Maybe it's because misery loves company, but even as humanity finds itself in a tempest-tossed world, people can't help but look for life on other planets. The latest venture landed on Mars on Sunday evening a ship called the Phoenix, equipped with million-dollar gizmos and gadgets to determine if life exists or once existed on the Red Planet.
Scientists say finding life there would be a major discovery, but so would finding none at all. Or, as a cosmic wag once put it, "The only thing more mind-boggling than imagining life on other planets is imagining ourselves alone in the universe."
The 422-million mile journey has been in the works for more than five years. And though "elegant" is usually a term reserved for fashion and mathematics, the operation so far has indeed been elegant. Soon the Phoenix will extend an arm and dig amid the dust and ice, looking for hydrogen and carbon molecules the building blocks of life.
In short, Phoenix is hoping to unearth a Martian "carbon footprint."
Logical and scientific reasons abound, of course. But part of the intrigue is being fueled by the romance "earthlings" have had with Mars since writers first began spinning tales of little green men. Like wolves at a campfire, human beings are both attracted to and alarmed by the planet. The fact it is named for the Roman god of war adds to its mythology.
Following Phoenix, a Mars Science Laboratory about the size of a Buick will land on Mars equipped with "ray guns" that will zap the surface with rock-blasting lasers. Far from putting concerns to rest, the laboratory promises to heighten the mysterious "dance of the spheres" that Earth and Mars have been doing for thousands of years.
And if humanity's best efforts fail to turn up any notion of life on Mars?
Other planets await. Then other galaxies.
Humanity's search for new friends will go on despite our inability to establish workable friendships among ourselves.