[From Peter Cariani, (960808.1130 EDST)]
Richard Marken wrote:
I think the possible discovery of life forms on Mars
is the coolist thing I've heard about since control theory.
Someone "close to NASA" was quoted as
saying "I think it's arguably the biggest discovery
in the history of science." I was wondering what this
person meant by "biggest".
They probably just watched too much of the Olympics. If they had
said "really, really significant" or "earth-shattering" or
"stupendous", maybe they thought people would just yawn,
having taken in the (obscenely destructive) attitude that
"you don't win silver, you lose gold" from the shoe ads.
I have a feeling he (or she) meant that it would
require the "biggest" change we have
ever had to make in our conception of life;
that we would have to change our
conception of "life" from "earth centric" to "universe centric".
But my conception of life was never earth centric;
I think of life as "matter organized in a high gain negative
feedback relationship with respect to variables in its
(the matter's) environment". I find it plausible that matter
could become organized in this way in many different environments --
including the environments of planets other than the earth.
No serious theoretical biologist would disagree with you on the
general point (I don't know what "matter organized in a high gain
negative feedback relationship with respect to variables in its
(the matter's) environment" means.....).
Unfortunately, most of what we now call
"biology" is dominated by those who think in terms
of very specific "frozen accidents" and in terms of specific
molecular mechanisms, as opposed to general processes or patterns of
organization of processes that permit structural stability.
This produces very particularistic habits of thought,
that there are no larger organizational principles
of living organisms other than the particular
molecular mechanisms that are present.
It would be wonderful to find evidence of life forms on other
planets -- it would certainly be useful data for exploring
the paths and processes of evolution - - but would it really change
our conception of life?
No it doesn't, unless one held a very particularistic view that only
certain mechanisms give rise to DNA, RNA and proteins (not necessarily
in that order), and that these are necessary for life. If "life" is
a kind of organization, then one's picture is not changed at all; if
it is linked to particular mechanisms or structures, then it could
potentially generate congitive dissonance and maybe even belief change.
anyone out there who's conception of life is "earth centric"?
Would the discovery of life on Mars (if it pans out) be a
disturbance to your conception of life?
I think it would be a disturbance to me if there were evidence
that some prior, highly-evolved life-form had "seeded"
Mars or Earth, but not if Martian life also appeared
to have evolved de novo.
Stephan Balke wrote:
No, certainly not. But maybe the further discovery
of small bakterias on Mars will lead to further poverty
on Earth. Clintons message about the
discovery of life on Mars and his announcement of greatest efforts for
further research arrived just one day after the message of dramatic
cuts in the social net.
This linkage is a gigantic red-herring if I ever saw one. Research
is such a miniscule part of the Federal budget. Stephan, if you're
want to attack and destroy science, this is the way to do it. Claim
that it's a zero-sum game, and that if research X is to be carried
out, babies will starve. Never mind the huge corporate and agricultural
subsidies, the expensive armaments programs that even the Pentagon says
it doesn't need, the savings-and-loan ripoffs, and the
pork-barrel public works projects that keep the system
greased -- no let's forget about all of those things and
concentrate on criticizing exobiology research. What myopia!
I never thought that temporal contiguity alone was sufficient
to establish an associative linkage, but there it is, empirical
evidence of a mental linkage between the two events -- or maybe,
more sinisterly, Clinton knew about the Mars bacterias before the
welfare announcement and it's all part of some concerted plan to
divert our attention from social issues. Somehow I doubt it.
Even if you look at NASA's budget (some of which I think is
still classified), I think that civilian scientific projects
like unmanned probes to Mars are a relatively minor part.
I really do think NASA's scientific mission should be
vigorously defended. Part of my graduate work was funded
through the NASA Graduate Fellowship Program, and NASA,
because of its interdisciplinary mission, is
one of the few agencies that are not already "captured" and carved
up by discipline. In contrast, NSF and NIH-funded graduate
programs are generally very specific in what fields they fund, so that
if you are working on a problem (like PCT, for example) that cuts
across many disciplines, you're frozen out of the system. Many
research problems, especially if they are very creative and
innovative, fall between disciplines.
Maybe because I grew up in the post-Sputnick heyday of
moon-shots, I was indoctrinated into believing that
science is an important activity that should be undertaken
by a society such as ours, for the betterment of ourselves, our
children, and their descendents. We are (still) a rich society
by any standard, and the pursuit of new knowledge does not need
to come at the expense of those at the bottom of the social
pyramid. We desperately need to reform our political system, so
that the real priorities of the vast majority of the populace
can take priority over those of Big Money. I'm not at all optimistic
about these prospects, because collectively, people are so slow to
learn political and social lessons (maybe this is a job for social
PCT, to increase the learning rate for society as a whole), and the
political system is structured in such a way that the consequences
of their electoral decisions are almost never made clear to them in
a timely fashion. But, please, please, the situation is bad enough
without thoughtless remarks about the funding of research.