Mars !!!

From: (Ken Edgett)
Subject: Mars !!!
Date: Mon, 28 Apr 1997 14:56:11 -0700 (MST)

Dear Mars Educators,

Greetings from sunny, warm, dry, Arizona.  I'm glad to hear the dates
from Jan as to when LFM 2 will be rebroadcast-- because I missed it on
the 24th... 

I spent this past weekend (April 24-27) in Houston (rainy! flooding!) 
at a conference about "Early Mars" and potenial for life on Mars.

I told you last week in an email to expect a press conference on 
Sunday, April 27 after the conference ended... well, the press didn't
come and the conference was cancelled.  Apparently, the press wasn't
interested because the scientists at this meeting were not planning to
"decide" if there "really is life on Mars".  The press doesn't understand
the process of science.

The meeting brought together a wide range of scientific disciplines
that are all converging on the questions of the origin of life.  THAT is
really what the search for life on Mars is really about-- how does
life start on a planet, and can life be different than that which we
have on Earth (i.e., is there only one way to do it?).

People at this meeting included experts on the Early Earth-- people who
study the few rock outcrops on Earth that are older than 2 billion years.
It also included people who study the early climates of Earth and
Mars (mainly using climate models and what info can actually be inferred
from the rocks).  Others included experts on the issues of the origin of
life, experts on Mars geology/geomorphology, people who study the
Mars meteorites, people who are looking at microscopic organisms that
live in "extreme" environments (e.g., black smokers, salty lakes), and
people that study fossilized microbes.  (And more!).

The conference was mainly a review of the state of knowledge in all
of these widely different fields.  All of the participants (over 150
people) were challenged to deal with information and knowledge far
outside their normal range of experience.  Talk about interdisciplinary!!

Here is the main thing I learned, and my main point for writing you 
this message:

The people who presented and attended this workshop are all working at the
cutting edges of their respective fields.  All of them are working on 
VERY BIG QUESTIONS (e.g., where does life come from?) with VERY LITTLE
DATA to go on.  They are all working in fields that are short on funding
(this is true all throughout science).  They are all doing clever and
important science despite the data and funding limitations.  In each
field, there are big controversies.  The most fascinating controversy
revealed at the meeting (from the perspective of a Mars geologist, that 
is), was the question of "nanobacteria"-- small things that look
like bacteria, but are too small to contain enough molecules to
function as living organisms.  Despite the lack of funding, the lack
of data, and the exciting controversies, the BIG QUESTIONS being
asked are being addressed and can begin to be addressed because of
new instruments and technologies that are only now becoming 
available that allow us to pursue these questions.

It was very exciting, though it was also a difficult meeting to sit
through.  The reason it was difficult--  no one in the room was
an expert on all the topics presented.  No one can be an expert in
*everything*.  And science doesn't have *everything* solved.  The more
we look, the more questions we have.  Things are being discovered
that we had no idea were even out there to be found.  

We live in amazing times.  I only wish the funding levels could keep
up with the technology and intrigue.  Be aware, for example (and this
was made painfully clear at the meeting), that the Mars Surveyor
program is *really* being done on the CHEAP.  There are many questinos
about Mars that CANNOT be addressed in the 1997-2005 timeframe, NOT
because we don't know how, but because we don't have the money.  Money
is a BIG constraint on the Mars program-- something worth considering
in the classroom as you have kids design instruments or missions or
think about Mars colonies, etc.  The cost to each person (man, woman,
and child) in the United States for the Mars Surveyor Program is 
about 50 cents a year-- or about the cost of a foot-long sandwhich
at Subway every 10 years.

Ken Edgett
Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program
Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer