Cosmic Debris is a free humor column including science fiction humor, family humor, observational humor, and other types of humor
along with a few serious and/or poignant thoughts by award-winning newspaper columnist Gary Greenberg.
by Gary Greenberg
Life On Mars?
Courtesy of The Islander News, Key Biscayne's award-winning newspaper
While I sit here tapping away at the keyboard of my trusty computer, an
intrepid little mechanical explorer is hard at work, or play, surveying the Martian
landscape 119 million miles away.
The name of this curious man-made creature is Sojourner, and NASA has done an
incredible job of not only producing the equipment and executing the mission at a
relatively cut-rate price, but also of personifying what is basically a conglomeration
of nuts and bolts and computer chips.
Just as Walt Disney animated otherwise inanimate objects like brooms,
teapots and doorknobs, NASA has breathed the life of personality into Sojourner,
who was named after the Civil War era abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Ironically, she
entered the Martian atmosphere in true cartoon fashion. Her spaceship split apart
several dozen feet above ground and, encased in a swale of airbags, she fell from
the sky to bounce around mightily before settling on alien soil. Her protective
cocoon then opened like Fantasian flower petals, and Sojourner cautiously emerged,
antenna snapping into place and roving eyes taking snapshots of the scenery which
she would use to send postcards home:
Dear Mom and Dad,
The trip was kinda boring, but the landing was way cool. This place is totally
awesome. It looks a lot like that park we went to in Arizona last summer, but
redder. Colder too. Haven't seen any signs of life yet, but will keep looking. In the
meantime, I miss you and wish you were here.
Since Sojourner sounded homesick already, mission control gave familiar
names to some nearby rocks so she would feel less alone. The closest rock, which
appeared to have a major skin problem, became Barnacle Bill. Another one, which
looked as though it might have swallowed a pic-a-nic basket or two was christened
Yogi, and another was called Scooby-Doo.
Suddenly, the austere Martian landscape was populated by cartoon
characters. And what does Sojourner do? As NASA describes it, she crept up to
Barnacle Bill and started "sniffing around." Knowing that Sojourner made a long,
long trip from home with nary a rest stop on the way, I was almost surprised that
she didn't spring a hydraulic leak then and there.
But what she was doing was taking samples, which she would then analyze and
send home with her next letter. She really is a remarkable little machine, as daring
as the brave little toaster, as relentless as the little engine that could and as
endearing as R2-D2. NASA has not only scored a technological victory, but also a
public relations coup by Disnifying what past NASA people would have called "a
remote mobile alpha proton x-ray spectrometer."
In effect, our machines are becoming more human in nature. IBM's Big Blue
was programmed to "think" creatively enough to beat Garry Kasparov, the
undisputed heavyweight chess champion of the world (though Big Blue is not so
human that he would try to bite Kasparov's ear during a round when he's getting
the chips beaten out of him). Autos and elevators now talk to us, reminding us that
we forgot our keys or to step to the rear; some computers catch viruses, others
take voice commands better than most, if not all, two-year-old humans; and the good
old Hubble telescope was, according to a NASA press release, "myopic" till some
shuttle spacewalkers/optometrists outfitted it with "glasses."
On the flip side of this humanizing evolution of machinery is the
mechanization of humans. The more we learn how the body works, the more it seems
to be just another machine. The brain runs on electrical impulses, the heart is a fuel
pump, the stomach a gas tank, the intestines a carburetor and the liver a filter.
Medical mechanics use scalpels for wrenches and rachets and lasers to solder and
weld. And when an organ fails, we can sometimes get a replacement part from a
human junk yard.
Recently, scientists have been able to manufacture new parts by growing cell
colonies in biodegradable molds, building new bladders and windpipes for sheep, a
kidney for a rat and leg muscles for a rabbit. Brand new human spare parts are
probably just a generation away.
Then you have the whole cloning thing, where scientists are reaching the
capability to mass produce a certain genetic being. Imagine an assembly line in a lab
somewhere, workers putting together models of humans in roughly the same fashion
that Henry Ford's factory men put together the Model A. While mass producing
people may be beyond moral limitations, it soon won't be beyond technical
In our perceptions, machines are becoming more human and humans are
becoming more machine-like. So what's the point? I'm not sure. Maybe we should
ask our friend Sojourner as she traipses along the surface of Mars, socializing with
Barnacle Bill, Yogi and Scooby-Doo, careful not to stumble into a chasm and fall
thousands of feet like the Roadrunner's hapless nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.
But even if she did fall and had her mechanical life snuffed out in a rising
cloud of red, Martian dust, she would have already proven that life does indeed
exist on Mars. We know that for a fact because we put it there. You can see life
everywhere, in Barnacle Bill, Yogi, Scooby-Doo and especially in Sojourner herself,
that little skateboard of a cosmic traveler we've all grown to know and love.
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