Life on Mars and the Imagination of Scientists


Around this time seven years ago I was trying to figure out a topic for my Master’s thesis. It could have been anything at all, so long as it fit under the wide umbrella of science writing. After a few dead ends (sumo wrestling, Amish science) I finally chose to write about the hunt for life on Mars.

My advisor wasn’t keen on the idea, and it was way, way out of my wheelhouse. But I pushed on anyway, for three reasons I can remember.Astrobiology has only been considered a legitimate scientific endeavor since the ’60s. So every study felt fresh and exciting. It’s also inherently multidisciplinary — requiring geologists, climate scientists, astrophysicists, engineers, DNA experts, microbiologists and even philosophers — which meant my story would have lots of different voices. Perhaps most important, all of those voices are focused on one Big Question: Are we alone in the universe?

For the same reasons, astrobiology is perfect for science education, or so argues a new study in the journal Astrobiology. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, surveyed high schoolers before and after completing a one-day museum program in which they pretended to be scientists involved in Mars rover missions. The study found that this simulation corrected some of the students’ misperceptions about science and scientists.

These effects, though, were small. Overall the study was quite depressing, especially on one point: Even after completing the program, around two-thirds of the students said they didn’t think that scientists are creative or use their imaginations.

This is a massive problem. And fixing it will take a lot more than flashy rovers and the promise of aliens.

Written By: Virginia Hughes
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  1. @OP – These effects, though, were small. Overall the study was quite depressing, especially on one point: Even after completing the program, around two-thirds of the students said they didn’t think that scientists are creative or use their imaginations.

    The explanation is in a combination of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and in the petty jealousy-based psychological projections of the small minded science-ignorant! – as well illustrated in the pseudo-science of the “Red-neck” states of USA or the fumble-brained thinking promoted in theology colleges.
    The ignorant have a very limited view and tunnel vision, but are congratulated on it and reinforced in their ignorance, by journalists, preachers and politicians, who are thick, ignorant, and manipulative sociopaths, with disparaging anti-science airs of superiority!
    Some people only know the media straw-scientist or the Hollywood mad-scientist, so have no idea about massive overview of investigative science, or the broad-spectrum speculative targeting of areas for investigation.

    Many people do not have the scientists’ follow-up skills, of critically sorting experimentally verifiable ideas, from the wealth of speculation produced by a creative mind.
    Those with very limited imaginations doggedly cling to the few ideas they have generated or copied, so they only see scientists rejecting masses of flawed speculations and confuse this with scientists having an absence or shortage of ideas.
    Most of them are not even aware of areas of scientific knowledge, already confirmed and applied in engineering!

    BTW: I think that the discovery of life on Mars is unlikely, and is a distracting red-herring, as far as exploration of the Solar System goes – but I could be wrong!

  2. @Nodhimmi:
    This article isn’t about whether people think science is interesting. It’s about whether think doing science is creative. Those are two different concepts. Try to keep your eye on the ball.

    This may be a result of how we teach science. Mostly we throw facts and rules at students and expect them to remember it. Sometimes we as them to do experiments to ‘discover the boiling point of water’. In both cases there is only one right answer for any given problem, and if there’s only one right answer, there is no chance of being creative.

    What might help would be to give students (even young ones) a problem that has yet to be solved by science, but which is simple enough for them to understand. This is a rare combination. One such problem is Femi’s Paradox. “If aliens exist, they should be here right now. So where are they?” There are some standard answers to that, as well as some non standard ones, and that allows students choice and creativity, as well as experiencing the ‘joys’ of peer review once they’ve declaired what answer they think best fits the eidence.

    This is harder than teaching students the boiling point of water, but it’s arguably better, because it shows them what scientists really do: Solve problems that noone else has before them, which requires imagination, creativity and (if you’ll excuse the phrase) the occasional leap of faith.

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