Life on Mars?
Courtesy of The
Islander News, Key Biscayne's award-winning newspaper
1997--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.
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
Just as Walt Disney animated 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
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
Since Sojourner sounded homesick already,
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.
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 had 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,
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
nature. IBM's Big Blue was programmed to "think" creatively enough to
beat Garry Kasparov, then the undisputed heavyweight chess champion of
the world (though Big Blue is not so human that it would try to bite
Kasparov's ear during a round when it'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
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 chemical factory
and the gall bladder 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
In our perceptions, machines are becoming more
human and humans arebecoming 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.
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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