Brain Pickings

Carl Sagan’s Message to Mars Explorers, with a Gentle Warning

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“Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

Several months before his death in 1996, Carl Sagan — who twenty years prior had co-composed the Arecibo message as part of the Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) project and sent the Golden Record into space — sat down in his home at 900 Stewart Avenue in Ithaca, New York, and recorded a moving message to the future explorers, conquerors, and settlers of Mars. As NASA’s Curiosity Rover makes history this week, Sagan’s words echo with even more poignancy and timeliness.

Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

But some sixteen years prior, in Chapter V of his legendary Cosmos, titled “Blues for a Red Planet,” Sagan had voiced a gentle lament reminding us to keep our solipsistic anthropocentrism in check:

The surface area of Mars is exactly as large as the land area of the Earth. A thorough reconnaissance will clearly occupy us for centuries. But there will be a time when Mars is all explored; a time after robot aircraft have mapped it from aloft, a time after rovers have combed the surface, a time after samples have been returned safely to Earth, a time after human beings have walked the sands of Mars. What then? What shall we do with Mars?

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.

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