There’s a very cool and interesting article on The Verge about the consequences of discovering liquid, flowing water on Mars. While many people – and I include myself in this bunch – have got tremendously excited about this discovery, what the article points out in detail are the massive obstacles still to overcome before we can actually do anything about the fact that we know there is water on Mars. Still, what’s most excited about all of this is that these are relatively short-term, highly solvable (is that a word?) problems, that are pretty much the only thing standing behind mankind and what many consider to be the most important discover in history.
What makes the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars as opposed to, say, 20km underneath the icecaps of Europa, is that there is a genuine possibility of us getting access to this water within the lifetime of many, if not most of the world’s current population. Assuming we can keep contaminants out of the equation, once we get our hands (not literally) on the water for testing, we will be at a pretty significant crossroads.
Given how incredibly resilient life has turned out to be on earth (fancy living at the bottom of the ocean in a pitch-black volcano of boiling sulphur?), it seems highly possible that some form of life could exist within the water on Mars. The results of our studies will go one of two ways – we will either discover extra-terrestrial life, or we won’t (OK, so there is also the terrifying prospect of ‘inconclusive’ results if something goes wrong and contamination is suspected but I don’t want to even think about that yet). If there is no life, then the search will continue. Until we’ve searched every corner of the known universe, there will always be a chance that some form of extra terrestrial life is out there waiting to be discovered, though I guess that chance will effectively diminish each time we turn up empty-handed.
Then there is the other possibility. We will discover life from an alien world. History, religion and the belief systems of the world will be turned upside down. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to discover a 2001-esque black obelisk at the same time, so answering this single question will raise an overwhelming torrent of further questions, but at the same time answering that single question will make so many other questions seem insignificant. God created the world? OK cool, but what about Mars, and the life there? Life started in a primordial soup? OK great, but that’s just on earth – where did it start before that?
Ultimately, the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars has at last put mankind at the gateway of a potential discovery so massive that it’s hard to express in words how significant it would be. I guess it’s a bit like the first time a curious primate picked up a branch and thought about using it as a club – he would have known that some exciting stuff was about to go down, but he would have had absolutely no concept of where the use of a tool would ultimately take him and his descendents. That’s pretty much where mankind is now. We may be on the cusp of something that we cannot even fathom, yet ironically that makes the drive to get there all the more powerful. Now we just need to wait; I hope it’s not too long.