Skip to main content

After Mars landing, is science cool again?

By Simon DeDeo, Special to CNN
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/14/tech/gallery/mars-curiosity-rover/index.html' target='_blank'>Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity</a>. Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity.
HIDE CAPTION
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The landing of NASA's rover Curiosity on Mars generated intense national interest
  • Simon DeDeo: Are Americans rekindling their romance with science?
  • He says we experienced vicariously a group achieving unambiguous excellence
  • DeDeo: This is also the era when we might grasp underlying principles of human society

Editor's note: Simon DeDeo is an Omidyar Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, where he researches theoretical biology and physics.

(CNN) -- On Sunday night, as the Curiosity rover descended through the Martian atmosphere and the HiRISE camera on the Reconnaissance Orbiter caught its parachute deploy, the mood in the NASA Control Room became increasingly electric. As the rover touched down on Mars, the nation seemed to catch the fever and excitement. You would have needed a heart of stone not to get at least a little sentimental in seeing the high-fives and emotional embraces of scientists on live television.

But was the moment a blip? Or are Americans rekindling their romance with science after what seemed like a long and tepid stupor?

Americans have always been taken with the adventure of the "final frontier," but perhaps this is not enough to explain our intense interest this week in a technological marvel.

Simon DeDeo
Simon DeDeo

Mars landing: It could be crazier

With the rover so far from the laboratories that hatched it, it took light itself 14 minutes to reach us back on Earth. During that time span, we could not communicate with Curiosity. What if something went wrong? The waiting seemed like a solar system's game of chess by mail.

The destination only made it more gripping: Mars has been a lodestone for the imagination for at least a century. Percival Lowell's 1890s views of a Martian civilization frantically irrigating its dying world were at last debunked during the Mariner 4 flyby in 1964. But hopes of life on Mars continued. In literature, from Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles to Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian Trilogy, the Red Planet has become the American's Avalon.

Earth loves Mars -- why we're crushing on the red planet

Maybe we saw something deeper in the successful landing of Curiosity. We experienced -- even if vicariously -- a group achieving unambiguous excellence. In a nation where a city like Detroit can nearly collapse, where consensus on important policy issues seems far off, where some of the "best and brightest" minds of finance have built fragile institutions, how is it possible that a large cast of scientists and engineers can pull off such a remarkable task?

Mars rover Curiosity's descent

One of the widely reproduced photographs from the NASA Control Room showed a trio of scientists: the clean-cut, the mohawked and the Gandalf-haired — something unthinkable for the NASA of pocket protectors and ties of 50 years ago. Times have surely changed.

Search for 'building blocks' of Mars life

The Space Age has come of age, and this century has a chance to see us living on Mars. This is also the era when we might finally understand some of the underlying principles of human society.

Curiosity tweets Mars landing

Scientists have long sought to unlock the rules and regularities in the natural world. Likewise, social scientists have long believed in the existence of invisible forces that govern our social world. Aided by today's nearly limitless computer power, we can learn from the traces we leave behind on how we actually live and behave. We can see not only how traffic jams form and markets crash but how courtrooms are more or less just, how wars have changed and how they might end.

While science cannot capture the exhilaration of a successful society, or the misery of a failed one, it can show us the properties that underlie them. As scientists, my colleagues and I are inspired every day to put theories of both nature and human kind to the test, in hopes of answering their whys and hows.

Rover had 'exciting ride'

So is science cool again? Those of us in the laboratories, universities and institutes could be forgiven for not knowing it was ever uncool. Topics may fall out of fashion, and some can become political battlegrounds. What the immense interest in Curiosity's landing shows, however, is that the curiosity that drives all scientific endeavors persists in the nation as a whole.

Complete coverage of Mars

When a rover millions of miles away can light our hearts, it's hard to say whether we wanted to know more about Mars, or space colonies, or Earth, or ourselves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon DeDeo.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT