When Curiosity gets the best of us

While a NASA rover explores the surface of Mars, we on Earth are left to wonder about what’s beyond

The Mars rover Curiosity landed in August. It will analyze rock and soil samples on the surface of the red planet. Its eventual destination is Mount Sharp (above).
The Mars rover Curiosity landed in August. It will analyze rock and soil samples on the surface of the red planet. Its eventual destination is Mount Sharp (above).
Credit: 
Photo supplied by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Mars rover is the first of its kind to investigate the possibility of life ever existing on Mars.
The Mars rover is the first of its kind to investigate the possibility of life ever existing on Mars.
Credit: 
Photo supplied by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The rover's cameras have sent back the first high-definition photos of the planet’s surface.
The rover's cameras have sent back the first high-definition photos of the planet’s surface.
Credit: 
Photo supplied by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When NASA’s rover Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars this August, astronomy enthusiasts everywhere rejoiced. David Hanes was one of them.

“It was miraculous,” he said.

Hanes, head of the department of physics, engineering physics and astronomy, has been studying astronomy since the late 1960s. He’s been curious about space since he was a child. It’s what most astronomers will confess as their reason for getting into the science, he said.

“I think the biggest driver of all is intellectual curiosity,” he said. “It’s really just for the love of the knowledge.”

Curiosity is the first rover to investigate the possibility of life’s previous existence on Mars. For the next two years, Curiosity will analyze rock and soil samples to see if Mars’ environment could have ever supported life.

The NASA mission can also lead to new possibilities for Earth’s population. If Mars is proven to have been habitable at one point, a new future for humankind may be on the horizon.

“If something terrible happened to the Earth, then species would survive in this other location,” Hanes said. “Mars just happens to be the nearest planet we can imagine doing that on.”

This yearning for knowledge about space has been around for a long time — Ancient Greeks were among the first to attempt to explain the patterns of celestial bodies.

“We’ve always been curious about things,” Hanes said. “It’s been with us since the birth of the human species.”

In the Early Stone Age, curiosity fueled the discovery of using fire for survival purposes. In a 2009 article from The Economist, Harvard University’s Richard Wrangham argues that cooking with fire was key in the evolution of modern humans.

Interest in what lies in the unknown was never limited to space exploration. In the 15th and 16th century, one of the most innovative methods of exploration — sea travel — resulted in the European colonization of the Americas.

“It was for empire,” James Carson, a professor in the department of history said.

While explorers gathered information on these voyages to the New World, the ultimate purpose was more materialistic, Carson said.

“The gathering of knowledge always leads to the gathering of resources,” he said. “The reason you gathered and disseminated [knowledge] was to motivate people to go to … the Americas, to exploit it for resources.”

According to him, rovers like Curiosity can lead the way to using resources from Mars.

“It’s all about finding and inquiring but then you look at future plans and you think, well, maybe a base can be built on Mars,” he said. “Maybe it can be mined.”

When the Europeans colonized the Americas, they were also searching for resources to use.

With exploration of new land comes the desire to claim ownership, Carson said.

The Europeans would typically erect something like a flag or a cross wherever they landed. In modern times, six American flags remain on the surface of the moon — monuments from the manned Apollo missions of the late 60s and early 70s.

“That’s part of the underlying colonial spirit,” Carson said.

He said there are parallels that can be drawn to Mars today.

Ancient Romans named Mars after the Roman god of war. The Curiosity rover’s landing site is called Bradbury Landing after science fiction author Ray Bradbury. The solar system’s tallest mountain sits on Mars — Olympus Mons is almost three times the height of Mount Everest.

“We named it; we name every feature,” he said.

With the Europeans, Carson said naming landscapes was a total obsession. It’s not far from what we see today.

According to Carson, Mars exploration is part of a mission to push society forward. It contributes to the “doctrine of progress” — something that influenced Europe’s colonization of the Americas, some historians say.

“Space exploration is a real indicator of progress,” he said, “And all that progress is thought of as technology and improvement of the human mind.”

He cautions against the dangers of what exploration can bring to new lands.

“When the Europeans came to America, they carried with them … microbes that killed the Natives,” he said. “If you take that scenario and apply it to Mars, what unintended consequence is our intrusion on this world going to have?”

According to Sergio Sismondo, the reasons behind human curiosity are nearly impossible to pinpoint.

Despite its potential biological explanations, explaining curiosity is near meaningless, he said.

Sismondo, a professor in the department of philosophy, said future efforts to exploit the land on Mars might not be so fruitful either.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s a practical endeavour,” he said. “Sure there might be precious minerals on Mars, but the cost of transporting precious minerals from Mars ends up being so enormous they cease being precious.”

Still, certain issues remain with the Curiosity rover and other Mars missions.

“I think the big ethical issue here is whether we want to invest this kind of money in this project — a project that is fueled by a small dose of curiosity and a large dose of other things,” Sismondo said.

Human curiosity, according to Sismondo, remains an important thing for the species.

“It’s advantageous for humans to be curious,” he said. “It is worthwhile because we have that drive.”

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