Saturday, February 07, 2004

Gurdjieff: Most all of us are mere machines, automata, robots. Only a few people achieve actual sentience. Self-awareness is something that must be earned and cultivated. It requires stamina and fortitude -- but it's worth it. As John Shirley notes, "The Matrix" and similar films have tapped this idea with phenomenal success; collectively, are we "waking up," or at least trying to? The 21st century badly needs Red Pills, the courage to confront the unheeding force our species has become.

An example of our collective autism is JPL's refusal to examine certain unidentified objects in the immediate vicinity of the Opportunity rover that seem to have changed location on the Martian surface. I'm not referring to delusional claims of "alien machinery"; the objects in question are real anomalies, addressed by Mars project scientists but deemed unworthy of investigation. One is the "pronged" object featured in an earlier installment. Another is a brightly colored something that online commentators initially took for "litter" from the rover's bumpy landing.

Since their initial discovery, both objects have disappeared from view, gone without a trace.

Two possibilities immediately come to mind: Either the objects are lightweight space junk carried away by Mars' tenuous winds (picture a candy bar wrapper or Styrofoam cup held aloft in a strong breeze) or else they are a genuine unknown. In the latter case, then it would be foolish to prematurely rule out the possibility of macroscopic lifeforms.

JPL has admitted it doesn't know what these objects are. Project scientists surmise they're spacecraft debris, but they don't pretend to know how they got there or which pieces of the Opportunity ensemble they might represent. This last point, to my mind, is crucial. The MER rovers are not hastily designed devices. Every rivet, seam and bolt is accounted for. All components are required to work in flawless harmony for the robots to safely reach their destinations and function according to plan.

If we're merely looking at pieces of lander debris, as suggested by the JPL team, then why aren't the engineers at the very least intensely curious to see what has apparently fallen off their super-redundant hardware? If the "pronged" object is simply a scrap of airbag fabric ensnared on a rock outcropping, then what's responsible for dislodging it? (Remember that the airbag material, for all its thinness, is stronger than steel.) And why don't we see similar "litter" at the Spirit landing site on the other side of the planet?

I previously wrote that JPL was developing an anything-but-scientific immunity to the unexpected. Apparently rocks are fair game -- but only if they resemble terrestrial rocks. Rocks with "varnished" surfaces or geometric cavities must be avoided -- perhaps because they look just a bit too organic, like chunks of bone or petrified wood where such things have no business being. Oddly colored snail-shapes are studiously avoided because, in the words of one JPL scientist, taking a close look would "waste precious machine time." He failed to note that the anomaly in question was directly in front of the Opportunity rover, starkly unavoidable. In the scheme of the rover's mission, taking a closer look would have been virtually effortless. Instead, Opportunity was (presumably) steered directly over the strange formation; JPL has taken to literally running over what it can't explain, like a monster truck imperviously crushing a line-up of decrepit cars.

We've managed the staggering feat of transplanting our senses to another world . . . and decided to all-but cover our eyes for fear of seeing something strange, or at the very least instructive.

We are machines on automatic pilot, forsaking the possibility of authentic discovery in favor of so much gravel.