Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sagan’s Folly

We all make mistakes.

Even the late, great Carl Sagan.

I’m reading the non-fiction book, Life as We Do Not Know It, when author Peter Ward talks about Cosmic Carl’s disappointment when the equivalent of Martian polar bears didn’t stroll into view of the first Viking lander back in 1975. The Viking’s camera, designed to detect large critters, didn’t even find footprints. (Chapter 10, Mars.)

Carl had a “recurring fantasy,” as he called it, that footprints would be found after the sun rose on Mars, evidence of nocturnal animals visiting during the night. (Maybe he thought such animals would be marking their territory on the Viking lander.) The total weight of the space probe set limits on what could be included. Choices had to be made. Carl wanted lights to detect beasties making their nightly rounds and so other equipment, small but sophisticated, was left off.

But the night lights had nothing to illuminate in the way of Martian polar bears. Barsoom was bust for big beasts.

Then again, Ward points out that Carl Sagan did have a great influence on the decision to stress biological over physical science equipment with the Viking probes. So while in retrospect his decision to search for large ET life forms on Mars was overoptimistic, at least Carl quickly settled the debate over the issue.

Assuming that all the probes that NASA sent to Mars didn’t happen to land where Martian bears don’t live.


Fiddlers List said...

I think you should look at this first. Bet you can't explain it.

Ray said...

fiddlers list:

Thanks for the link.

I looked over the original Spirit rover photos and how they were enhanced and interpreted by Joseph P. Skipper at his site. The bulky object in the first photo, indicated by the black arrow, could be a pile of stones put there as a marker by some sort of thinking creature -- or not. Some of rocks in the scene could be covered by plant growth -- or not. (Isn't tautology grand?)

You bet I can't explain it. But I think I can. A Martian bear has a rocky hide and can conceal himself by standing still, pretending to be cairn. I'm lichen that as the best answer compared to what else is being suggested by Skipper.