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Curiosity

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

When I first read a biography of Darwin as a teenager, I was attracted to his reputation of having “an enlarged curiosity.” It also described my own personality.  

I never got museum fatigue going through New York’s museums. They were free during the 1940s and my brother and I would enjoy many trips with our mother during the summer to visit them. 

It was fun to study paintings to see how artists differed in the way they drew facial features. It was fun to go through the fossils of dinosaurs and see how much their skeletons resembled those of birds. 

I could imagine being an unseen witness to the huge teeth and claws of meat-eating dinosaurs. I loved looking at gems in the mineral display gallery. I learned about New York City history by looking at the dioramas on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History.

Curiosity is natural to children and they delight in discovering new facts. That curiosity is often stifled by parents who tire of an overload of questions. When a child becomes curious and discovers items parents do not want their children to know about, they often are told that “curiosity may kill a cat.”  

I often satisfied my curiosity at home reading in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which my father bought on installment just before I was born. He argued that I could sleep in an open suitcase on the kitchen table and buying the encyclopedia was more important than the type of bedding an infant slept in. I bless him for that foresight.  

Random reading on rainy days in the encyclopedia filled me with facts about the universe. I read about the art of bonsai or miniaturized trees in Japanese gardens. I read about Egyptian mummies and learned under the topic Bubastis, that there was a city devoted to cats and their burial in ancient Egypt. The isolated facts over the years became a treasure trove of information. 

Curiosity is essential for science. It motivates adolescents and young adults to find careers in science and fields of scholarship. In antiquity, scholars like Aristotle or Pliny (both uncle and nephew) sought to amass all known knowledge and their works are a major source of what we know about Greek and Roman civilizations.  

William Bateson, who coined the term “genetics” in 1906 for my field, said, “Treasure your exceptions” because from them new fields may arise. How true that was for me when I found an unusual fly in an exercise in one of H. J. Muller’s classes as a graduate student. That unusual fly turned out to be a rare instance of two pieces of a gene being united in a new way. It led to my doctoral dissertation study.  

Today many scholarly tasks are done by computers. Wikipedia is now an essential starting tool to explore a topic and obtain several scholarly references to extend a search for knowledge. While the tools for scholars may change, the curiosity fueling scholarship cuts across all disciplines.

 Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”