through international collaborations, various rovers have been successfully sent to Mars in order to monitor conditions. This was not a simple task – designing a spacecraft destined for Mars is to space engineers what performing Macbeth is to actors.
Mars was found to have solid water ice and solid carbon dioxide ice. It was also discovered that many energy sources exist and composition analysis of a Martian rock revealed the presence of organic compounds. At this point, I was completely transfixed, like a child on her first visit to the zoo. Evidence suggested that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find microbial life-forms on the Red Planet. In fact, microbes even on Earth, such as the infamous Tardigrades or ‘water bears’ can survive extreme conditions. The below-freezing temperatures, high radiation levels, noxious atmosphere and prevalent solid carbon dioxide dust storms may certainly be classified a harsh environment, but those early life forms can totally roll with it. Earth in its early years, after all, was nothing like it is now, either.
My mind was racing: What if we are looking our past straight in the eyes, by studying this cold dead planet and its likely evolution? It is more probable than not that life is more complex and much cleverer than us, and carbon-based is the end-all of possible life. It may well be that we lack the resources to even simply recognise other types of life. If higher organisms do evolve from single-celled Martian equivalents, we Earthlings could play God to them; we could be their passive-aggressive, God exists/ God doesn’t exist, crazy confusing mythological creatures.
Which then begs the question – did another, undiscernible, higher order creature much too evolved for us to comprehend, play God to us in our early years? Were they looking into their past via us? Will we make the same choice, if such an opportunity should present itself disguised as gullible early Martians?
What Dr Berthoud said next flipped my train of thought all too suddenly – There used to be liquid water on Mars. The now cold, dead planet existed under conditions which allowed charming brooks and mighty rivers to flow. This was a time before catastrophic solar winds stripped off the planet’s atmosphere (plausible explanation only).
And then I thought, what if we are looking our future straight in the eye?
A catastrophic event causing such a monumental alteration in a planet’s conditions that is analogous to resetting it: I was reminded plain as day of Dr Vinther’s talk from weeks ago.
Maybe we are looking at both our past and our future. Maybe the reason palaeontology is as fascinating to as futuristic space engineering is because they aren’t that much different after all. The cycle keeps repeating itself – the past is the future and the future is the past.
(Sounds like a delusional person who thinks they know what they’re talking about but are actually 100% bullshitting. I promise you I am doing neither.)
It seems wasteful, unnecessary, as if the same mistakes are being made over and over and over again in an endless loop. It is possible, however, that this cycle will fly off on a glorious tangent of change when a worthy species arises.
And this is where I believe ours may stand a chance, why we may be special – We are questioning the past and future with equal rigor, we are re-defining the problem and focusing on bettering our understanding simply by looking more closely at what is abundant evidence and working tirelessly and innovatively to build appropriate instruments. The question stands: Will we lead the universe into a different dimension of evolution before we create the next catastrophe?
Or maybe I am delusional.