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Commentary :: International
Mars. Red planet, Misread planet.
24 Feb 2005
The finest data and the worst interpretation in the history of Science
Local interest - It's your taxes, Boston

I will state my bias clearly in the first sentence; the notion that Mars had rivers and oceans of lquid water in the past is a scientific absurdity. The rest of this essay will give some background as to how that nonsense got itself established as unquestionable truth.

I can prove at the beginning of this and beyond all dispute that there is somethong seriously amiss with the way the surface geology of Mars has been interpreted by NASA and the ESA. In science, when faced with a complex problem or set of phenomena, it is traditional to test the simplest explanations first to see if they might be adequate to explain the data.

On Mars, a lot of surface material has been moved about. On the same Mars, there are dust storms so big that at times they cover the whole planet. They happen now and they have been filmed repeatedly both by Earth-based telescopes and by orbiters. So first, according to the basic rules, you should consider in detail whether or not the force that drives the dust storms of Mars could explain the material transport and the erosion feature observed there.

But not if you are NASA or the European Space Agency. Neither has ever seriously considered wind transport on Mars and apparently never intends to. We will have to wait till the Zimbabwean Space Agency gets there for that.

Their main argument originally was that the atmosphere is too thin to move the surface material, particularly sand. But there are active dunes of silt and dust everywhere and basalt does not generate quartz sand when it erodes - just silt and dust. Conversely, olivine litters the surface and is not stable under water. Hematite is stable and can form under water, but generally doesn't, a point which NASA carefully skirts around. It is generally formed in soils, and lab experiments show water is not essential. A carbon dioxide atmosphere will do just fine.

If there were oceans of liquid water, there have to be sea cliffs and wave-cut platforms, they are compulsory. Waves generate boulder beds which chew into hills. They are both glaringly absent. If the cliffs simply blew away from wind erosion, then you have enough erosive force to generate all the erosion features seen and you don't need the flowing water. There are also no proper river courses or rounded boulder beds within the valleys. Etc., etc.

The reasons for the ditching of the basic rules of natural science by these two hugely endowed and expensive agencies are curious and complex, but they go back to the culture that supports space flight in America, and to some of the deeper cultural reasons why NASA sent space probes to Mars.

First, a survey in 1991 found that about 100 million US Americans seem to believe that the Earth is around 10,000 years old. So all the work of the pioneers of geology; Smith, Hutton, Lyell, Darwin, etc., and the 100,000 ordinary geologists who have understood stratigraphy and fossils since, has not got past the preachers. The USA is also a country that still, in the main, believes that a sky god controls everything on personal whim, including stratigraphy. It is not that NASA does not have geologists that have cleared their heads of nonsense, it is that the people around them and funding them have not. And that profoundly effects budgets, technical cultures and exploration philosophies.

But it gets worse for the USA. Behind the current sky god is an older indigenous religion, that of the native Americans, who also devoutly believe in sky gods. These two belief systems are in fact variants of the same old set of paleolithic beliefs, not different religions. The earlier version believes that both ordinary folk and sky beings commute baclk and forth between Earth and the heavens; so the sky is habitable. It is not that they thiink we should go out there and see if the sky is habitable, they know it is. As all "good" or "truly good" dead folk go up there, according to both philosophies, the new one also knows that deep space is habitable. In every invaded country in the world, depite the protestations of the newly dominant culture, the old one has a profound effect on thinking. Otherwise, why are large rural areas of the USA knee-deep in Bigfoot literature?

So America is going to Mars to prove the sky is habitable, not to question it. That would be blasphemy.

America is a country that also has a deep faith in aerial technology. It works for them. They had a lot to do with inventing the aeroplane, in a practical sense, though the theory came from many places. Two brilliant bicycle manufacturers made the first powered one that flew and promptly offered it to their national navy as a new way of killing people. That trick established the USA's political domination of the planet after the mass bombing of Germany and Japanese villages, towns and cities. And with that bombing went aerial photography, necessary for finding what to destroy and who to kill in order to be the top coyote.

So Mars was to be thoroughly aerial photographed. First NASA and then the ESA ,with even better cameras, did it with brilliance. The data rained down to Earth in torrents of precise dots. The images are stunning, and cannot be praised enough.

But the next step, the unquestioning acceptance by the geological community of the world, of the first interpretation of each new image as it was received, was just plain silly. Such haste might have been appropriate for destroying towns and villages and cities in war, once you accept that aerial bombing is a fair way to make your point, but it is not the way to go in geology. You gotta drink a lot of coffee and think slowly.

Interpretive haste is not even the way to go in war, always. I live in Australia, and remember very clearly having a flaming row on the kerbside with a rather conservative man who, irrelevantly, is now the Federal Minister in charge of removing people from the welfare rolls. He had told me and all of his constituents that he knew exactly how many weapons of mass destruction the obnoxious Mr Hussein had. I am quite sure that, even though he was and is a consumate politician, he did not mean zero. And all he really had to go on was aerial photo interpretations. About 100,000 Iraqis are now reckoned to be dead because of that sort of blind faith in aerial survey data from our own back yard. Should we similary trust hasty interpretations of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful but very weird images just back from a very curious and complex planet that we have never walked on?

