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What the Martian spark says about us

So Mars is coming close. Should we care? Bioethics columnist Arthur Caplan reflects on what the Red Planet means to the rest of us.
/ Source: contributor

So Mars is coming close to us. The Red Planet will creep within 34,646,418 miles of those of us residing on the Blue Planet on Wednesday. Should we care?

Well, astronomers love this stuff. Mars will be easy to see and just about as bright as Venus in the night sky. If you are an astronomer, you have to love this close encounter with our next-door planetary neighbor, since you and your professional pals can bask in the bright glow of Mars for days. For people who spend most of their time out of any limelight, planetary or otherwise, the Mars cameo is a public-relations bonanza.

And for intergalactic ignoramuses like me, the appearance of Mars is a boon as well. Now, instead of it being obvious that when it comes to constellations I cannot tell Cassiopeia from a carburetor, I can point in the direction of the bright object in the sky, declare it to be Mars, and know that the odds are good that I am not aiming at the moon.

The real reason we love Mars is not, however, because it shines brightly in our firmament every gazillion years or so. Or that its path cozies up to ours once in a while. We want to get close to Mars because we hope that someone might be there.

Life on Mars: That is what has always made Mars a celestial attraction. When the Red Planet draws nigh, wouldn’t it be great if someone would wave or at least hang up a banner — you know, “Earth sucks” or something? Then we would not feel so alone out here at the edge of our galaxy.

Alas, it is very unlikely that there will be anyone there staring at Earth, noting that despite its luminosity there is no more evidence of intelligent life then the last time the two rocks got near one another. At best, Mars is likely to be the residence of a parched microbe — or even more likely, a desiccated, fossilized, dead one.

Our collective hope that if we could only get close enough we might see life on Mars — a canal, a village, a giant wall, a little green man — is not likely to be fulfilled. Instead, for most of us, the close appearance of our neighbor blazing in the night sky will simply be a reminder that so far as we can tell there ain’t nobody in this solar system but us. Mars may glow this month as it never has before, but sadly it is just evidence that whoever once may have been there forgot to turn out the lights.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and MSNBC’s “Breaking Bioethics” columnist.