Web edition: December 4, 2009
Print edition: December 19, 2009; Vol.176 #13 (p. 31)
Plan for a long stay
Lawrence Krauss’ idea of staying permanently on Mars (SN: 10/10/09, p.4) is fascinating, but criticism by John F. Fay and Jeffry Mueller (Feedback, SN: 11/21/09 p.29) missed important information. Krauss too missed the best of all scientific comparisons. Regarding the travel to the American continent by the Pilgrims: the “capital P” Pilgrims did not expect it to be easy to live in the New World. But it was significantly harder than they expected when their ship ended up at a location much farther north than they had intended.
The contention that the Pilgrims knew that the American environment could sustain them was proved false when they found themselves unprepared for how much the environment of the New England coast differed from the coast of Virginia. Indeed, their information and assumptions were so poor that, without the knowledge of farming and fishing they gained from observing and meeting people native to the area, they might all have died.
Perhaps Krauss should compare a group’s one-way trip to Mars with those intrepid scientists who explored and now live year-round in Antarctica. The goal is the same: the opportunity to learn new things about a hostile environment. The reality of survival is the same: It will rely on superb initial information about the environment, detailed scientific planning of what to take and how to use what is already there, and dependence upon contact with the sending community through electromagnetic means and a physical means of resupply and possible return. Just how foreign and isolated Antarctica is was shown several years ago when a researcher was found to have cancer and could not be treated there or “rescued” because transportation could not reach her quickly (she treated herself and survived). This setting and its rigors are what we need to study to consider setting up long-term bases and long-term stays on Mars.
Doinna Foster Myer, Ladson, S.C., and Marion, Texas
I was taken aback by the title of the article “Climate change offsets evolution to shrink the wild sheep of St. Kilda” (SN: 8/1/2009, p.12). It’s not that climate change “overcame the evolutionary effect,” as phrased in the article. The selection regime has changed for the population due to the environmental changes associated with climate change. Evolution is happening, not being overcome. The interview with Eugenie Scott (p. 32) in the same issue points out that scientists must use the right language when talking about evolution. In this case, science presentation must be careful to “talk” in biologically correct language.
J. Roger Eagan, Queensbury, N.Y.
The Scientific Observation by Kevin Padian (SN: 10/24/2009, p. 4) concludes, “If we spent more time in our textbooks talking about how tetrapods came up on land, how birds evolved from dinosaurs, how whales went back into the oceans, the average American would not be so vulnerable to the claims of creationists.” Interestingly, on the very next page, the following sentence is found: “That find suggests that a very old plant figured out how to make a particular type of resin that modern relatives get credit for.” In my opinion, “figured out” seems to reflect a creationist or intelligent design perspective more than an evolutionary perspective. I believe there are many other ways this point could have been made using language more consistent with the concept of evolution.
Richard Wielkiewicz, Saint Joseph, Minn.
The article “A place removed from ‘the pressure of received ideas’” by Murray Gell-Mann (SN: 9/12/2009, p. 32) reminds me that I have wondered for years how it would be possible to develop a higher level of “generalists” in addition to developing primarily higher level “specialists” as we do in our present teaching of the sciences in institutions of higher learning. Creating interdisciplinary teams for solving major problems seems the most logical way to develop fresh approaches, but we have no system for training leaders for such groups. With atomic energy release, we were fortunate to have [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who could communicate with specialists in more than one field. Specialization tends to insulate one from finding parallels in other regimens that could be applicable in one’s own field. The Santa Fe Institute [that Gell-Mann describes] might be a small answer to recognition and development of individuals who could eventually provide such leadership. Even just one or two successes would make the effort worthwhile.