Life on Mars? The imagination runs wild – and not in a good way

Small, apparently harmless things can turn into bloody great delinquent savage things

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The Independent Online

There’s a lot to be said for scientific ignorance. If, like me, you operate at a level of dim-witted incomprehension when faced with the kind of articles that appear in the New Scientist, it’s good to feel your imagination rushing to supply a kind of parallel commentary. I think there are many people like me out there. And when we look at this week’s news about the possibility of life on Mars, our imaginations go into overdrive and start a mental dialogue.

Curiosity – one of the two Nasa exploration “rovers” that landed on Mars in August 2012 – has picked up significant readings in the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater. Readings? What, like the electricity or gas readings taken by the man at your front door holding a clipboard? Well yes, readings of gas – methane actually. Isn’t that what cows produce after digesting an afternoon’s worth of fresh grass? That’s the stuff. You mean, after wandering around Mars for two years and four months, the Wall-E device with the roving eye and the waving arms has finally discovered a fart?

Yes, but it’s not just one fart. Nasa skirts round the F-word and calls them “spikes” or “burps” of methane, and it gradually sinks in that the Nasa report is using the plural. There are lots of farts, it seems, and they’re all over this huge crater. It’s a veritable Grand Canyon of flatulence.

Anything else? Come in Dr Paul Mahaffy at the space research HQ: “What is interesting is that these spikes of methane are coming and going. They are transient,” he says. Whaaaaaat? Like a switch being thrown to light up a Christmas tree, the imagination goes wild. The farts are coming and going like flipping heartbeats. They’re being made by (ooh-er) some living object. It means that someone or, more likely, (*spooky voice*) Some Thing is making them as we speak and is probably (aarrgghh) standing – or more likely bent over – right behind you… 

You think I exaggerate about how imagination works? The first speculations about life on Mars were made by the German-born British astronomer William Herschel in the 18th century, who observed polar ice caps on Mars that grew and shrank alternately in the “summer” and “winter” of each hemisphere. Everyone liked the idea, because it suggested that Martian life was a properly organised living thing, with seasons, just like Earth. Five minutes after hearing Herschel’s discovery, English people probably started imagining little green men going on their summer holidays, emerging from bathing huts wearing stripy vests and eating alien candyfloss.

The science-fiction boom of the late 19th century was caused by another such report, when astronomers, such as Percy Lovell, reported that they could spot canals on Mars – artificial irrigation channels, built by intelligent life. Just think how that went down, on Earth. The imaginations of a thousand Victorian gentlemen instantly summoned up Martians in shirtsleeves and knotted handkerchief, smoking pipes and ushering gaily painted canal barges through the sunlit waterways of a Martian landscape that looked just like Kent.

The Nasa report strives to play down the likelihood of there being actual life forces on the Red Planet, saying only that the methane could be produced by micro-organisms (known as methanogens) living under the planet’s surface. But micro-organisms are living things, right? Probably with multiple eyes and horrible wiggly feelers? And they’re living underground? They’re obviously biding their time until they suddenly pop up to reveal themselves, in their full horror, to next year’s ExoMars mission. And though they may be very small and seemingly non-threatening, well, we’ve seen the movie Gremlins, and know how small and apparently harmless things can turn into bloody great delinquent savage things with huge ears, bent on stealing cars and wiping out the human race.

Scientists talk about the possibility that some form of life existed on Mars billions of years ago, before the planet became the desiccated lump it seems to be. But then you read about the Gale Crater, from whose floor a mountain rises 18,000ft high; channels seem to have been carved into the mountain side and the crater walls by flowing water. And you think, hang on, this is some Peter Jackson landscape, isn’t it, with mountains, waterfalls and giant chasms? It seems impossible that such sublime natural phenomena could not have been the backdrop to an epic  struggle for mastery between brave Martian, er, micro-organisms and revolting hairy Orcs on some invasive mission from Uranus.

Yeah yeah, unlikely I know. After this week’s headlines, we’ll soon go back to regarding Mars as an unyielding lump of rocky irrelevance. But what a treat it was, just for a while, to have the ignorant imagination fired. Like a rocket.

Italian stallion’s spaghetti has gone from raw to cooked

Browsing through my copy of La Repubblica with my morning cappuccino, I notice an alarming trend. Increasing numbers of Italian men are going off sex. According to the Institute of Clinical Sexuality in Rome, the numbers of Italian gentlemen visiting clinics for a furrowed-brow chat with an expert about their performance in the bed chamber have grown by a shocking 15 per cent in four years. Even worse, the number of chaps complaining that their desire for amore has, if you follow me, gone from raw to cooked spaghetti has skyrocketed by 40 per cent.

This is disastrous. The image of the Latin lover, the smouldering, passionate, jealous, emotional, slick-haired, garlic-scented seducer in the Valentino two-piece, operatic as Caruso and hung like Porfirio Rubirosa, has taken a bit of a dive. Ten years ago, it was mostly women who sought clinical help. The idea of Italian men asking for help in getting back their libido is frankly bizarre. I mean, they invented the word (it’s Latin for lust.) Doctors at the institute suggest that it may be the result of men’s inability to adjust to “changing roles in their relations with women”. Others suggest that too much perusal of well-endowed porn stars has made Italian guys fret over the dimensions of their javelino di prosciutto.

I’m not so sure. I think the reputation thing has been overblown. I mean, who were the great Italian Lovers? Casanova? A heftily scented failed gambler-turned-librarian who liked one-night stands with insecure women. Romeo? Delinquent and under-balcony eavesdropper sleeps with a 13-year-old and kills himself after failing to distinguish between drugged unconsciousness and death. Dante? Fell in love with Beatrice when he was nine and she was eight. Met her again when she was 17 but ran away. You think that’s the sign of a good lover? Berlusconi? Enjoyed having sex with underage prostitutes called Ruby. It’s not a terrific record of sexual triumphalism, is it? Italian men are just being revealed in their vero colori at last.