After I read about the new evidence for liquid water on Mars, bubbling up from underground and leaving brief tracks before the terrible cold burns it away to nothing, I went into the kitchen and filled a glass from the tap. It tasted vacant, like outer space.
Good water is like the face of a model: void of all detectable particularities. Regular to the point of seeming inhuman.
a rare condition in which hives develop within 1 to 15 minutes after contact with water. The hives last for 10 to 120 minutes and do not seem to be caused by histamine release like the other physical hives. Most investigators believe that this condition is actually exquisite skin sensitivity to additives in the water such as chlorine.
Imagine what it would be like to suffer from this ailment: even after treatment, still experiencing itchiness whenever your skin comes in contact with what we have always been told is the source of all life.
Evidence of ancient water abounds on Mars, and the question has generally been, What if there’s life? But now, with this strong evidence that water somehow, somewhere persists, the opposite case strikes me as equally intriguing: What if there isn’t, and has never been, life on Mars?
According to Michael Malin, the leader of the team who made the discovery,
These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there’s a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life.
An essay by science fiction author Ben Bova helps place these questions in context.
Several decades ago, when most scientists wrote off frigid, arid Mars as a world that could not harbor life, Carl Sagan and a few others suggested that Mars was probably much warmer and wetter in eons past. Maybe what we see today, they speculated, is the Martian equivalent of an ice age period. Maybe Mars wasn’t always the way it is today. […]
On Earth, there are varieties of bacteria that live deep underground, where they metabolize solid rock. Like all forms of life that we know of, these rock-eating bacteria need liquid water, which they get from underground seeps and flows.
The same kind of organisms could exist on Mars. Right now.
And we might never know for sure. Space exploration costs gazillions, and we may not be able to afford it for very much longer.
Death is not a synonym for lifelessness. Only a planet known to have once harbored life can truly be called a dead planet. And if we ever discover that to have been the case with Mars, we’ll have to give some thought to memorial rites. We have a hard enough time grappling with genocide or the extinction of a species, so much more numbing than the loss even of the greatest or most beloved individual. Now we are beginning to see the collapse of entire ecosystems. We have no fucking idea how to mourn the loss of a world.
Interesting, isn’t it, how the language works on us? Only a place that has been someone’s home can rightly be considered a world.
If life on earth turns out to be derived ultimately from Mars, by way of microorganism-bearing meteorite(s), our sorrow and sense of disorientation will be like that of an adoptee who only discovers his adopted status after the death of his birth-mother.
Unless, of course, that mother still clings to life in some cold and sterile hospital ward, lying in a coma. We return again and again to peer down at her silent mask, watching, wondering if it might ever return to being a face. Mere biological life is not enough. We crave a response.