Jonathan Russ (02/11/04)
The question around which Monday's discussion was centered was one of mankind's place in the universe in light of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Particularly interesting to consider were the possible effects of finding life on Mars on religious thought; this led to a brief discussion on the difference between organized and unorganized religion. While progressive religious thinkers have always been able to accommodate new scientific findings and social developments into an all-encompassing religious philosophy, some large organized religious bodies have always lagged behind the frontier of human thought. These bodies command such influence that if the discovery of life on Mars somehow interfered with their religious views, a large backlash against space exploration and against whatever lifeforms were found could occur. If intelligent extraterrestrial life were found, it is possible that the doctrine of human specialness could result in the same cycle of discrimination that victimized (and, to a degree, continues to victimize) women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities.
A subject of interest that emerged was the large role that human nature plays in space exploration. As Professor Head stated, many people see science as a “white lab coat and light bulb” activity (to quote loosely), but even in such a methodical area of study it is impossible to avoid human emotions. From jealousy among scientists to political wrangling over funding, personal gain often comes before public interest; this is inescapable.
Just as inescapable is human imagination, which is powerful but limited by perspective. As an example, many astronomers from the early modern era made great discoveries about Mars, but they assumed that where they saw green, there was vegetation, and where they saw blue, there were oceans. This has, of course, been proved wrong. Incredibly, humans have found a way to send spacecraft to Mars, but the search for life has mostly involved a search for organic compounds; there is no way to know that life on Mars must be carbon-based. The human race is capable of great things, and as our world view and imagination expand, our potential will only increase.The class discussion drifted naturally, but quickly, from one topic to another. This may have been due to the class feeling rushed to fit in all of the scheduled activities while our discussion continued on. Unfortunately, the effect was that many topics were touched upon, but never explored in depth; hopefully in the future a more detailed discussion will be possible.