Sunday, August 06, 2006

10-Year Anniversary of the Life on Mars Story/Joke

It's been ten years since the latest Life-on-Mars story broke, and it's seemed to have bogged down. It did remind me of my joke that made it to TV. After so much comedy about celebrities and politicians, it's a real treat to have a topic like "Life on Mars!" Plus the details were sweet: Some kind of collision on Mars knocked some rock into orbit which landed here as a meteorite. This is where the science gets murky. Were the little burrows from bacteria or some less exciting cause? A decade later, there have been alternative explanations for everything so the Life-on-Mars theory sounds pretty much dead, at least based on these rocks. Of course, the excitement level at the time was significant. In the article linked below Carl Sagan is quoted saying, "If the results are verified, it is a turning point in human history." Easy on the drama, big guy! If you've followed Mr. Sagan's pronouncements on UFOs, you'd have to count him as a skeptical sort, so that's quite a spectacular statement. He usually was low-key about stuff like this as I found out myself when I personally asked him about the cold fusion story back when it broke. I didn't know him - I just met him once and took the opportunity to ask him one question, which turned out to be a dumb one. Well, guess what? His quote sounds a little dumb now since it's been 10 years and nothing has been proven. Dumb in the overly dramatic tone - not in content. Turning point in human history? Yeah, right. Meanwhile, I looked at the situation as a chance to make a few bucks. I said the story could be true because look what happened when we hydrated the meteorite. (There was video of a rock with water being sprinkled onto it. Then it grew into a Chia Pet Meterorite.) It got a big laugh and I was delighted. Using the word "hydrated" was a gamble but I figured the scientific sound made up for any confusion, plus the audience would get it anyway when they saw the watering can sprinkling the meteorite. Me asking Carl Sagan a dumb question can never be erased. That is part of the history of the universe. But reading his quote ten years later, shows I was closer to the appropriate response to this "Life on Mars!" news conference. That is a win in my world. -- After 10 Years, Few Believe Life on Mars: "'If
the results are verified,' the late Carl Sagan pronounced, 'it is a
turning point in human history.'"


At 8:21 PM, Blogger LaurelhurstDad said...

"If the result can be verified..."

If that is his quote, then there was nothing out of line there.

Had it been verified, it would have indeed been a turning point in human history. More than you might imagine.

Had it been verified, then human history would have turned, hopefully, to a path away from religion and all its misery.

It wasn't proven. That in no way makes Sagan's remark subject to ridicule. He made an honest statement.

But your joke was funny anyway.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

As the post points out, it wasn't in the accuracy of the line, and believe me I realize the implications. It was in the dramatic tone. Let's face it, this was a rock found on earth. Let's not get too crazy here. When I asked him about cold fusion he certainly didn't say, "If these results can be verified, we will have the new energy source we need." He took a cautious tone of the extreme skeptic. I thought someone would challenge how I knew Sagan really said this, before anyone took this path. it seemed out of his usual style.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger LaurelhurstDad said...

I never met Sagan, but I've been to several of his lectures. At one, he was asked, "How can you look at a rainbow and not believe in God?" He answered, "How can you look at a rainbow and not believe in the spectra?"

His talk was on Drake's Equation (see
Drake_equation for details, but I'm sure you know of it).

Sagan was a scientist, so he didn't "believe" in things, he just knew what the data told him. I think he erred when he said he "believed" in spectral data. This is not something you take on faith. It is measurable and solid and until something else comes along and proves the instruments of our time are wrong, it is empirical data. When it’s proven wrong we move on. (Unlike certain political leaders.)

Science is wonderful because it doesn’t depend on a dogma or a single person’s view of the world. It relies on observable facts and repeatable experiments (unlike the cold fusion experiment).

At 11:40 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

The thing I liked best that he said was how primitive we are. There's a fire station in every town because we still haven't learned how to control fire.

At 11:51 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

My problem with a lot of scientists including Carl Sagan is that they don't want to look some places as much as the topics deserve. I remember reading that the UFO community was very frustrated with Sagan towards the end of his life on this subject. I don't mind a thoughtful investigation but a lot of the UFO stuff is dismissed out of hand. It's too explosive an issue so you get scientists playing it safe. Galileo didn't play it safe.

At 8:32 AM, Anonymous butch said...

Sagan was a piece of work - brilliant but a piece of work. I absolutely love "Contact", the book and movie. But my favorite Sagan story is the "Butthead Astronomer" one. Here is a recap from Wikipedia:

Sagan was known to have a bit of an ego. In 1994, Apple Computer began developing the Power Macintosh 7100. They chose the internal code name "Sagan", in honor of the astronomer. Though the project name was strictly internal and never used in public marketing, when Sagan learned of this internal usage, he sued Apple Computer to use a different project name. Though Sagan lost the suit, Apple engineers complied with his demands anyway, renaming the project "Butthead Astronomer". Sagan sued Apple for libel over the new name, claiming that it subjected him to contempt and ridicule. Sagan lost this lawsuit as well.


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