Friday, August 10, 2012

Lost Civilization

Percival Lowell's view of the Solis Lacus region of Mars, c. 1896
Telescopic view of the same region from 2005 by D. Peach, Bucks, UK
Note: At just about the limit of visibility, many people will see straight lines
on the surface of the telescopic images that strongly evoke the Lowellian canals.
It's not an optical illusion, as these lines are visible in all three telescopic images.
What they actually are and what causes them to appear is a mystery.

Like many youths, I was something of a science fiction fan during those awkward pre-teen and early-teen years, but I particularly enjoyed science fiction movies and television shows from the 1950s and early 60s both for their utter cheesiness and for their often very strong message of civilization's self-destruction. Who can forget "Science Fiction Theater," "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet," (on ViewMaster no less!) and the early "Twilight Zone?" There was much more than that.

Science fiction at the time could almost always be relied on to be a bracing counterpoint to the kind of hyper-American patriotism young people were being indoctrinated into every day of their lives.

I've mentioned Disneyland a few times in reference to my youth and the more recent events in Anaheim. I was a pretty frequent visitor from soon after the park opened until we left Southern California in 1959. Two of my favorite attractions were the Rocket to the Moon and the House of the Future both in Tomorrowland. The notion of a Future of Unlimited Possibilities was the American cultural counterpoint to the constant drumbeat of nuclear holocaust -- a holocaust that would destroy any hope of "civilization" forever.

Mars figured heavily in the science fiction of the era, as it had for generations, at least since the advent of the Martian Canals that later observers would insist were nothing but illusions -- as they pointed to spacecraft images of the surface of the planet that showed.... something like canals. Forbidden Planet -- a take-off on Shakespeare's The Tempest -- was set on a planet that resembled Mars, Angry Red Planet, Flight to Mars, Red Planet Mars, were just some of the pictures released in the 1950's that dealt with the Mars of imagination, sometimes touching on the fundamental Lowellian notion of a "Dying Civilization."

Of course Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury, among many other authors, would pick up on and elaborate the themes of rough going civilizations facing extinction, many of which were set on Mars or on a planet like Mars, but perhaps the most influential take on the Dying Civilization of Mars trope was that of H. G. Wells' brilliant "War of the Worlds," from 1898. 

Of course I saw the 1953 movie. In the theater. I was too young to understand it, but still it made a tremendous impression on me, especially the scenes of the destruction of Los Angeles. Given the constantly whipped up fear of Soviet attack during the era, such scenes were terrifying and too true to life.

Many years would pass before I read the novel and comprehended what Wells was getting at by positing the invasion of London by Martians and their essentially casual destruction of everything the British held dear. It was an allegory of the British Imperial behavior toward Natives everywhere, but at the time particularly in Africa. They arrived, they destroyed. It was quite the counterpoint -- and in some ways a complement -- to Kipling.

Be that as it may, the notion that Mars either has hosted or currently hosts an alien civilization -- whether dying or not -- is strong among the Planetary Anomalist community. It remained strong even after the the iconic Face on Mars was rather cruelly debunked. I say "cruelly" because there are so many claimed artifacts on Mars and supposed evidence of Civilization, some of which is faked, but there are so many real anomalies as well. The Face, while perhaps not being carved into the landscape by Martian artisans, is most definitely worth further study -- as is the case with the rest of the mesas and buttes in the Cydonia region -- because how it formed is not understood at all, and how the rest of the formations in Cydonia came to be the way they are is a mystery.

Planetary scientists do not know very much about how Mars "works" -- or if they do, they're not saying.

Interestingly, after 36 years of rigorous official denials that Viking Landers found evidence of biology at the surface in 1976, there have been some recent studies that suggest the early denials were in error. Yes, well, that would be typical of Mars study. Error is the rule in Mars study, no matter who is doing it, nor how rigorously they deny their own error! (Lowell comes to mind as setting the standard for that behavior.)

Given the way Mars has been studied, especially since the early space craft exploration era, it would be almost impossible to recognize the presence of a Lost Civilization on Mars if it ever existed. After decades of exploration and investigation, after all, there still no definitive conclusion regarding the presence -- or absence -- of biology on Mars. Many of the investigations that might support or refute hypotheses about biology on Mars are not done. It's as if, perhaps, the planetary science community doesn't want to know one way or another but only wants to extend the study indefinitely.

