Gaia: Why Mars is Probably Dead

As a tangent to yesterday’s post (and also because discussing bleak prospects for Mars appears popular), there’s another point in James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth that seems relevant for today.  It’s just been announced that NASA will send another rover to Mars in 2020 to compliment the work of the current Curiosity rover in its search for life.  While Curiosity has been generally examining the environment with its hi-tech equipment to see if it could ever have been fit for life, this new rover would focus on studying the planet’s geology.

When writing the book, it was Lovelock’s view that the development of life on a planet inevitably acts to terraform that planet to make it even more fit to harbour life – such as how on Earth life has regulated our atmosphere in the last 3 billion years to keep the temperature constant, despite the fact it ought to be lowering.  If Mars has ever had life on it, then this life should have modified the planet to make it more habitable, thereby leading to more life.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mars should still be habitable now if it ever sustained life – some catastrophe could have destroyed the atmosphere, for example – but signs of former life ought to be more obvious.  Certainly, it would suggest with certainty that no life exists now.  In this theory I think it’s still possible that life never developed past basic bacteria before being wiped out, but the chances of such a short lifespan can be considered unlikely.  If this is true then our search for life on Mars is probably in vain.

That’s not to say I don’t think we should be sending rovers to Mars.  Quite the contrary!  There is still so much we can learn from our neighbours whilst developing our own technological capabilities.  I just don’t think we should be getting our hopes up for any big announcements.

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Our Bright Future

I have noticed a growing number of reports in the news recently, about the concerns held by many biological scientists over the possibility of society heading towards a world without antibiotics.  In the last couple of centuries, humanity has launched an all-out assault on the diseases which, for most of history, have had us at their heels.  Since then there seems to have been an arms race between evolving bacteria and developing drugs.  Unfortunately, from my limited knowledge, it seems that we’re creating the conditions which allows these ‘superbugs’ to develop; overusing antibiotics means that the bacteria which, through random mutations, happen to develop an immunity, will be guaranteed to take over as the dominant strain.  The answer is generally to find new drugs, but in the last 30 years or so there has been a distinct lack of new discoveries.  I’m not sure whether this is because there’s no profit motive in doing so or we’ve simply run out of options.  I’m dearly hoping for Explanation 1.

Having grown up in an age of the utmost medical efficiency, where we can realistically expect to live to a grand age, where, until the age of 11 or so, I almost believed science as capable of anything, this concept is shocking.  It’s been compared as great a threat to the UK (and the world, presumably) as terrorism, though I would say it’s far worse than that.  A world in which people can die of infected cuts, where cancer, appendicitis, etc. kill simply as a result of treatment, is utterly terrifying.

The governments of the world need to invest more into scientific research for this issue, or to give companies motivations for conducting their own research.  If the governments can’t be trusted to deal with such a long term issue, which is likely, then international organisations like the European Union or the United Nations should step in and campaign for it.  The problem won’t go away, and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.  It would be such a drag to get through 40 years of life then die of a paper cut, because governments were too busy trying to save money and avoid upsetting bankers.