Mars and the Mind of Man: Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in Cosmic Conversation, 1971by Maria Popova
“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.”
On November 12, 1971, the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, Caltech Planetary Science professor Bruce Murray summoned a formidable panel of thinkers to discuss the implications of the historic event. Murray himself was to join the great Carl Sagan and science fiction icons Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in a conversation moderated by New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan, who had been assigned to cover Mariner 9′s arrival for the newspaper. What unfolded — easily history’s only redeeming manifestation of the panel format — was a fascinating quilt of perspectives not only on the Mariner 9 mission itself, or even just Mars, but on the relationship between mankind and the cosmos, the importance of space exploration, and the future of our civilization. Two years later, the record of this epic conversation was released in Mars and the Mind of Man (public library), alongside early images of Mars taken by Mariner 9 and a selection of “afterthoughts” by the panelists, looking back on the historic achievement.
Arthur C. Clarke — who, in a 1945 article entitled “Extraterrestrial Relays” had proposed communications satellites long before they became an active government project and who had previously predicted the techno-future in general and even the iPad in particular with astounding accuracy — offers a prediction regarding Mars that is, ultimately, inaccurate but wrapped around it is an insightful and timely meditation on the larger subject at stake:
We are now in a very interesting historic moment with regard to Mars. I’m not going to make any definite predictions because it would be very foolish to go out on a limb, but whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made in the next few days or weeks or months, the frontier of our knowledge is moving inevitably outward.
It has already embraced the Moon. We still have a great deal to learn about the Moon and there will be many surprises even there, I’m sure. But the frontier is moving on and our viewpoint is changing with it. We’re discovering, and this is a big surprise, that the Moon, and I believe Mars, and parts of Mercury, and especially space itself, are essentially benign environments — to our technology, not necessarily to organic life. Certainly benign as compared to the Antarctic or the oceanic abyss, where we have already been. This is an idea which the public still hasn’t got yet, but it’s a fact.
I think the biological frontier may very well move past Mars out to Jupiter, which I think is where the action is. Carl, you’ve gone on the record as saying that Jupiter may be a more hospitable home for life than any other place, including Earth itself. It would be very exciting if this turns out to be true.
I will end by making one prediction. Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of this century.
Following Clarke is Carl Sagan, who does what he does best in discussing the issue of how rigorous we need to be in sterilizing spacecraft that makes contact with other planets — taking a scientific particularity, linking it to the universally human, then circling back to the science having engendered a whole new understanding of its context:
We can be emotionally predisposed as pessimists as well as optimists. Actuarial procedures provide a guide to situations of this sort. How careful you have to be in a given situation and how much premium you have to pay is not only a question of how likely the event in question is but also how important the event is. Suppose, for example, we’re concerned about carrying terrestrial microorganisms to Mars, depositing them there, and having them survive and multiply so that the next generation of space vehicles finds the next generation of microbes. How do we then distinguish Earth’s life from Mars life?
He follows that with one of the most eloquent portions of the entire conversation — an insistence on the value of embracing ignorance, learning to live with ambiguity, and choosing the unknown over answers that might be wrong, alongside a call for balancing skepticism with openness — something he’d articulate formally more than a decade later:
Is it possible that there is life on Mars, Martians? Now, just as there have clearly been excesses in the direction of prematurely concluding that there is life on Mars … there have also been excesses in the other direction, in prematurely concluding there isn’t life on Mars. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguity, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, just give me an answer.’ Well, I think that’s where we are on the question of life on Mars. There is, as far as I can tell, no more reason to conclude that Mars is lifeless than there is to conclude that it is inhabited. There is water, there is carbon dioxide, there is sunlight — these are the prerequisites even for parochial forms of green plant photosynthesis.
He echoes the same sentiment a few minutes later, in an insight that applies to the Mariner 9 mission as much as it applies to all of life:
I think the proper attitude is to keep an open mind and see what the observations uncover.
But by far the most beautiful meditation comes from Ray Bradbury, who transposes his passionate advocacy of writing with joy and excitement onto space exploration as well:
I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.
I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’ The only way you start like that is with this kind of thing we are talking about today. We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then. We find, we push the edge of science forward, and I think we romance on beyond that into the universe ever beyond. We’re talking not about Alpha Centauri. We’re talking of light-years. We have sitting here on the stage a person who has made the film* with the greatest metaphor for the coming billion years. That film is going to romance generations to come and will excite the people to do the work so that we can live forever. That’s what it’s all about. So we start with the small romances that turn out to be of no use. We put these tools aside to get another romantic tool. We want to love life, to be excited by the challenge, to life at the top of our enthusiasm. The process enables us to gather more information. Darwin was the kind of romantic who could stand in the middle of a meadow like a statue for eight hours on end and let the bees buzz in and out of his ear. A fantastic statue standing there in the middle of nature, and all the foxes wandering by and wondering what the hell he was doing there, and they sort of looked at each other and examined the wisdom in each other’s eyes. But this is a romantic man — when you think of any scientist in history, he was a romancer of reality.
Arthur C. Clarke follows up with a crucial point about science and whimsy — something Richard Feynman would articulate in uncannily similar phrasing exactly a decade later in his famous words from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:
There are some not-very-bright and/or badly educated people who complain, with apparent sincerity, that scientific research destroys the wonders and magic of nature. One can imagine the indignant reaction of such poets as Tennyson or Shelley to this nonsense, and surely it is better to know the truth than to dabble in delusions, however charming they may be. Almost invariably, the truth turns out to be far more strange and wonderful than the wildest fantasy. The great J. B. S. Haldane put it very well when he said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine.’
Reflecting upon the unprecedented amount of imaging data that Mariner 9 promised to provide, Sagan captures the strange tension of exploration and ignorance, all the timelier as NASA’s Curiosity has pushed us to make sense of a new precipice of knowledge today:
Now we have moved from a data-poor, theory-rich situation to one that is data-rich, theory-poor.
In the “Afterthoughts” section, Sagan makes a case Neil deGrasse Tyson has passionately echoed four decades later:
[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war.
I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?
Alas, we’re making the transition to “automated” space exploration, but we haven’t made — nor do we seem to intend to make anytime soon — the transition away from automated aerospace killing. (Sagan would no doubt have been appalled by this infographic portrait of human priorities as well.)
* Arthur C. Clarke had co-written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.”