It is traditional in geolgy to look very closely at all your data before coming to your conclusions. NASA in contrast hastily announces how it all incontrovertably is, at mammoth press conferences, while the data is still coming in. It recently announced that the layered strata one of its Rovers had photographed on the ground definitely proved that the composing sediments where laid down in standing water. Ripple marks were sited as the clincher. I would merely ask, would you not expect stratification in wind-blown sediments laid down on a flat surface and would you not expect aerial ripple marks, in a low-desity low-gravity environment? If not, what are they doing, visible for all to see and clearly formed only days, weeks or months before, in the images of the tiny active surface dunes your other Mars Rover was getting at the same time?

I may be accused of being as dogmatic as the other side, and cockier because there is only one of me to every 100 of them, but I only wish suggest what might be, not to claim to know what is. My contention is that NASA and the ESA are tackling this in entirely the wrong way and that their conclusions are open to many other interpretations. That criticism stands independently of whether their model is right or wrong in whole or in part. We are not getting any sort of debate and science does not work without it. Water does not flow uphill, and where you do not have plate tectonics, slopes do not alter easily. That should be quite sufficient to start a serious debate but it has not.

The interpretations I have offered on different points are merely possible alternatives. For every one suggested there are probably a dozen other alternatives or variants. The ones offered here have no chance of being correct in their entirity; this is complex science and the geology of a whole strange planet we are trying to understand. It will take centuries and will still not be done.

The rocket jockeys and their in-house geologists would be better off having offered their superb data to the world as they have so generously done, to then let the rest of the interested world decide what it all adds up to. Of course they should hazard their guesses, but they should be a lot more cautious if they do not wish to look silly in the long run.. There are about a million folk out here, not on the payroll but quite able to think logically, to every one paid planetary scientist who is welded to the agency line. The best detective is not often the best jurist.

NASA went to Mars to find water and life. It certainly found some water, maybe 2% in the soil and the air. Columbus went west largely to find a shortcut to the Spice Islands, and sure, some fine spices come out of the Americas, but it might have been better if he had been a little more interested in and impressed by the native cultures, the new foods and all the rest. So NASA would have been a heap better off taking Mars as they found it, in all its stunning grandeur and complexity, and showing it to an awestruck world, instead of trying to stuff it all untidily into the mental mould they carried there with them.

The school children of the world have been told with biblical certainty who it all was, for the past five yaers. When the penny drops, the disillusionment with big science will not be gone for generations. Fine, scepticism is needed by the inhabitants of a complex planet, but I suspect science will retreat and religous absurdity will follow its wake.

The planetary geologists employed by both Nasa and the ESA, or dependent on their goodwill to keep their grants (which is about 98% of all the geologists working with Mars data) refuse point blank to consider the profound implications of having a carbon dioxide atmosphere that falls on and into the ground annually and freezes. That simple fact gives sediments that are very unstable and quite unlike anything we know and understand here on earth.

In the conventional view of Mars, the sediments are not seen as very important for a curious reason. The vast plains are sort of tacitly assumed not to be thick piles of sediment, but lava flows. There is no evidence for this, but the Moon has such flows, and there are clearly huge volcanoes on Mars, so the plains must be lava. The spectrograph data supports that; the mineralogy is right. But spectrographic data has hell's own trouble telling you how well-cemented your minerals are. So a hard basalt and a pile of loose basalt dust look similar.

Huge outbust floods are said to have formed the canyons. The United States has a sort of dual cultural fixation with huge floods. The folk who believe the world is only 10,000 years old (and their numbers are increasing) tend to believe that an old barge captain called Noah rode out the only significant event in geology since the seven days of the planet's creation. The geologists of the US all have in the backs of their minds a huge local outburst of water and sediments, following the last ice age, about which there is little geologic controversy. So both sets of good folk are pre-programmed to believe in vast outburst floods. Faced with the enigmatic canyons of Mars, they ran for local philosophic comfort. It must have been vast and explosive outpourings of water that cut the canyons, and in the case of the biggest, allowed water to flow two kilometers vertically uphill. If you did not have that much water, it could not have filled the two kilometer deep long pond, and nothing would have flowed downstream. The fact that their own Grand Canyon formed and is extending in a completely different manner and perhaps is a more useful comparison, has apparently by-passed them all.

If you want more technical detail on the geological objections this great intellectual fiasco, Google search 'The Long-winded model of Mars". It comes up very slowly with the pics in Word, and without them and far faster in HTML. Thanks Spacedaily. Also follow Nick Hoffman's reasoning. He was at it before me.

Peter Ravenscroft

Copyleft.

This work is in the public domain
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Re: Mars. Red planet, Misread planet.
24 Feb 2005
What significance can it possibly have to know whether Mars had water or even a tinkling of life?

Please question how much taxpayer money has been spent on the "quest for life on other heavenly bodies". You won't believe how much money has been thrown down that ridiculous hole of childhood imagination. It is truly OUTLANDISH AND A DISGRACE!

The people in NASA that are promolgating this farce make finding life on another globe out to be the most important thing in science. OF COURSE there has been life forms on other spheres....they know it.....there is no way to stop it other than disasterous events like huge asteroid hits or the like.

NASA Mars explorers need to grow up and get a meaningful job. Who cares if microbial life existed on Mars or Titan.....there is absolutely nothing of value that can be derived from it other than their $400,000/year salaries.
Re: Mars. Red planet, Misread planet.
11 Mar 2005
Understanding the geology of this planet changed lots of things. We are, on the basis of the Mars data, finding we did not understand it as well as we might have.

A more minor point. If there are microbes on Mars, they could just possibly get back here and eat ours. And us. That is part of the significance. It's called science, it's a sort of hobby, and the data is for everyone.