Which field of science is stronger than geology? Visible, tangible rocks. You can smash them with a hammer, drill them, crush them, zap them with X-rays, ultraviolet light and radar, analyze their chemistry, extract secrets.
The study of human behavior, on the other hand, is the story of science’s struggle to understand the ineffable. Researchers have embraced different approaches to figuring out how people think and act, from Sigismund Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex to making human science a more “scientific” fashion through industry. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and fMri scans the brain. Human life is a message, and no hammer blow will unlock the workings of the brain.
This issue of Science News articulates that duality in two characteristics. Our cover story covers the geology and chemistry of Mars, with NASA’s continued hacking of the Red Planet for rocks that could reveal signs of past life. In “Broken Times,” social science writer Sujata Gupta explores how life’s crises can cause some people to lose their sense of self and vision for the future. Helping people restore that vision, some researchers believe, may be the cure for PTSD and fatal thoughts.
When I read Gupta’s article, I could perceive the efforts of scientists to define human experiences – self-continuity, autobiographical. These words were new to me, and I realized that I had carefully read what the learned men wanted. I was comforted by Gupta’s observation that philosophers have struggled with these questions for millennia. There are no easy answers.
When I turned to writer Liz Krues’ account of the first two years of the Perseverance mission, I thought, “Ah, easy.” Find rocks, study rocks, confirm or reject hypotheses. NASA scientists headed to Jezero Crater, the site of a dry lake bed, that they assumed would be made of sedimentary rocks — the type of rock most likely to preserve evidence of ancient life. To their astonishment, the pirate, affectionately known as Percy, finds areas of igneous rock from past magmatic activity. The story was more complicated than the most learned men.
When Percy rolled to a new place, the dry front of the Delta, he found the sedimentary rocks that the scientists had hoped for. Renault Or continues in his work as a robot geologist and astrobiologist, collecting photographs and samples that show the chemistry of rocks. Little by little, information will help scientists unravel the complex story of the planet’s history. Sometimes, they may even answer the big question of whether life once flourished on Mars.
So maybe rocks and people aren’t such different research subjects after all. Simple questions lead to complex and contradictory data, challenging new findings that we knew to be true. As we learn, we rewrite the history of the past and get a clearer sense of what is to come. And so many questions remain to be answered.
#science #rocks #science #men