“….the earth and the heavens … all shall wax old as doth a garment.”
With great expectations hinging on NASA’s latest exploration of Mars—the Phoenix lander touching down smoothly on the Red Planet’s northern ice plains in May—scientists are holding their breath for signs of ancient water and life on that barren world. Could success for the $457 million-dollar mission—the first to study Mars’ arctic plains— depend on finding, under polar ice, organic chemicals or perhaps “nanofossils”?
Back in ’04 when Mars was last making news, NASA having landed a rover on the Red Planet, one MIT engineering student floated the idea of “terraforming” Mars by melting her polar caps to make her warm, wet and habitable once again. The quixotic sci-fi scheme reminds one of those miraculous wrinkle creams that inevitably pop up when you go online. Most of us, though, will have to settle for growing old gracefully and getting a laugh out of the latest crackpot scheme to reverse aging or bring the dead back to life. In such matters, I think of the eternal truth of Hindu theology which posits a holy trinity composed of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These great deities in turn resolve into creator, sustainer, destroyer. And finally they represent birth, life, and death.
If planets are living things, they too, it seems, must have a natural lifespan, ending inexorably in dust and decay. But Western science and sensibility, enamored of unlimited growth, has been loathe to admit death and dissolution. Indeed, when the first dinosaurs were exhumed early in the nineteenth century, the very idea of extinction of species was not only brand new, it was repugnant. It was horrible. “It is contrary to the common course of providence to suffer any of his creatures to be annihilated,” said Quaker naturalist P. Collinson.
At the time of the first dinosaur discovery, the world of extinct life was an unknown, still buried in the past. “Geologic time,” as it is called, was just being discovered. Although the first dinosaur (“the Great Fossil Lizard of Stones-field” at Sussex, UK, 1822) was much celebrated, the “overgrown lizard” triggered instant debate and controversy. How could a species have vanished from the good earth? Soon it would be known that “a staggering number” of other creatures, as well as plants, sang their death song to the dawning tertiary.
Shiva, or the “destroyer,” as the ancient world dubbed the force-pulling-down, was nothing sinister (quite the contrary), but simply the inevitable vanishment or dissolution of all material substance. And while the sages of old knew all about the birth and death of worlds once they fulfilled their labor, we moderns seem to have forgotten that all stories have a beginning, middle and end; instead, our “sages” would inject the patently geriatric Red Planet with their version of new life; or would interpret her moribund frigidity (-40 degrees F. on a typical summer’s day) as the result of being “currently in the grip of an ice age;” or would account for her Stygian, tomblike “drought” as “some change in the planet’s atmosphere…causing water to vaporize…” Or titillate the mind with recondite (and so far inconclusive) studies into “possible life on Mars.”
The Red Planet, well into her dotage, is not a potential piece of real estate, nor is it likely to be making a comeback any time soon. She will, in all likelihood, get only colder and drier.
She’s history, it appears.
Neither is our Mother Earth, Mars’ “sister planet,” a youngster. Three things are seen to happen in the life of a world—any world. Slowing, drying, and cooling, from day one.
The proto-world, we are told, began as a seething ball of liquid fire, boiling and roiling, whirling and swirling. She was still a twisting turbulent vortex of friction, gas clouds in rapid rotation slowly but surely condensing particles in solution. It would take, the argument goes, almost a billion years for the newborn world to produce the first shred of life. The molten earth, after all, before we can go for a walk in the park, must turn down the lights, slow down, cool down, and solidify (crust). And from that time forth, “there is ever a trifling loss toward perpetual coldness and darkness,” or as the sages of science thought they knew a hundred years ago, “a constant heat loss from a once fiery earth.”
Planet Mars, senior citizen of our little solar system, has lost most of her warmth; deep cold grips the Red Planet in her senescence. As Professor Robert Jastrow concluded, “Not only has Mars been wet; it has also been warm in the past…Mars was slowed down many hundreds of millions years ago when the planet’s water supply diminished and the temperature dropped.”
