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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Michael Frederickson (02/18/04)

Apart from a scientific understanding of Mars exploration, I think that the passionate discussions and amount of time we have spent discussing the religious implications of life elsewhere in the cosmos speaks to the high emotion involved in space exploration that might not be apparent at a glance. I've found that I have had to redefine my own notions about what the results of finding other life would be since we began discussing other life and religion a class and a half ago. I myself am not a particularly religious person. I've always viewed religion as a way to explain natural phenomena, allay fears of death, and to put a basic moral code in place. Though I find the moral values of religion to be endearing and vital to life, I've never particularly put stock in a creator manipulating our lives and giving us a purpose. In fact, before our discussions on the uniqueness of life I found myself agreeing with the point Kate brought up last class, that humans are very much like any other animal on earth, a result of the chaotic evolutionary process and living their lives out due to millions of chance circumstances. I've always assumed finding life on other planets would leave most religions speechless, trying to scramble to account for the fact that human life is not in fact unique. The opportunity to listen to other's opinions on the topic really made me ponder my own beliefs quite a bit after class. My initial research into the CNN “theological implications” article led me to the information that some religions have always left the possibility for other life open, a fact I certainly wasn't previously aware of. When discussing the topic with my parents, I found my somewhat less-religious father had similar views as mine. He claimed that finding life on another planet would shake many people that believed God had created humans and life solely on earth. My mother however, who is substantially more religious, claimed other life would only reaffirm her belief that God was omnipotent. On the other hand, friends I consulted had views in the middle, such as one friend who claimed the discovery of new life “would spur missionary zeal” and would “get people to say that this new life is more testament to the glory of God, while others would claim this proves we're not unique and not made in God's image, but rather that there have been multiple instances of evolution.” I was surprisingly swayed by the e-mail we read from Geoff's friend, which led me to consider the fact that life elsewhere would just be “more of us out there,” something I had previously overlooked when thinking other life would simply create more religious doubters.

I thought our discussion with Janet Cooper-Nelson was extremely effective. In the last two classes it has been extremely beneficial to have an expert on the topic helping to facilitate the discussion of our varied ideas. In a rather interesting moment of our discussion, I found myself wondering whether or not I could be so sure that there was no creator, as Janet brought up the notion of how much we are not aware of. I of course have pondered the vastness of the universe and our lack of knowledge about it, but for a moment I realized that we honestly have no conception of how big the universe may be, or what the nature of it is. At the same time I began to realize that I could not rule out a creator, because we simply know so little about the space that contains our world. It is extremely humbling when we look haughtily back at Percival Lowell's claims that canals existed on Mars. It is so easy to ask how he could make such a claim now that we know the truth, but in a hundred years there is no doubt that ideas we are currently confident in will be disdained and laughed at. This applies directly to the sheet music we looked at, as well as the poem. Clearly, ideas of Mars in the past were very different from our current ideas. Whether simply swept away with the romantic idea of finding life, or caught up in the paranoia of fearing interplanetary attack, people living in Lowell's time were extremely interested in Mars. Little has changed in terms of this interest, and I feel that culturally we would be just as excited now if a mysterious planet offered the prospect of life and our spacecraft and telescopes could not reach it to look for organisms. I think the cultural environment and the public will always be primed to be excited or fearful of other life. Though, as I mentioned above, I believe each coming generation will also make new discoveries, some correct and some to be disproved with new technologies in the future.

In terms of the Sagan/Mayr debate, I was interested in the comment that was made that both scientists were arguing for basically the same concept – that life may exist, we simply have no conclusive way to find out. I found our discussion on the debates to be productive, and feel we came to the proper consensus in agreeing that Sagan's call to continue searching is much more logical than trying to extrapolate the data we have now in hopes of mathematically defining the chances of finding life.

Overall I was very pleased with our discussion. I felt that we heard from a wide variety of people with many different opinions and was pleased with the time everyone put in outside of class to prepare. This preparation enriched the discussion and helped to bring the maximum number of opinions and thoughtful questions to the table, and in the end made for a very informative and lively class.



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