Is There Life on Mars?
No, Mr Bowie, there is not, so can we all move on, please? Mind you, it would be quite something if the last image beamed back to NASA headquarters from their space rover was a creature breaking off the camera and eating it for lunch! I grew up being regularly terrified at the thought that the Mysterons were coming to wreak their revenge, not least because I was far from convinced by the prospect of lasting indestructability for Captain Scarlet, so I guess you never know.
It is great to see that the boffins at NASA were wise enough to name the rover after one of our school’s core values – it is called Perseverance, nicknamed Percy. If rocket scientists are on your wavelength, you can probably feel like you’re in a good place. I look forward to the future missions of Courage, Excellence and Respect, all of which sound like perfectly acceptable names for space rovers to me.
Rather more significant than the naming of the vehicle is the fact that NASA managed to fly it for seven months to Mars and, above all, land it successfully and get it going so quickly. Some of you may remember the excitement back in 2003 when the British craft Beagle 2 looked to have landed successfully on the planet’s surface, but then failed to open the solar panels it needed to operate its communication system. The lead scientist was Colin Pillinger, a splendidly charismatic man who somehow seemed to epitomise that spirit of heroic failure that seems to come so naturally to the British.
I should say at this point that I know almost nothing about space, astronauts, rockets or anything much else related to such things. No matter how many times someone explains it to me, I still cannot understand why the Moon appears in crescents of various sizes. I am still coming to terms with the news that many – or is it most or is it just a couple? – of the stars we see at night no longer exist, but they are so far away that the light from when they did exist is still on its way here. The idea that there might be intelligent life out there somewhere blows my mind, and I can only hope they we neither find them nor they find us during my lifetime. If the future really is the voyage of the Starship Enterprise, let that be my descendants’ future not mine.
There is too much to come to terms with in the world down here to be worrying about what might be out there. For example, in Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, which is still the most accessible science book I have ever read, albeit in a small field, Bryson explains the amount of time that human beings have been around. He says that if you imagine the 4,500 million years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 a.m., with the rise of the first simple, single-cell organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours.
He goes on to explain that it is not until almost 8.30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, that the Earth has anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish. At 9.04 p.m. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by a host of other creatures now preserved as fossils. Just before 10 p.m. plants begin to pop up on the land and, soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.
Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10.24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 p.m. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant.
In his inimitable style, Bryson concludes that throughout this greatly speeded-up day, continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flashbulb pop of light marking the impact of a large meteor, causing substantial initial damage and a significant wider impact. It is a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummelled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do so for long. Perhaps the same is true for Mars, and perhaps Percy will be able to shed some light? It is not so much ‘Is there life on Mars’ as ‘Was there life…and could there be again?’
It is estimated that over 99% of the species that have lived on this planet have become extinct, something in the region of five billion different forms of life, though this must surely be nothing more than a broad estimate. It is therefore not a surprise that there is an Aboriginal saying: ‘We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love…and then we return home.’
I found this piece of wisdom in Sandi Toksvig’s Almanac for 2021, to which I will certainly be returning in this blog in the coming weeks, because she opens up some very interesting debates about the role of women in history. For example, she quotes Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who wrote, ‘When you look at history you are confronted by the startling and disturbing fact that women are the greatest race of underdogs that the world has ever known. The truth is, we women live like bats, or owls, labour like beasts, and die like worms.’
Although Toksvig is characteristically open, honest and forthright throughout, the overall tone is hugely optimistic, with a celebration of female achievement and success for every day of the year. For example, and coming back nicely to core values again, she tells the tale of Felicity Aston, who was born in 1977, and is an English Antarctic scientist turned polar explorer. In 2011, she became the first person to ski alone across the Antarctic landmass using only personal muscle power, and the first woman to cross the Antarctic landmass alone. It took her fifty-nine days to cover the 1,084 miles.
Afterwards Aston said, ‘It was clear to me that the success of my expedition had not depended on physical strength or dramatic acts of bravery, but on the fact that at least some progress – however small – had been made every single day. It had not been about glorious heroism but the humblest of qualities, a quality that perhaps we all too often fail to appreciate for its worth – that of perseverance.’