Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Its "Mars" time

I just listened to this awesome lecture on the Mars Exploration Rover Project by its leader Steve Squyres. He maintains a site here. Oh I am so thrilled, I just loved it!

It is after quite a while that I have goosebumps arising from the thrill of scientific exploration and investigation made during a wide audience lecture. In general, I always feel that when any well-known scientific figure talks to a non-scientific audience, the complexity and intricacies of the subject are either vastly undermined or largely ignored. (Digression- Of course there can also be the other extreme where the audience has to suffer through slides of pure untranslated scientific data without any meaningful interpretations). I find this somewhat condescending attitude a little annoying, and generally don't like to be told that all is hunky-dory, and that the specific questions have clear answers without ambiguities. Being a scientist I always find that hard to believe. It takes ages before a hypothesis is clearly proven, and before that come miniscule faltering steps, and speculations. And these are the most interesting bits that can allow an audience to figure through the questions and come up with possibilities on their own. I find that the process with all its failures make talks much more alive, and interactive. And this is what Dr.Squyres did.

First of all I have to say that the topic - Exploring Mars, is by itself, exciting. But he brought forth the enthusiasm, drawing from the beginning the struggles, the ingenious ideas, the sheer simplicity of some solutions, never undermining the science involved in all the stages. Each detail was lovingly shown, making it easier to grasp the enormity of space exploration ventures. He dispeled some of the popular notions that prevailed before the mission, but not all. There are many varieties of textures on Mars, and for now, its just a beginning. But oh, what a beginning! When the mission started, the Rover exploration robots - "Spirit" and "Opportunity" were estimated to last 90 days. Its been almost a Martian year (600+ days) now and both are alive. Simple solutions of facing in the right direction to keep the solar panels that power them going, lucky "cleaning" events such as winds to clear the omnipresent Martian dust off solar panels, all add to the longevity of the courageous Rovers. They bring forth images, data on minerals, rocks, atmosphere, and more to help us piece together the history of Mars. Originally thought to be dry, the explorations have revealed large chunks of evidence for the presence of water at some point on the planet. Dried beds with porous rocks, minerals that have crystallized out of the porous rocks, and other minerals containing oxy-hydroxy molecules (goethite) all point to the planet being wet nobody-knows how many years ago. Surfaces containing fine and coarse grain materials hint of violent upheavals in Martian planet history. More and more data keeps creeping in. The landscape keeps changing, from craters with lava rock, to beautifully sedimented hills (named after the Columbia shuttle), and surfaces with a wealth of geological information. To sort and analyze these enormous volumes of data will take ages and many careers, but its just a beautiful start, and with each passing Sol (martian day-24hr39min), they quench our thirst for knowledge some more.

To think that just a 100 years ago, driving cars were the big achievement. From then to now... as Steve Squyers says "Its certainly a lot of fun driving robots on Mars"!

Its been a long but short, giddyingly glorius ride. To be able to see what went on behind the scenes from the beginning, the people involved, the creative process, made me want to be an undergraduate participating in this "once-in-a-lifetime" mission. As G says, humans can create the worst disasters on the planet, but they sure can challenge the frontiers in an inspiring way too. For now, that is what makes me happy.


At 10:44 AM, Blogger GREATBONG said...

Shubho Bijoya.....enjoying Pujo in Kolkata after 6 years.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Bidi-K said...

Arnab: And having loads of fun, I am sure! Bawaal et al. Mita is also with you? Wish her from us as well... eat all that you can before coming back to this food-barren zone! This time even I missed pujos so much (usually not so much the case), and wish I could be home. Next time, perhaps!
Make the best of it!

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Ash said...

As my fave guy once said "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge" ... so true. Hey, have you read any of the books by Carl Sagan - he was a wonderful author, and his books that kind that bring the awe and excitement of science to the general public.

I had the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center this past summer. It was a wonderful experience, and I was very kicked to be able to actually touch the massive and real Saturn V rocket. The IMAX movie on the history of space explorationw as fascinating too.

There's something about space that is so ... attractive, and beckoning, no ?
If I had an iota of talent in physics and math, I'd have given it a shot :P !

( Check out this lovely excerpt of one of his talks )

At 4:52 AM, Blogger Bidi-K said...

Hi Ash,

I love Carl Sagan too, and apart from liking Cosmos, I loved his book on evolution - dragons of eden.. its my all-time favorite!
on another note, hope you had fun on dussehra...
and thanks for the link on desi-pundit!



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