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Astronomy: Mars: the toughest question

August 24, 2013

THE little fella lives merrily, dancing to and fro among giants of the Solar System namely, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, besides a large number of asteroids, those actors with mysterious origin, some regarded as rogues, or have become so with the passage of time, or else through sideway nudges of one another. When that happens, these “outbound” asteroids come close to one planet or another, and either ram into the planet headlong or are trapped into the orbit of this planet, almost for good.

In the case of our friend Mars, two asteroids happened to come too close for comfort and got locked into the region monopolised by the little giant and were forced to give up the company of the large family of asteroids, adopting per force a new one. There is indeed a lot of similarity between Mars and the Earth. So much that the two are not only regarded as twins, but a third one, Venus, is added to the list for the same reason, making them a triplet of sort.

However, that was the popular view held by observers of the period between the years 1700-1960. Popular I say though many of the views were held on the basis of conjecture alone, not solid scientific evidence. However, since the 1960s, progress in astronomy, astrophysics, life sciences, space sciences and many more disciplines led to revision, in fact complete overhaul in beliefs held by observers that led to the fact that other than a few superficial similarities here and there, there is little to hold the belief that there is a similarity on any significant scale.

As a result of violent activity from within and without (particularly on Earth), mountains whittle down to become boulders, which in turn crack up and erode into stone and fine dust. These are then carried into rivers from where flowing water carries the resultant sediments into the sea, often full of nutrition. On the floor of the sea, the moving sediments pack up inside crevices and trenches, and keep pushing ahead until it rises, penetrating the surface of the Earth from underneath and causing bulges, islands and mountains. Then the elemental forces repeat the act, spread over millions of years all over again. But lo and behold! This only happens on the Earth, nowhere else. However, this has relevance to what will follow next.

It happens only on Earth because of water and the consequent erosion. Although volcanic and the rumbling geological activity plays significant part on Earth but very scantily on Venus and Mars. Another aspect is unique to the Earth: life. As promised earlier, we shall try to explain how life came into being and see if it fulfils the craving of young minds.

This we know for sure that there is no life elsewhere in the Solar System, life of whatever kind. As far as we know there is no trace of life in the far reaches, or outer stretches of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Not to our knowledge yet. However, we cannot close the door to life somewhere in the galaxy, but can speculate that some form of life could have evolved far away provided that conditions are conducive to emergence, growth and proliferation of life — what the little fella continues to keep our undiminished, undivided attention, although it is yet a small giant, sort of lost among bigger that we cannot work out unless we have the basic information available to us. It might yet take a century or half to bring to fruition our speculation, or call it desire to see life profiting from conditions some light years away.

Over one billion years ago, when the Earth was more than twice that old, the planet was a steamy place. Warm and humid. Irrespective of successive Ice Ages that subsequently invaded the planet with monotonous regularity once every few million years, and climate being friendly (or sort of), there was no life in the real sense. Things were brewing up, though. Whatever life was dull and drab. No colour, no grace. No variety. Just the listless life forms. Rudimentary at best.

The most common were trilobites which along with similar things had the planet to themselves. This lasted for millions of years. Then came creatures like dragon flies (I am very fond of them and would carry many of them in my shirt pocket as a child!) and the world began to change.

Life arose from shallow bodies of water laden with lichen (plant organism composed of fungus and algae growing on rocks and trees) and worm — laden slush.

But the laws of evolution dictate that nothing remains in its original, intrinsic state for long. Change is essential though slow but incremental. Change in living or nonliving things is inevitable outcome of time on geological scale. Consequently, millions of years passed and things kept changing inexorably. Continents moved and so did life. It branched out into countless shapes and forms and proliferated in fits and starts.

Somehow, somewhere it developed soul. Not that life was not accompanied by soul in the earliest form. For animal life needed to hunt and protect itself from being hunted, eat according to its need and desire, procreate and rear its young and protect them.

Soul is an essential corollary of life. As it progressed through time, probing for food, safety, procreation, etc., it had to have some sort of physical movement, and powerful instinct for it to survive and get on with life.

Higher forms of life came to possess a soul more advanced than, let us say, subterranean worms. We shall perhaps never know for sure the difference between the ability to move, and the accompanying soul. For that is the exclusive domain of God. The when, how, what and where of soul are beyond the purview of science. All we can do is wonder what kind of soul did man come to possess when his earliest form appeared on the planet some two million years ago. This is again where the God factor comes in. Each life form is bestowed with the extent it needs to survive and eke out a living, not ignoring the laws of evolution. Since it is only the beginning of the story of life, we shall leave the remaining portion for a later date.

The writer is a professional astronomer and a former head of PIA Planetaria. He can be reached at