It is possibly the teaser to end all teasers. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Curiosity mission, told NPR reporter Joe Palca, “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting.”
NASA spoke-persons even hinted that it might be an earth shattering announcement. That the data was destined for the history books.
But they would go no further and tell us what had gotten them so excited.
Even, indeed, to a spot of back pedaling. We were told later that science, being science, needed time to examine the data properly and make sober announcements. Those who rushed to press back in 1912 with the announcement that the Piltdown Man was the missing link probably, with hindsight, had wished they had not been so over eager. Mind you, it did take 40 years to prove that they had been hoaxed by a fake.
Up on Mars, it is unlikely that the Sample Analysis at Mars machinery (SAM) is staring at, and trying to make sense of, a man made hoax. And certainly not one created by the martians themselves, for they have no recorded instance of displaying a sense of humor.
We infer, therefore, it has not sent back details of some little wriggling critter: for that would most assuredly have made the 6 o’clock headlines and not been put off until Dec 3 or later.
I suspect we are going to be given something that is way earlier in the evolutionary process, or way lower in the biological strata. Maybe some compounds that are not very dissimilar from amino acids – or the like.
Something that science will mark as a significant step forward, but will leave the average man in the street scratching his head in bewilderment as to why those crazy scientists are making such a big deal of the whole thing.
I would be extremely surprised if the announcement turned out to be earth-shattering in the way the media use the term.
But, just for fantasying sake: suppose it was. Just try to imagine the huge shock to the human psyche if alien life forms became science fact instead of science fiction.
Some great authors have tried to get to grips with the enormity of such an event: but they had a tale to tell, and the reaction had to be one that did not get in the way of plot development.
So let us ponder on what an impact it really would have.
The end of religion as we know it? Not really: theology has always had the ability to take on new knowledge and assimilate it. Everyone – including the pope at the time – thought that proving the earth was not the center of the universe would end Christianity. Christianity survived.
The end of philosophy as we know it? Nope. Just about every respectable philosophy allows for the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and those that do not have so few adherents as to have little impact on the sum of human thinking.
The end of science as we know it? Not a chance. Science is investing an astonishing amount of money into the quest to establish how near to us the nearest alien life forms live.
So what could be the most important impact.
Simply the knowledge that life occurs outside of our planet could alter the way we look at our planet and at our position in the universe. A subtle, but may be profound, shift in perspective.
And since it has never happened before, guessing what it will do when, and if, it happens is one of those pleasant arm chair deliberations on a quiet evening while possibly nursing a single Malt.
Deliberations which will only be shown to be correct or incorrect when we find that we are not alone.
I really do wish the NASA announcement is going to be earth shattering, in the media sense of the term, but I feel deep down in my bones that it will not be the announcement that some of us are hoping for.