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.

Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

Related articles:

Is the News Bad for You?

I came across this infuriating article a week or so ago, and have been meaning to write a response to it, but lost track of priorities and it slipped back.  In the article, the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli makes his case that exposure to the news is harmful for us in a variety of ways.  He gives 10 reasons as to why he believes this:

News is misleading.
Dobelli uses a variety of examples to expand on this point, some of which, I agree, may be valid.  The first, of how the news would distort a story of a bridge collapse involving a car, is incredibly generalised, and any important issues – like the general structural safety of bridges – would be marginalised.  Sure, The Daily Mail would spew forth some headline like “BENEFIT SCROUNGER IN BRIDGE TRAGEDY, 12 CHILDREN ORPHANED” or whatever, but one would hope a more decent source of news, like The BBC or The Independent, would look into the wider issue at hand – in addition to reporting the tragedy itself.

I do agree that news causes us to have the ‘wrong risk map’; that news can make us overemphasise the threat of terrorism, etc.  But this isn’t the fault of the news.  What should news organisations do?  Not report it?  Or is it better for individuals, having abandoned the news, to simply not know about terrorist attacks?  Is our potential lack of ability to contextualis news stories really a convincing reason to deprive ourselves of information?

“We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.”

That’s rather a condescending statement.  Some people may base their decisions on stories they see, but I would like to think most people would reason whether there would be an effect on their own lives.  Once again, is the solution to “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely” really any better?  I’d rather make a flawed judgement based on information than a flawed judgement blind.  I’m not keen on following advice which begins by doubting my reasoning abilities, but perhaps that’s just me.

News is irrelevant.
This is a huge bugbear of mine.  Oh so often, I’ll be raving something along the lines of, “Hey, guys, France now has a Socialist President!” or “Did you hear about the Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery?!”  More often than not, I’ll be received by glazed looks and some comment as to why I care.  I’ve even had the “it doesn’t affect you” spiel before.  My response is: if we go through life only ever taking notice of things which affect us directly, we would live in a very self-absorbed and greed-filled society indeed.  Alright, perhaps the Venezuelan election really doesn’t matter, but I think it is worth knowing how people in the rest of the world live.  If we don’t have information, or worse, if we don’t care, how can we be expected to engage in the letter-writing campaigns, petitions and donations which increasingly have a positive impact for millions across the world.

Say an earthquake happens to strike San Francisco, which is predicted to happen one day again in the future.  There are many casualties, and there is a desperate appeal for donations to help with aid.  If people didn’t read anything irrelevant, they would have no way of knowing what was going on.  I can somewhat agree with Dobelli in regard to the majority of crass ‘human interest’ stories – the type you would find in tabloids – but, to be honest, I rarely define these as news anyway.

News has no explanatory power
I am becoming ever more certain than Dobelli has had particularly bad experiences with the news.  If you ever watch a good documentary on Al Jazeera, or, say, on the BBC’s Panorama, or even manage to get past the first few pages of most decent newspapers, you’ll find layer upon layer of analysis and discussion.  I can see his point when it comes to slow, hidden movements, but even these are often newsworthy; demographic changes, updated opinion polls, changing employment patterns and environmental studies, to name a few, are very often in the news.

News is toxic for your body.

“It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.”

Uh.  I’ll take his word for that one.  I personally find learning new bits of information quite relaxing, but I appreciate I may be in the majority for that one.

News increases cognitive errors.
Basically, this point says that we look at news from the perspective of our pre-conceived biases, and interpret stories in such a way.  This is true, I must admit.  Reading news about a study into the failings of wind power won’t dash my enthusiasm for renewable energy; I’d simply brush it off as flawed.  But this isn’t true in every occasion.  If someone I have a lot of respect for, like Al Gore or Caroline Lucas, were to dismiss a section of renewable energy – or even just particularly damning statistics – I’m sure I would allow my beliefs to be challenged.

News inhibits thinking.
In the age of Twitter and soundbites, there may also be a point to this one.  “News is an intentional interruption system.”  Does it limit our patience for long, spanning articles?  This must vary from person to person, and I can only talk about myself; I’m a big user of Twitter and I tend to read lots of articles in short spans, but this doesn’t stop me being able to read and learn from long, spanning essays.

News works like a drug.
This is true for me; I am addicted to information.  I’m proud of this fact.  But to claim that “most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books” is a massive, unproven and, frankly, ridiculous generalisation.  In today’s globalised world, virtually everyone is a news consumer.  Does this mean virtually everyone struggles to read long articles and books?  Of course not!

News wastes time.
I have already determined that news is both worthwhile and relevant, so therefore I reject the idea that gaining information is ever a waste of time.  Like anything else in life, it’s about balance.

News makes us passive.
Fair enough, news can depress us and make us feel helpless.  On the other hand, we can feel spurned into action.  This also depends on the type of person you are.

News kills creativity.
As a writer, who is currently experiencing a deficit of creativity, this did make me pause, but I soon realised this is far more likely to be due to current school stresses than my reading of the news; my creativity flourishes during holidays.  Thing is, he claims to know nobody who reads the news and is also creative, whereas I know plenty of people who do and are both.  We evidently inhabit very different spheres.

2013 Predictions

Finally, gonna end this busy day with a list of predictions for next year.  I didn’t plan to publish these – I was writing them for my own interest – but decided to give it a shot, in case miraculously they’re all correct, so I can prove I predicted them!  Rather rushed:

  • UK
    • Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    • The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
  • Abroad
    • The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    • The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    • Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    • A war will not start over Iran.
    • Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    • Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    • Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    • Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    • The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    • I expect more crises from North Korea.
    • Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    • This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    • There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    • Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    • Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    • Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    • More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    • Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    • Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    • The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    • Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.