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Prepare for what Mars rover Curiosity and other 'big science' may reveal

The rover Curiosity could soon beam back evidence of past (or current) life on Mars. Like other recent news in basic science, humans must know how to absorb such challenges to understanding.

An image from an earlier Mars rover, Opportunity, shows a rock outcropping dubbed "El Capitan" with distinctive texture familiar to geologists as the sites where crystals of salt minerals form within rocks that sit in briny water. Parts of Mars were once "drenched" with so much water that life could easily have existed there, NASA states


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Are humans ready to grasp what scientists may soon throw at them?

Take, for example, the mission of Curiosity, the aptly named rover that just made a spectacular landing on Mars.

Its unique purpose is to search for carbon, amino acids, and other building blocks of life – at least as life is known on this planet. Within weeks its three chemistry labs could possibly beam back the first evidence of extraterrestrial life – either as it may have existed in the past or as it currently survives under the Mars surface.

Such news would trigger a revolution in human perspectives not seen since Copernicus announced that Earth was not the center of the universe.

Or take a particle detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. It was delivered to the International Space Station last year with a mission to find the elusive “dark matter” that makes up about a quarter of the universe and may be tied to the equally puzzling substance known as antimatter.

Last month, scientists announced that the $2 billion detector had found particles never before seen in nature. Or as one researcher put it, the device is searching for “phenomena that so far we have not had the imagination or the technology to discover.”

And then there was the announcement July 4 of the discovery of the Higgs boson, or the so-called God particle. This subatomic particle is considered essential to the theory of how matter has mass and indeed how the stars and planets were formed. “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never [reached] before,” said one physicist.


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