David A. Weintraub

 

On his book Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go

Cover Interview of May 07, 2018

In a nutshell

Life on Mars is about both the astronomers who have made claims about the existence of past or present life on Mars and about those discoveries themselves. It is about exactly how much we know about possible life on Mars and how certain we are about what we think we know.

Life on Mars is also about two more things. First, some important ethical and moral issues arise should we contemplate the possible human colonization of Mars in the near future. Would our views regarding human colonization of Mars change if we knew the red planet were already home to a native biology? Second, how should big science, in particular space exploration and planetary science, be done when under the intense scrutiny of the national and international media? NASA just launched the TESS mission (to find planets around nearby stars) and the InSight mission (to study Mars). Through their tax dollars, Life on Mars readers together are paying billions of dollars to fund these missions, and therefore all discoveries made via these and similar missions are and should be public knowledge. As a result, the tax-paying public quite justifiably wants to know what scientists discover. And they want to know now, not in three years when scientists and the public have moved on to the next big thing.

For more than a century, feedback between some media-savvy scientists who depend on public money to support their projects and friendly reporters has created a Mars mania. That mania may have led both scientists and the lay public to expect more of Mars than Mars may have to offer. At times, under the heat of television lights and the pressure from real-time interviewers, the mania has led eager scientists to speculate and draw profound conclusions from their research that might be true but which also might lie beyond the limits of their data and their actual knowledge. In calmer circumstances, for example on the pages of carefully written papers in refereed, scientific journals, they often have drawn different, or more nuanced, conclusions. By knowing more about Mars, readers will become wiser consumers of new discoveries that will be reported about Mars.

I think this book is unusual in that it does more than discuss the science and the scientists involved in studying Mars. Teasing apart the real Mars from an imagined Mars is difficult. I am, at heart, a teacher and so my intent is to help readers with this, but I also ask my readers to think about the issues and make their own judgments.

My readers should prepare to go on a journey with me to telescopes on high mountains scattered around the surface of Earth, to telescopes in Earth orbit and in Mars orbit, and even down to the surface of Mars. When our journey is finished, readers will have become knowledgeable about Mars. I hope they also will have become curious to know more about Mars. In fact, readers should demand that NASA, ESA, and the astronomy community continue to dedicate significant resources to learning more about Mars. The answers we hope to obtain are simply too important to not pursue.