Going out like a candle in the firmament, Mars appears tectonically exhausted and makes a somewhat elliptical orbit—both apparent signs of slackening and old age. Her inner moon, Phobos, has one-twentieth the brightness of our own earth moon. Frigid and dark, Mars has also lost most of her atmosphere and gravity; her magnetic field dissipating, she is a dry, cold and lifeless world that has seen better days. Features of fluvial erosion whisper hoarsely of once-extensive waterways and vibrant landscape. Today she is a desert—“dull as beans”—with huge ice caps (dry ice).
As our elder sister, could Mars—“once wetter, warmer and…more friendly to life”—teach us something about the passage into planetary extinction? The tiny planet (with about half the diameter of Earth) is held in an atmosphere 200 times thinner than ours. The gravity of Mars is less than half that of Earth. If Pres. Bush’s (2004) pledge to land on Mars is fulfilled, we will tip the scales there at 40% of our true weight. Arroyos and dry channels, floodplains and lake beds readily suggest a land once filled with crater lakes, rivers, streams, meanders, and rushing waters. Today only high winds course over her deathlike surface. She is a windblown, pockmarked desert.
Yet, despite her obviously advanced age and deterioration—perfectly natural for a venerable but worn-out old world—some scientists would have us think her landscape “bizarre, alien.” No, there is nothing bizarre or unnatural about it, unless we are still in the mindset of early Victorian England, which refused to come to terms with the bald facts of extinction when faced with the enormous but bygone “fossil lizards.” Even more disingenuous is science’s vain hope to discover “where Mars’ ancient water went.”
Could it have gone the same road as its light and heat, its atmosphere and gravity, its plasticity and zoology, its velocity and magnetism? Will its younger sister, planet Earth, follow by “rapidly giving off its life force and its moisture, rapidly growing old”? As Dr. Paul Sylvester has painfully observed, “4.5 billion years after its birth, earth is fueling far fewer major tectonic events. In island arcs like Japan and the Aleutians, new continental crust is…piling up [only] at a geriatric pace. Like Venus and Mars, Earth is on its way to becoming a dead planet; the heyday of its continents is long gone. You just don’t get as much production of crust anymore…. It’s kind of sad.”
Vulcanism crust-building, mountain-raising, in my view, are all the handiwork of a vibrant, growing world. Mars, in her glory, raised the most majestic mountains in the solar system. Her volcanoes are quiet now, like Olympus Mons—15 miles high! And there is no way of separating her current repose, her quietude, from her played-out atmosphere which exerts less than 1% of the pressure which pummels Earth’s surface. And there is no way of separating it from her flagging magnetic field. Could these be but the inevitable symptoms of old age? Could the enfeebling process be equally evident here on planet Earth?
“At this very moment, the earth’s magnetic field strength is decreasing,” wrote John White in his book, Pole Shift. And it has done so at every moment of its existence. The deep decay of Earth’s magnetic field, verified by space satellites, is witnessed also by “erratic” rocks and boulders, silent record-keepers of our planet’s early field, which “we now know” was a supercharged dynamo, bristling with energy, electric storms, monumental surges, tumultuous winds. Some of these rocks register ten times the magnetism of other rocks in situ; some have a hundred times the expected magnetic charge.
And as this great gestalt of planetary aging unfolds, abating field strength is inevitably accompanied by a slowing of pace. Could the planet begin like a wild spinning top and then, over the aeons, simply spin out?
But none of these decrements is an isolated—or even unexpected—event. Rather, cooling and drying are the normal companions of the slowing orb, though each does dwindle in an exquisitely, infinitesimally, gradual manner. Infant Earth spun jauntily on her axis in just 14 hours, losing two milliseconds per century. No, the calculus of Earth’s axial velocity cannot be separated from her dwindling warmth, moisture, atmosphere or radiance.
They are all aspects of the same thing.
