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Life on Mars?

The meaning of curiosity


Isro is threatening to send a mission to Mars. It is a bad idea but let's do it anyway. We need to learn the art of exploring bad ideas.

The Mars Curiosity Rover's main mission, besides photographing itself next to coollooking rocks and getting usefully lost, is to answer a 2. 5 billion dollar question: could or did Mars support life at some point in time? 2. 5 billion dollars is a hell of a lot of money to pay for a car with no passengers except a history question. 2. 5 billion dollars is more than the GNP of a great many third-world nations. 2. 5 billion dollars, delivered properly, could probably save all of the 16, 000 kids dying of hunger every day. If you had 2. 5 billion dollars, you would be in Forbes' list of the 500 richest people in the world. So why do it? Why spend so much money? One can almost imagine filling out the government forms: clearly state purpose of needed funds;use extra space if necessary. And there we hover, pen poised, trying to drum up 2. 5 billion reasons, but knowing there is only one honest answer: curiosity.

As we know now, the money was spent effectively. The rover did reach Mars. The nine hundred kilos of ultra-sophisticated science instrumentation set off in late November, traveled for nine months, survived Mars' atmosphere and then landed flawlessly. It landed as planned, landed on another planet some hundred million kilometers away, landed on a world without any known life, air-traffic control, runways, firetrucks or on-ground support systems of any kind. A thousand things could have gone wrong. There could have been a freak storm;Martian dust storms can cover half the planet. The rover could have landed on a rock, its legs well off the ground, and it would have spent the rest of its existence wriggling like a cockroach turned on its back. Or it could've had some gravity dropped on its ass, like the time Carnegie Mellon's 1. 5 million dollar Dante robot slipped and got stuck in Mount Spurr, Alaska. There could have been software bugs, like the one that doomed the maiden voyage of the Ariane 5 rocket. There could have been hardware bugs, like the one that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle disaster. A thousand things could have gone wrong, but didn't;no wonder the engineers at Houston's Space Center tore off their T-shirts and shrieked like middle-aged Justin Bieber fans.

Fact is we were very lucky this time around. But we shouldn't need luck. We should be building machines that can absorb a lot of misfortune. We need swarms of low-cost, expendable, self-repairing vehicles that thrive on contingency. The current transport model is unsustainable.

I remember listening to the famous roboticist Rodney Brooks at a conference in Yale in the mid-90 s, where he outlined two distinct approaches to building robots. First, there was the MIT approach, his approach, namely, the use of embodied cognition;that is, robots whose behaviour flowed out of the way their bodies were built and not from complex, super-sophisticated algorithms. Then there was the Carnegie-Mellon model (Takeo Kanade, the head of CMU's robotics department, was sitting in the audience, glaring). The CMU approach favoured do-it-all, super-expensive, one-of-kind monsters. The Mars Curiosity Rover with its six-wheeled, tenfeet by nine-feet by seven-feet, nine-hundred kilo frame, laser drills, geological probes, nuclear-powered batteries and more cameras than a busload of Japanese tourists seems to be inspired by the CMU school of robotics. If it had failed, we'd have lost 2. 5 billion dollars at one go. This is not exploration as much as a round at the gambling table. We don't need smarter machines, we need cleverer ones. We need cockroaches to explore Mars not brainy dragons.

Still, though I believe the Mars Curiosity Rover is emblematic of the wrong approach to space exploration, the fact is my heart doesn't give a damn. By any reckoning, the project is indeed a triumph of modern engineering. It is worth taking a moment to remember just how far we have come as a species. A mere five hundred to six hundred years ago we were still copying books by hand. Just two hundred years ago, steam locomotives were the bleeding edge of technology. In fact, it took six months just to get from London to Delhi via the Cape of Good Hope. Of course, writers had already begun to imagine going to Mars, but the complexity of the travel itself was usually hand-waved away. For example, in one of the earliest such imaginings, Unveiling a Parallel (1893), Alice Jones and Ella Merchant dropped their narrator into a feminist utopia on Mars with the breezy comment: 'I shall not weary you with an account of my voyage, since you are more interested in the story of my sojourn on the red planet than in the manner of my getting there. '

But early science fiction got a few things right about the journey to Mars. Irrespective of whether humans or machines are hurled all the way from Earth to Mars, the only real motive for the journey is curiosity. Necessary actions come bundled with reasons, but to do the unnecessary act we need curiosity. It may be unnecessary to go to Mars, yes. But we should do it anyway. As a species, our job is to be Don Quixote to nature's Sancho Panza. When the knight's sensible aide expostulates that the giants are in fact merely windmills, Don Quixote retorts that Sancho clearly has no idea of 'the business of adventure. ' Indeed. The business of adventure is to boldly blunder and go blundering where no blunderer has gone before.

The costs of being a cautious people can be seen in our timorous history. We were blessed with a land surrounded on three sides by oceans, and yet I'm hardpressed to recall a single desi navigator who was curious enough to check out what lay on the other side of the horizon. Where's our Thor Heyerdahl, Ernest Shackleton, Columbus, Magellan, Zheng He, al-Biruni, Erik the Red? We had sailors and tradesmen but where are our explorers? It is not that we lacked people who could imagine travel. For example, it is remarkable that the worldhopping vimanas mentioned in our ancient texts, despite their hopeless iron-age flaws, are treated as engineered artifacts, not magical devices. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, a leading expert on Bangla science-fiction, told me that Hemendrakumar Ray's Meghduter Marte Agaman (The Arrival of Messengers on Earth) was speculating about Martian aliens as early as 1925.
There are other signs we've changed. Three years ago, we sent Chandryaan-I to the moon. ISRO is now threatening to send a mission to Mars. It is a bad idea. As Madhavan Nair, former ISRO chairman, sensibly points out, the smart thing to do would be to focus on getting our manned mission infrastructure in better shape. We're going to spend billions to send a vehicle to take really grainy pictures of a planet that doesn't even have a waterfall. Of course it is a bad idea. But let's do it anyway. We need to learn the art of exploring bad ideas. There is something about a physical focus on exploring, about actual curiosity - not just telling a story about curiosity - that can only be justified by the act itself. As the poet Roethke wrote, it is by going we learn where we have to go.

Menon is a science fiction writer.

Reader's opinion (1)

vijay singhAug 15th, 2012 at 16:28 PM

Yes, I too heard our beloved honest economist PM announcing the mars mission in his Independence Day speech on Red Fort. I just want to say, it is better spend this much money strengthening our infrastructure, helping our farmers by educating them of doing intelligent farming (oldest farming method

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