Tuesday, August 23, 2005
I sit at my computer and I can watch Martian movies, real ones, filmed on location by the first robotic astronauts, mechanical twins roving the desolate reddish landscape for the last year and a half. NASA revealed these images in a short film of just a few seconds, in black and white, robotic cinema verite. I'm pecking at this keyboard on this computer and some 45 million miles away -- Mars will be getting a bit closer these next few months -- and many will mark how this other planet, smaller than the one I call home, takes a slow circular dance around the Sun.
There are no people to see in the short movie, no mulit-limbed invasion squads. The camera filmed in some 12 minutes this passing of "dust devils" across the rocky expanse of Mars which I have sat and watched for maybe a half an hour. It is odd, really, here at this far technological beginning point, this moment and place where I can see what a camera on a remote control cart sees. How long, I wonder, will we Earth-folk take to build and then send other robots to Mars or beyond? In a hundred years, will some other inhabitant of this valley in eastern Tennessee watch robots taking clunky steps to build some empty metal shells that might house fuel or food or other robots? Will it take fifty years or maybe two hundred and fifty?
There have been recent discussions here on this planet about Science and Space and what Science is or should be. Some theories put forth that millions of years ticked past here on this world -- hundreds of millions -- and lifeforms bubbled and swam and clumped together, thanks to the water and the dirt and the air and the fire, and caught hold and started growing. Some theories put forth that a Creator, a Prime Force, made all there is on this planet in six days and rested on the seventh day from that labor. And not only what is on this planet, but everything out in this solar system and beyond it, millions and millions of other galaxies made of planets with fire and ice and gas and shattered meteor bits, and all in six days. It has taken a very very short span of some forty years, 1965 to 2005, for the inhabitants here to begin accept the ideas that inhabitants of other colors or gender might all have the same basic freedoms, another beginning point that is still revolutionary in terms of how we live with each other.
And here I sit, staring at the 17 second movie of dusty twists of wind, ragged white whips that lash back and forth across a desolate world.
Some even more primitive robots have, in less than 30 years, been shot out into the inky blackness which surrounds us, and other planets are photographed -- planets that are thick with heat and pressure, enormous swirling clouds of gas and storms that bring acids and liquid metals in a hazy sheet across a surface whose contents I can barely imagine or conceive. The robot cameras explode or dissolve into nothingness long before they can attain anything even remotely considered a "landing"..
I ponder the Martian landscapes and wonder about it's design -- why create such a place? What purpose does it hold? Were the robotic twins on the scene too soon or too late to catch a sight of intelligent, conscious creatures?
Why make a world of dust? Of ice?
Perhaps those winds are scattering particles of sand as part of a ten billion year planet renovation plan, and if so I doubt anything left in this valley on my home planet will know about it, even if I wish or hope that someone will be here to see a transformed world.
The Martian world today has little robots staring intently at rocks and dust devils, and people here, too, see it -- observing the location. I seem to understand so little of stars and atoms, I don't understand why the inhabitants here are so contentious and vile, or loving and compassionate in the face of such an enormous collection of galaxies filled with random winds and rotations. I am surprised we have not all stayed hidden in caves, full of fear from moment to moment, like we see it in the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's movie of space travel, "2001: A Space Odyssey".
But what always excited me watching that movie was that slow, rhythmic rolling dance of men and machines and planets all moving to the Blue Danube Waltz, and how thrilled I was just to see it, to observe this quiet emptiness of space and stars and galaxies whose movements I cannot comprehend. And at the end of "2001" (a title whose name once resonated with an implausible future and now is just part of our past), at the end of the movie the astronaut has been moved from the caves to the stars and Kubrick leaves me to make up my own mind about what I have seen, what it all might mean.
My niece told me some years ago she fell asleep when she watched the movie it was so boring to her. I could hardly believe it. How could anyone watch those images and not feel some kind of un-nameable connection. some sense of endless wonder, some urge to search among the stars?
Filming geologic time will not bring box office dollars.
Mars has been in our books and our imaginations for thousands of years. Once on a Halloween night it escaped from the radio and terrified thousands of radio listeners, and Mars landed on top of actor Tom Cruise this summer. TV gave us "My Favorite Martian", and in ancient days it was the home of Gods and myths barely remembered, and today I sit and watch the dust devils filmed on location, on Mars, with no laugh tracks, no panic in the streets.
Maybe the best way to think of it is as development property -- a slow development, true. But I can almost see it all as part of the view of Our backyard. I have to use my imagination, to consider time and distance and what Life requires or how Life must adapt. I have to be willing to consider so many theories, and if I dismiss the possibilities, then I limit my view and I might as well stay in the caves.