Conventional astronomy tells us that the entire universe is cooling down. “The further back you go, the higher the temperature of the universe,” says physicist James Trefil.
If this is true, it is the same for Mars and Earth. Conventional science tells us until the end of the cretaceous, planet Earth had no ice caps at the poles. Nor was there any continental ice until the cretaceous-tertiary boundary, at which time the great herds of dinosaurs declined and departed forever. Smaller animals, though, managed to escape the Klimasturz of the cretaceous mass extinctions. They burrowed, they hibernated, they survived. Such a strategy was not available, so the theory goes, to the giant saurians whose vast bulk alone had once been sufficient to retain body heat. But now it would be their undoing. It took the dinosaurs a long time—perhaps a million years it is believed—to check out; the loss of two or three degrees of blood heat their probable downfall. Ice, at the time, was just beginning to accumulate at the poles.
Later, the Pleistocene mastodon, saber-tooth tiger, giant ground sloth, and other near-mythical beasts, met their end, in all likelihood, by a critical drop in temperature. The woolly mammoths, according to some new research using ancient DNA, were not killed off by hunters but by the results of “a lengthy cooling trend [in which] dry conditions dominated.”
Notwithstanding the arguments of those who believe Earth’s history has been replete with catastrophic interruptions which have often altered the predictable course of evolution, the ruling gradualist school of conventional science has postulated a world ruled by inexorable processes of decay and disintegration without exception, albeit also without certainty.
“Quite honestly…” said science writer Donald Goldsmith, “our understanding of how planets generate and maintain magnetic fields is as uncertain as our knowledge of how life began.”
Although the existence of ancient life on Mars “remains a mystery,” every possible condition favorable to biological life appears to have once obtained on our sister planet. And though scientists cannot prove it, many nonetheless are convinced “that Mars once teemed with life.” As we crack that cosmic egg, as that possibility becomes indeed a probability, as our naivete is replaced with wisdom and certainty, the living universe comes into view. We are not alone.
“If it happened…twice here in our own backyard,” says writer Nick Bostrom, speaking metaphorically of life on these two sibling planets, “it must have happened millions of times across the galaxy.” Anything less, I dare say, smacks of geocentric blindness. But perversely NASA seems to be pushing the notion that life on Mars is anything but likely. To the contrary, though, we could and should assume a multiplicity of worlds, a plethora of living experiments—successes and failures—near and far in the infinite cosmos.
Since there is a greater chance of finding organisms beneath the polar caps of Mars than at her frozen surface, the Phoenix lander, equipped with a robotic arm, is programmed to dig under the permafrost in search of ancient water. While we await results with keen anticipation, we are confounded by the news that Mars’ polar caps are not made of water, but of frozen carbon dioxide—dry ice. Moreover, without vegetation (trees and plants) to absorb ambient CO2, most of the atmosphere of Mars (and Venus for that matter) is also composed of carbon dioxide.
Now what do we make of this nasty “greenhouse gas” showing up in spades on frozen Mars?
It seems that though carbon dioxide causes warming in the…lower atmosphere, in the upper atmosphere it can have a cooling effect.
As a waste product of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, wood, gas), poor old carbon dioxide has been made the villain of so-called global warming, even accused of the heinous and dastardly act of melting the glaciers! And while we are taught to fear its “ominous” increase in the air as well as the devastating “heat waves” it will trigger, a sober look at this trace gas quickly reveals that:
(1) Regardless of fluctuations, CO2 makes up less than 1% of the air we breathe.
(2) In the past 50 years, “during the 20 years with the highest carbon dioxide levels, temperatures have decreased.”
(3) But most importantly, consider the folly of demonizing carbon dioxide and the proliferation of other myths in the name of alleged global warming. If rising temperatures are really due to increased levels of CO2 (a “heattrapping” gas), then how come frigid Mars is 95% carbon dioxide? Could the simple fact that CO2 is emitted from the Earth each spring mean that gas is far more likely an effect, not a cause, of warming?
Could global warming be nothing but hot air?