Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life on Mars

Artsists conception of a halocarbon factory on Mars. Courtesy NASA.

A few years ago I heard about an entrepreneur who made a fortune selling real estate on Mars. People were paying real money to buy ‘title deeds’ to own land on the red planet. Of course the main appeal was as a gag gift for friends, ‘Happy birthday, I bought you 50 acres on Mars.’ A great money-making idea that came and went like so many others birthed in cyber space.

However, scientists are now telling us that there is a real possibility that future generations of homo sapiens may one day be living on our nearest neighbour in space. The technical term for this enterprise is ‘terraforming’, also referred to as ‘planetary engineering’: the act of transforming the atmosphere and the surface of a planet to make it suitable for human life. It may not be as far-fteched an idea as some people think. After all, I can remember as a kid reading that one day rich people would be able to make trips into space. Anyone who keeps up with current events knows that this is now happening. Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact; and the time interval between the conception of futuristic ideas and their actual realization seems to be shrinking.

Transforming an entire planet would of course not be an overnight project. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, then it would entail hundreds of years of sustained development to transform Mars into a place we could call home. Currently the atmosphere there is so thin (100 times thinner than earth) and it is composed mostly of carbon-dioxide, with no oxygen at all; so that an unprotected person would die a rather unpleasant death, decompressing and suffocating in a few seconds. The surface temperature would also make life very tough, even for a polar bear. Also, the thin atmosphere doesn’t trap heat like on earth. This, when combined with the fact that the red planet is also 50% farther from the sun, means that Mars is a very cold place. In fact, the average surface temperature there is minus 60 Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit). A cold day in Alaska would be a vacation by comparison.

Then there are the Martian dust storms. How would you feel if tonight the weatherman told you that a storm would hit your city tomorrow and last for the next five or six months? On Mars storms on a planetary scale can last this long, hiding areas the size of North America under thick red dust.
The problems and challenges are literally on a global scale, meaning that terraforming Mars to make it fit for humans to settle could take hundreds of years. The first step would be to build an atmosphere. Mars has a lot of carbon-dioxide trapped in polar ice caps. Melting this ice would create a thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere. This would have the effect of raising the planet’s surface temperature as a denser atmosphere begins to trap heat on the surface (much like the ‘greenhouse effect’ on earth). Now water could flow on the surface and plants would be able to grow. The first Martian plants would probably be lichens. In a few decades, a terraformed Mars would witness an explosion of life characterized by pines and oaks, allowing it to become our second home.

Of course, questions remain as to what is the best way to warm up Mars. One possibility would involve building factories to make gases called ‘halocarbons’. The raw materials would be the Martian soil and the Martian atmosphere. This deliberate polluting of the Martian atmosphere would contribute to a greenhouse effect. There is a certain irony in the fact that the very processes that are destroying our home world on earth, could be the answer to one day creating a new home on Mars.

Finally, after a hundred years or so, the first humans could travel to the red planet as permanent settlers. They would in some respects be imitating the early settlers who travelled to the ‘new world’ of America. These first inter-planetary colonists would be like the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed in the Mayflower to build a new life far from home.

But why would such a momentous enterprise ever be attempted? The financial cost and the commitment of time and resources would far surpass any endeavour in human history. Apart from the mountain climbers’ motivation of ‘because it’s there’, are there any practical reasons compelling enough to embark on this centuries long undertaking? Again scientists are telling us that ‘yes’ there are in fact very sound reasons for doing this. The most persuasive reason is that the very survival of the human race may be at stake. A brief examination of the fossil record reveals how many species have become extinct over the millions of years that life has been struggling to survive on planet earth. Is there any reason to believe that our own end would be any different?

We now know that Asteroid collisions present a real threat to our survival. Many scientists believe that it was an asteroid impact that wiped out most of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Apparently these global killers have struck many times in earth’s history, and the statistical probability is that it will happen again. Add to this the very real possibility that we could cause our own extinction through war, or that some killer plague may one day wipe us all out; and there is a good case for increasing the odds of our survival by spreading our seed to a distant shore.

There is a well-known quote in astronomical circles, ‘We can’t afford to keep all of our eggs in one basket for too long’. If the human race is to guarantee its survival long enough to one day explore the stars and the galaxies, then colonizing Mars could be the most important event in human history; eclipsing the discovery of fire or the splitting of the atom.

