The top story on the CBC News website last Dec. 3 was the announcement that Prince William and Kate Middleton are expecting a baby. Also making headlines were stories about a harsh winter on the way, the fiscal cliff in Washington and the interminable NHL lockout.
At the bottom of CBC’s home page, in the science and technology section, there were links to pieces about a United Nations conference on Internet rules, and a study suggesting a correlation between a love for spicy food and certain personality types. Only if you ventured deeper into the section would you find the story headlined, “Curiosity’s 1st results show no evidence of life on Mars.” This was an item about the first complete soil analysis conducted by Curiosity, the robotic explorer and laboratory that landed on Mars last summer.
Here, briefly, is how the test went. After confirming that its systems were in working order, Curiosity started its motors and inched its way to a small sand drift. For the next 40 Martian days, Curiosity and its earthly controllers practised collecting soil samples using a multi-jointed robotic arm fitted with a scoop mechanism. Eventually, the robot used the scoop to dig a small trench in the soil. Cradling its precious contents, the scoop folded up inside a mechanical unit at the end of the arm. Next, the arm swung around until the scoop was positioned directly above a tube on the robot’s main body. A lid on the tube popped open, the scoop slowly extended, and the soil sample poured down the tube and into Curiosity’s internal laboratory. The lab then ran several experiments, including three different tests where the sample was heated in an oven to see what kinds of gases it gave off.
Curiosity’s job is to help researchers determine if microbial life once existed on Mars. The tests it conducted were inconclusive. The news media were clearly hoping for something bigger. Stifling a yawn, they buried the story.
Maybe it’s time we gave ourselves a collective pinch. If stories like this don’t grab us, I don’t know what will. Think of it: a pilotless machine travels 570-million kilometres to another planet and makes a pinpoint landing suspended from a rocket-powered crane. It drives around taking pictures, reporting on the weather, scooping up dirt and generally doing everything its masters back on Earth tell it to do. Flawlessly. And that’s just the warm-up. In the coming months, Curiosity will trek to the base of a 5,000-metre mountain about four kilometres away, find some rocks that scientists are interested in and drill down to grab some core samples.
This should be an age of wonder. Technology is advancing at an unimaginable pace, yet we’ve become remarkably blasé about it. Imagine how people a generation ago would have responded to Curiosity or smartphones or airplanes that fly themselves. They would have been awestruck. Today we shrug, confident that another, better miracle is just around the corner.
It’s as if we’re creating so many miracles that we’re losing our capacity for wonder. We’re forgetting how to stand back, take a deep breath and marvel. It would be tragic if we let that capacity slip away.
Wonder has always played a big role in religion. In our part of the world, religion is in decline. Perhaps there’s a correlation. Maybe the decline in religion has made us generally less inclined to wonder. Or maybe the erosion of our capacity for wonder has contributed to the decline of religion. Either way, we earthlings are the poorer for it.
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