Curiosity

As I sit here watching, more or less live, all the guys at JPL as the Mars Science Laboratory (otherwise known as “Curiosity”) prepares to land on Mars, I’m wandering off in speculation about humans as a species and our own curiosity, the trait that makes us do things exactly like this.

[The vehicle is being drawn by Mars gravity and is on its way up to 5.9 kilometers per second, or 21,240 kph (13,200 mph) entry speed. Mars has a thin atmosphere, so slowing the lander is one of those tricky things.]

[Okay, things happen much faster than I can type, and certainly too often to allow me to form coherent thoughts on a different topic. Just accept that the lander has successfully touched down now, and even transmitted the first images back. More further down.]

Back to small ‘c’ curiosity. When we look at all of the different species on earth, we see a very wide variety of attention paid towards surroundings and events, but overall, the vast majority of it deals solely with survival: Is it food? Is it a threat? Is it sexy? And while it is exceedingly difficult for us to form anything more than wild guesses at to what goes through another species’ minds, there probably aren’t too many that look at, for instance, the behavior of a nearby bird and wonder, “Why did they do that?” (exactly as we’re doing right now. Or at least I am.) This is something, however, that humans do constantly. We have just, at enormous expense in money, time and effort, placed a little go-cart on the surface of a planet that is far less hospitable to us than any location on earth, and for what? Because we want to know just what it’s like, and if there’s any possibility that sometime in the past it fostered its own forms of life.

Now, it’s easy to say that’s a pretty damn cool question, and the idea of life on a neighboring planet is remarkably stimulating. It’s very hard to say why, though. I mean, we’re pretty sure it’s gone now, but even if some rudimentary bacteria remains hidden somewhere, it’s something that would have so little application to our lives, our survival, here on earth that it’s way out of proportion to how much effort we’re expending trying to find out. The cats asleep in the room where I type this right now certainly wouldn’t give a rat’s ass (rat’s asses being the standard form of currency to cats, equal to €1.8 or $4.95 US) to know anything at all about it. And believe me, they’ve got the time on their paws – their biggest concern is whether someone ran fresh water into the tub for them. No, it’s just Homo sapiens that is so damn interested in finding out such things.

Everyone who doesn’t like space programs makes this point; isn’t there something more important that we could be doing here on earth? And not to knock the question, because I think it’s good that people step back and gain some perspective sometimes, but I’m forced to wonder if there was something more important that they themselves could have been doing other than watching TV, or working at whatever job they actually hold. I’m pretty certain not everyone that asks this is doing medical research or installing plumbing in third-world countries, and possesses no smart phone, Twitter account, or DVD player.

Our curiosity does seem a bit misguided at times, but it bears some examination too. It’s responsible for every last scientific advancement that we’ve ever made, and as I’ve said in earlier posts, that time and effort was an investment that pays off to everyone the world over. We cannot predict what kind of knowledge we can gain from space exploration, any more than we predicted what could be done with the strange electrical resistance of silicon (responsible for my ability to type this.) The early scientists who played with cultures in a lab instead of working directly with patients, accomplished a hell of a lot more for our survival, surpassing individual efforts with global effect. Knowledge is a bankable asset, more so than any monetary figure, and it’s this very curiosity of ours that drives it higher, farther, greater.

But, is this justification? Are we simply succumbing to some basic emotional need, a quirk of evolution that developed this trait of curiosity within us that we now satisfy with actions that bear little relation to our survival? I point out on a regular basis that religion is far more emotional than practical, and have examined the underlying drives behind the belief in, and support of, various questionable subjects like conspiracies and UFOs. Does curiosity stand up to the application of critical thinking? Is it an urge that we should be more aware of and resistant to, so that it’s applied effectively when it is? How far is too far?

I could argue that the large number of people that bear an interest in things like space programs or particle accelerators is justification that they’re serving a purpose, but I openly reject the exact same argument when it comes to religion. Perhaps I could say that no harm is being done, except insofar as the money and efforts could be spent in pursuits more socially oriented, like disease research. Right now, the spinoff benefits are the primary argument in favor of many of these programs – while not insignificant, this does seem to be a roundabout way of accomplishing things.

Human nature plays a large part in all of this. The jubilation within mission control at JPL, somewhat less exuberant than soccer fans but probably considerably more sober, bespoke of not just the release of tension, but the accomplishment of a major piece of engineering, a puzzle of vast proportions. To send a little craft millions of kilometers away into an atmosphere humans have never witnessed themselves and soft-land a semi-autonomous rolling probe, immediately receiving back images from the surface, is an astounding feat, and that’s probably underselling it. Those that pulled it off were motivated to tackle it by their own personal interests in the puzzles, far more than they might have been motivated to find alternate energy sources or more efficient farming methods. In other words, we’re likely benefiting from the highest yield of their abilities by indulging their interests. Who among us hasn’t had a job, or simply tackled a task, that failed to receive our best efforts because we really couldn’t give a shit about the undertaking? And when we purchase the aforementioned DVD players and smart phones, are we fostering our own motivations to work harder and afford such things? Who gets to judge what’s excessive, frivolous, or unnecessary? Did even the collapse of communism occur, at least in part, because of too little encouragements of these type?

Even if we directly compare the emotional satisfactions of landing a laboratory on Mars with the practicing of religion or pursuit of conspiracies, we have to recognize the end results as well. I have yet to see any beneficial technology, or even attitudes, from those promoting 9/11 ‘truth’ or a cabal behind JFK’s assassination, and religion seems to foster at least as many bad behaviors as good (and I’m being generous here.) But when you arrive at a destination through the use of a GPS unit, you’re directly benefiting from those puzzles solved by the geeks in the space programs, who figured out how to use satellites thousands of kilometers away to pinpoint your location in seconds. The particle accelerators like the LHC at CERN are directly related to finding ways to enhance the conductivity of metals, which not only affects just how efficient computers might be (and makes the GPS units so small,) but can significantly decrease our energy needs by creating materials that do not turn electricity into waste heat – if you’ve ever wondered what a superconductor is, that’s it. Even the quest to save weight, and thus fuel, in a lander project can result in smaller cameras that can actually go into an ailing patient and see a medical issue without extensive surgery. Almost all of these things take time to come to fruition, and often when they finally do, we’ve taken for granted the connection between the goal to reach the moon and the signal that brings us the Olympics. All of it because of curiosity.

So if you haven’t seen it, don’t bother waiting for me to describe it. Go find the footage on your own of the moments the signal came back to earth and confirmed that, some fourteen minutes before, Curiosity had successfully touched down (the signal lag from Mars means that the folks at JPL were monitoring pre-programmed instructions and not doing any control of their own.) The jubilation you see is not just personal accomplishment, but the actual scientific advancement of our species as a whole, hidden within a low-resolution image of the lander’s own shadow. Even if we cannot see the point of the program, the delight and relief is still infectious, and that emotional communication is another base trait of humans. They’re what make us accomplish so much, so maybe we can indulge them a bit.

UPDATE: Despite the fact that I read both, I really hadn’t read either this post at Weird Things, or the post at Cracked that he based it on, before I wrote this. Really. I just feel the need to point that out.

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