One day, our distant progeny maybe buying real estate on Mars. Not just for fun, but to actually build a life there. I wonder if any descendants of those Internet customers who bought Martian land in the early 21st century will be around to claim ownership?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Nuns by day, hookers by night

"I've been searching for the daughter of the devil himself
I've been searching for an angel in white
I've been waiting for a woman who's a little of both..."

So begins a classic song (One of these nights) by the Eagles. According to the song every man is looking for a woman who can be a devil at night and an angel by day. Freud referred to this desire by men to have a pure yet sensual partner as the "Madonna-whore" complex.

It seems that this fantasy may now be fulfilled on the streets of Bangkok. Leaders of the Buddhist community in Thailand are taking action against women who disguise themselves
as Buddhist nuns to solicit donations during the day and work as prostitutes at night.

The shocking revelation was made at Monday’s monthly meeting of monastic leaders and abbots in Bangkok. A senior nun denounced these women as "fake nuns" and called for immediate action.

Police in Bangkok's Bang Sue district along with officials from the Office of National Buddhism are trying to identify the women. Investigators are looking to get information from street sweepers and garbage collectors to locate the hiding places of these women who solicit money to finance their alcohol and drug habits.

There are 20,000 legally ordained nuns in Thailand. The hope is that the phony nuns can be stopped to avoid staining the reputation of the genuine practitioners.

The problem is not limited to female nuns. Fake monks have also been investigated soliciting donations in Bangkok. In March 2005 police arrested 19 fake monks near Bangkok who dressed in the traditional orange robes to beg fro food and money. The men are farmers who travel to Bangkok during the off-harvest season. Some Thai men have traveled as far as Singapore to make money as fake monks. Recently phony monks were barred from entering Singapore after complaints from both Thai and Singaporean Buddhists.

It seems that TV evangelists aren't the only ones trying to make money from religion. In Thailand thousands of people faithfully give donations to monks and temples, often rising at 5 in the morning to feed the monks breakfast. Authorities hope to stamp out the phony monks and nuns before the reputation of all practicing Buddhists is put in danger.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Secret

Have you ever wondered if there are hidden laws behind the workings of the universe? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an ally, something like the ‘force’, that could help you in everyday life? Do you want to know how to tap in to this powerful energy and transform your experience of life? Doesn’t everyone want to know how to be more in control, to be able to attract more happiness, success and prosperity? These are some of the exciting ideas behind the blockbuster best-seller “The Secret” that is currently sweeping the globe.

There is a tremendous buzz about this book. It has already been translated into 30 languages, including Croatian and Thai, and been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It is accompanied by a full length documentary movie, and has already spawned 2 more books in the Secret series.

So what is all the hype about? First of all, what the author has done is to gather teachings from many sources and to present them all under one cover. The book doesn't limit itself by subscribing to one religion or philosophical approach. Another reason why this book has been so successful is that it is written in a very accessible style. The author really wants to give you tools that you can use to improve your own life. Much of the core teaching is presented in the words of modern day gurus and teachers like Jack Canfield (author of the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series), Neal Donald Walsh (author of the ‘Conversations with God’ series) and Michael Beckwith (Leader of the huge Agape Church in California).

The principles contained in the pages of the Secret have been around for centuries and are contained in the teachings of many of the ‘great ones’ throughout history, including the Buddha, Gandhi, Isaac Newton, Einstein and a host of others. It’s the way that these teachings are presented and synthesized into a powerful, unified entity that makes this book so unique.

The mass appeal is also due to the fact that so many people are looking for solutions to the problems they encounter in life. Do these teachings actually work? Individual experience is the answer. The Secret lays out a road map for readers to follow. Step-by-step you are lead through the process of transforming the way you look at the world, with gifted modern day teachers and ancient gurus as your guides. These factors and others make this a very powerful tool to revolutionize your life and set out in a new direction.

I expect that ‘The Secret’ will continue to spread around the world. The publishers are busy translating it into still more languages, enlightening and informing whole new audiences. It has become a constant companion on my bedside table, and I can honestly say that it will be a trusted resource for many years to come.