Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Was there a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?

If you make it to the U.S. Congress, you have to do some work but there are lots of advantages. One of them is that you may finally ask the questions you were always afraid to ask – and you can ask them to the best paid experts in your country.

Well, Mr Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Southern California, has maximally used the opportunity.

He said that we should exploit the Moon as much as we can before we visit Mars. But concerning Mars, can I borrow these NASA folks for a minute? Now, wise guys, tell me: When you say that Mars was very different thousands of years ago, do you have the evidence that there was a civilization on Mars? Thanks for the good job you're doing.

OK, first of all, Dr Farley from NASA corrected a statement – the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago, not thousands. You know, Mr Rohrabacher has used the word "thousands" in a general sense – a very high number, higher than anything we can imagine, and the number of years comparable to the time since the Creation. ;-) Some people call it "thousands", some people call it "billions", whether it has three zeroes or three-squared zeroes, is a detail. It's a lot of zeroes. ;-)

I found it sort of cool and weird that no one has laughed and Dr Farley answered so calmly. Lisa Randall would almost certainly laugh if she were there:

"Thousands vs billions" is a matter of a religious training – I guess that Rohrabacher goes to the church more frequently than he watches TV programs about the Universe. But aside from this numerical detail, there's still a big cultural divide. It's not just Mr Rohrabacher. He is a genuine representative of millions of Americans and they look at the things in a similar way. They would find it natural to ask whether there is evidence of a civilization of Mars – and even once they would get a "pessimistic" answer, they could remain undecided.

It's clearly a different mental state than mine. I find it "almost obvious" that the life on Earth is extremely rare in our cosmic neighborhood – in some sense, I would claim that we directly see that this statement is true – and only the Earth was hospitable enough to allow life to evolve as far as the human civilization as we know it today. Any evidence that there was a civilization on Mars or another nearby celestial body would be huge news. It would simply be impossible to overlook it, even for a person who isn't interested in it. Because we haven't noticed such huge news, it probably means that no such evidence has been found – so far. So I obviously keep on assuming that there's no such evidence and many others and most of you are assuming the same thing. It's really hard for us to understand why Mr Rohrabacher and others may have such a different "default" assumption.

But if you control your emotions and don't cheaply mock Mr Rohrabacher who clearly comes from a different intellectual environment, you might agree that these questions are actually rather good – and the answers are not quite certain. First of all, has the Earth ever seen a civilization made by another species that was at least as advanced as ours?

My opinion is "probably not" but I wouldn't quite claim that I can "rule the possibility out", as Rohrabacher framed it. There could have been some "Flintstones" – who lived some long time ago (in the Flintstones, dinosaurs, mammoths, and cavemen coexist so it was quite an interesting time LOL). But if they were as good as we are, they would have probably left some traces of the civilization beneath the ground or even close to the surface. We would have found some subway system or a nuclear bomb or a frozen "iPhone 8 for dinosaurs" or something like that. Because we haven't run into these things, it seems sensible to assume that nothing like that has ever been made on Earth.

But this proof isn't watertight. The old dinosaur civilization could have switched to a sustainable development very soon. Tunnels could have become politically incorrect and they could have produced all their cars, phones, and other gadgets from jellyfish that decomposes after a few years, so that they wouldn't contaminate the planet in the long run. After all, some dinosaurs were green, weren't they? ;-) Perhaps, despite their apparently tiny footprint, they could have been very high-tech. The jellyfish phones could have had 1,024 cores. Who knows? Possibilities like that just seem unlikely to me.

I do believe that if we destroy ourselves but the life survives, our cities will be largely covered by plants and things will look wild a few centuries or millennia later. Superficially, the presence of the humans will be forgotten quickly, relatively to the geological epochs. On the other hand, when an intelligent creature investigates her environment in the future, she will find the skyscrapers under the trees or at least their traces, some gadgets that won't quite decay even in tens of millions of years, and so on. Those were probably not formed in "simple natural processes", she will conclude, and that's how she will prove the existence of a civilization before theirs.

Dinosaurs and others could have been rather smart but they weren't quite competitive with us, at least in industries that we're sort of proud about.

Could it be different on Mars? Well, Mars looks vastly less hospitable than the Earth so it makes sense to think that the chances that there was a civilization on Mars are even lower than those on Earth. Moreover, the surface of Mars looks "more obviously empty and boring" than the Earth's surface. There are some structures but all of them look rather natural, not artificial. Nothing we see there resembles artificial products of a civilization.

Rohrabacher's question could have been inspired by the document "Mars Attacks!".

For Mars, Europa, Enceladus and other – less promising – celestial bodies in the Solar System, the probability that there has been a civilization seems low enough. But there could be other civilizations outside the Solar System. And one of them could have "created us". As I mentioned at the beginning, we don't have any real evidence – such evidence would be really a bombshell that no person connected to the power grid and with the IQ exceeding 70 could overlook. On the other hand, we don't have a clear enough proof that everything that was needed for our life to start was created on the Earth.

Well, lots of the key elements were really created by various stars, you know the story. But even some of the oldest organic compounds and predecessors of the RNA/DNA and proteins that we have today could have been created outside the Earth. I am a fan of panspermia. I think that the surface of the dust that is flying in the Solar System was optimal for "building the viable seeds of life by trial and error" because the total surface of this dust seems rather big – and therefore a "better lab" than the smaller Earth's surface. But again, I don't think we have "real evidence" that it was so – such evidence would be bombshell.

While I would have the instinctive urge to mock Mr Rohrabacher if I were the witness, I ultimately think that it's good that people's representatives may controllably ask questions to NASA experts that would be considered embarrassingly silly among these experts themselves. A problem is that too many people – and I primarily mean experts – are too satisfied with superficial mockery much of the time. In fact, it would have been even better if Dr Farley were forced to provide the lawmaker with his own sketch of the evidence that we have that the civilization on Mars seems extremely unlikely. I would actually like to see whether a guy like that would be able to deal with a similar, seemingly elementary, question in an intelligent way.

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