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Prepare for what Mars rover Curiosity and other 'big science' may reveal

The rover Curiosity could soon beam back evidence of past (or current) life on Mars. Like other recent news in basic science, humans must know how to absorb such challenges to understanding.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / August 6, 2012

An image from an earlier Mars rover, Opportunity, shows a rock outcropping dubbed "El Capitan" with distinctive texture familiar to geologists as the sites where crystals of salt minerals form within rocks that sit in briny water. Parts of Mars were once "drenched" with so much water that life could easily have existed there, NASA states

REUTERS/NASA/JPL

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Are humans ready to grasp what scientists may soon throw at them?

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Take, for example, the mission of Curiosity, the aptly named rover that just made a spectacular landing on Mars.

Its unique purpose is to search for carbon, amino acids, and other building blocks of life – at least as life is known on this planet. Within weeks its three chemistry labs could possibly beam back the first evidence of extraterrestrial life – either as it may have existed in the past or as it currently survives under the Mars surface.

Such news would trigger a revolution in human perspectives not seen since Copernicus announced that Earth was not the center of the universe.

Or take a particle detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. It was delivered to the International Space Station last year with a mission to find the elusive “dark matter” that makes up about a quarter of the universe and may be tied to the equally puzzling substance known as antimatter.

Last month, scientists announced that the $2 billion detector had found particles never before seen in nature. Or as one researcher put it, the device is searching for “phenomena that so far we have not had the imagination or the technology to discover.”

And then there was the announcement July 4 of the discovery of the Higgs boson, or the so-called God particle. This subatomic particle is considered essential to the theory of how matter has mass and indeed how the stars and planets were formed. “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never [reached] before,” said one physicist.

Not perhaps since Einstein upended Newton more than a century ago has science had the potential to challenge humans about the nature of reality or the origins of life.

As might be seen from these latest projects, new discoveries should not be viewed merely as marvels of science. Nor can they be expected to be supported only if they are “practical,” in the way that NASA tries to show how space missions influence daily life on Earth.

Rather they are the latest attempts to push back frontiers of knowledge in the hope of understanding what is eternal, not just in natural laws but for what humans regard as life. Or as NASA puts it in defining its main goal: “Humans are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further.”

This desire to explain creation or find basic principles is itself a thing to behold in the universe. It can’t be found in particles or amino acids. Yet it drives humans to probe the cosmos and the subatomic, perhaps in the hope of knowing that meaning relies on more than mere matter.

Each new scientific discovery, whether it is Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA – only whets the human appetite to discover deeper truths below the surface of what is visible.

Perhaps after so many discoveries in recent centuries, humans are ready to absorb the news from Curiosity that Mars has sustained life or that there is evidence of dark matter or forces that give mass. If the human spirit of inquiry is infinite, so, too, is its capacity for understanding something beyond what it now grasps.

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