Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Jonathan Russ (03/24/04)

Once again, the focus of this class was the human aspect of scientific exploration. Far from being stereotypically antisocial lab rats in white coats, scientists in the field in such a dangerous environment as Antarctica must be able to work together to achieve common goals. Small mistakes in a laboratory may result in great loss of time, destruction of equipment, and sometimes, hazardous situations; small mistakes in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, like stepping on the wrong snow bank, may result in injury or death.

I noticed a great similarity between Professor Dave Marchand's description of leading a team in the Dry Valleys and my own experience rock climbing. When dealing with any dangerous situation, whether it be intense cold and high winds or dangling from a rope at 11,000 feet above sea level, teamwork and communication are the most important attributes a successful group must have. However, this is a much different type of teamwork than is normally associated with academic work.

In most academic fields, debate is stressed as a way to approach the truth when dealing with important questions. Mathematicians discuss different ways of doing a problem; historians see the same events through different lenses and bring together their points of view to construct a fuller picture of the past. Without debate, there are only different scientists with different ideas; they are limited by their own views of the world and thus unable to see things that may be obvious to others.

It would seem that geological exploration in the Dry Valleys would follow these tenets; debate over the correct course to take would result in the group pursuing the best option for research. However, the dangerous environment removes the single factor that makes this type of debate possible: time. Indecisiveness in such a place can be just as bad, or worse, than making the wrong decision. Thus, strong, seasoned leadership is necessary to ensure that the team makes a decision, and that the decision made is the safest possible.

The rock climbing analogy can be carried to apply to this scenario. If a team is climbing high on a mountain and a storm is approaching, a leaderless team may sit around and discuss the likelihood of the storm hitting, its strength, how long before it will hit—and then the storm will hit and the team will be in mortal danger. By contrast, a team with a strong leader will begin descending immediately, keeping the group safe and avoiding the perils of indecisiveness.

Science is certainly not served best by a single leader dictating the course of a group at any time. However, when time is short and the situation is dangerous, there is no choice but to rely on the decisions of an experienced professional.
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