Jonathan Russ (03/10/04)
This week's class was much more scientifically intense than any we have had so far. In the place of discussion about human issues surrounding space exploration was a lecture about the scientific facts themselves. Such a shift in focus jolted me back to the reality that this class is actually a science course. It was important to do this, I think, because discussion of only the humanistic side of Mars exploration would leave out the guts of what is actually being researched. This class was all about the guts.
I found particularly interesting the data pertaining to the relative size, density, and distance to the sun of each planet. Venus is much more Earth-like than Mars; the two planets are very similar in terms of their density, size, and distance. By contrast, Mars is much less dense and quite a bit smaller than Earth. Yet, despite its proximity to Earth, Venus is a cloud-covered oven, proving that even small changes in distance to the Sun can drastically affect the climate of a planet. Or perhaps it is only a matter of different chemical evolutions of the different planets, in which case those making environmental policy should pay close attention to Venus. Given a few billion years, it could be us.
Mars is small, not particularly dense, and far away from the Sun; yet it is there, and not Venus, that we expect to find life. Culturally, this hope probably stemmed from Lowell's canals and the growth of popular belief of Martian life; scientifically, it may have stemmed from the technical challenges of sending probes to Venus (namely, designing a probe that would survive it). Perhaps we believed earlier that no life could survive in such a harsh environment as Venus. However, now that we know of the existence of extremophiles on Earth, it may be worth searching for life on Venus as well as Mars.On a completely different note, I'd like to thank everybody involved in putting on the bliny party; the discussions were interesting and the food was great! I had the opportunity to speak at some length with Dr. Khrushchev about Soviet politics; he stressed multiple times that by the late 1960s, government officials (including his father at the end of his time as premier) began to realize that a centralized economy could not work. I asked him whether his father actually believed in Marxist ideals, since there certainly was possible that a leader of a totalitarian government would not believe in the propaganda he was feeding to his people; Dr. Khrushchev told me that his father did believe in the basic principles of Communism, with the exception of centralized economy (at the end). I also asked him how the idea of competition among designers fit into the Communist idea of centralization and top-down management; what I inferred from his answer was that since the competition was between projects, it fit into the Communist ideology. Individual projects were individually controlled (though, as Dr. Khrushchev stated in class, they were mostly left alone since they were not of the highest priority).