In the news: Curiosity and the ingredients for life

In the early hours of this morning, NASA’s Martian rover Curiosity touched down on the Red Planet to tackle a question that has fired the imagination of the public at least as far back as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds: Did life exist on Mars?

Curiosity (a full-scale lab model of which is shown above) is a mobile laboratory, designed to wander the Martian landscape testing for carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemicals essential for life.

Wells’s vision was Curiosity in reverse, with (markedly unfriendly) Martian tourists arriving here on Earth and stomping around our planet in their gangly long-legged rovers.

Born into Victorian England, Wells’s life spanned two world wars. Gifted, cantankerous, and with a social conscience, he is particularly remembered for his science fiction writing and his ability to foresee the future, as in his The War in the Air (1908), or The World Set Free (1914) which anticipated nuclear weapons, or The Shape of Things to Come (1933) which predicted that a world war would start in 1940 through a conflict between Poland and Germany.

As for the Nazis: They did not like Wells one bit. Not since he had Germany thrown out of Poets, Essayists & Writers. (Wells was the International President of PEN, at that time). Small wonder that the SS entered his name in their ‘Special Search List G.B.’ (Sonderfahndungsliste G.B.) for arrest when and if Operation Sealion was successful. Wells was in good company. The list included politicians such as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, and writers such as C.P. Snow and Virginia Woolf.

Was Wells right about Mars? Curiosity is unlikely to uncover Martians of the Wellsian evil octopus variety—but maybe it will uncover some kind of life, albeit primitive, and show that Wells’s idea of one hundred and fourteen years ago held a tiny microbe of truth.


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