Some of the Anomalists -- and a few planetary scientists such as Gil Levin -- claim cover-up and worse, but I suspect it's not that. Science, especially the planetary sciences, often works on the Big Man principle, and progress in understanding is often a matter of the prominence and position of those who hypothesize and theorize, not necessarily a matter of skilled and insightful observation and coherent presentation. It's human nature, especially in institutional settings. Politics, in other words, always plays an important role in "what we know." Who is making a claim and in what venue matters.

It's Civilized!

The fact that the study continues, now in Gale Crater with Curiosity, but it cannot be conclusive about Martian biology -- if there is or was any -- or anything else for that matter, is no doubt deliberate, but not necessarily conscious. Gale is thought to have been a lake at one time,  just as Gusev was (the site of the Spirit Rover landing not far away). At the present time, however, Gale is dessicated and dry -- just as Gusev is -- and there is unlikely to be any evidence of recent water or other fluid on the surface; there is unlikely to be any evidence of biology either, at least none that could be recognized without endless dispute. The Opportunity Lander possibly imaged fossils at its landing site in Meridiani, but those images have never been accepted as definitive nor could they be because of the nature of the study itself.

Landing at a site known to be dessicated and dry -- such as anywhere near the Mars equator -- will be unlikely to show any evidence of recent fluid flow or biological activity. On the other hand, a few years ago, a lander plopped down at the margin of the northern polar region, landing on a patch of ice no less, and it appears that fluid droplets were promptly imaged on the landing struts. They remained for many days, but in most of the images released by the Phoenix Mission, the presence of those droplets was either ignored or consciously cut out.

Mars Water -- droplets deposited on Phoenix lander strut, 2008
It became something of a running gag among lay observers that the evidence of water at the surface of Mars that for so long had been sought so eagerly was right there in front of the investigators but it was being ignored. The problem was actually more complex. The droplets were on a landing strut that there was no way to get to for experimental purposes, just as the ice upon which the Phoenix landed could not be directly probed because there was no equipment that could reach it.

A problem with the drops on the Phoenix lander also theoretical. For decades, it has been conventional wisdom that there cannot be liquid water on the surface of Mars, period. Any liquid water at the surface would almost immediately freeze or sublimate/evaporate, because temperatures and atmospheric pressures are too low to sustain liquid water at the surface. This conventional wisdom has been challenged for years, but it has been treated as Iron Law in the planetary science community because -- as Carl Sagan was often wont to say -- "calculations show" that liquid water can't exist at the surface of Mars for more than a few minutes, which was extended to mean that it can't exist at all.

The droplets which you see in the pictures above are not only obviously there, they lasted for many days, and from those three images, it's clear that they are growing, moving and changing over the course of several days. This is, according to the Iron Law of Conventional Wisdom "unpossible." It can't be happening. (At the same time, of course, NASA and JPL and Malin Space Science Systems have routinely announced evidence of current surface water flows when presenting images of recent gullies.)

The article that's linked, however, describes means and mechanisms that make such an "unpossible" thing not only possible but likely, indeed certain to have occurred.

IMNSHO, biology is possible on Mars, and evidence for its active presence was likely found by the Viking Landers in 1976. That evidence was misinterpreted, I suspect to some extent maliciously. There has never been any follow up to the hypotheses that were presented to explain the conflicting results from the Vikings -- which is one of the reasons why I suspect that those involved in the furor actually understood the data to indicate biology rather than "exotic chemistry."

There is most certainly fluid at the surface of Mars, and there is much fluid underground, but how much of it is "water" in the sense we would understand it is an open question. I suspect there is very little pure liquid water anywhere on Mars.  More than likely, almost all liquid water on Mars is in the form of very salty brines, or -- as I came to realize Opportunity Mission in Meridiani -- actually dilute (in some cases concentrated) sulfuric acid. I suspect there has never been an actual "water regime" on Mars, and the images of an Ancient Watery Mars we sometimes see are as much fantasy as any Lost Civilization idea from science fiction literature.

It is highly unlikely that there has ever been any kind of civilization on Mars, not so much because it is "unpossible" as it is because the emerging understanding of the history of Mars will demonstrate there's never been an opportunity for a civilization to develop or become established, in part because of the continuing chaos of the Martian environment.

Despite terrestrial tribulations nowadays, the Earth has been a calm refuge by comparison.

If I continue with this Mars series, I may get into some of that "emerging understanding of the history of Mars.

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