The first mainstream media reference to the methane story, as mentioned in the comments to the previous post, was Steve Connor's in The Independent on Saturday. One interesting detail is that he says the longitude band in which Michael Mumma thinks it's possible the methane is enriched runs over Meridiani. Meridiani is on the edge of one of the equatorial hydrogen-enriched area in the Mars Odyssey GRS data, which I think Mumma mentioned in his original poster at last year's DPS meeting. It will be interesting to hear more about this.
The second reference I've come across is in a half-page story in today's Observer by Robin McKie. (Note for non Brits puzzled by why this link leads to the Guardian's website; the Observer is a Sunday paper owned by the same trust as the better known daily paper, the Guardian; though the editor of the Guardian is also the executive editor of the Observer, in print the two papers have distinct if compatible identities. Their online presence, though, is all under the Guardian brand.)
Robin's story mentions the methane in passing (strangely, he says it was "announced yesterday", by which I assume he means that Steve ran a story on it on Saturday), but for the most part it's a curtain raiser for Tuesday's terraforming debate at NASA Ames, which will be part of the Third Astrobiology Science Conference that starts today. The debate features Chris McKay of Ames, Mars Underground veteran and lead author of the terraforming paper that made it to the cover of Nature a decade or so ago, John Rummel, NASA's head of planetary protection (meaning he worries about bacteria on spacecraft, both outward bound and incoming), Jim Kasting, an expert on planetary atmospheres and their greenhousing potential, and Lisa Pratt, an expert on, among other things, underground microbes. (It will be obvious to anyone who's read the last few posts that putting these people on a stage and not asking them to talk about methane would be a crime; Jim Kasting has speculated about biogenic methane as the missing ingredient for a strong greenhouse effect in the planet's past; Lisa Pratt really knows about the kind of bugs that might do this stuff; John Rummel is alive to the way that planetary protection issues might change if you really believed their were microbes on the other planet; and Chris was one of the authors of the first paper to discuss a deep biosphere persisting on Mars today.)
They'll be joined by a trio of science fiction luminaries: Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and Sir Arthur C. Clarke. This reflects the fact that the event's being cosponsored by the new Experience Science Fiction museum and hall of fame being set up in Seattle by Paul Allen. Greg Bear's the chairman of Experience, Stan and Sir Arthur are on its board of advisors and the wonderful Donna Shirley, who's going to chair the terraforming debate, is its director. (Donna ran the Sojourner rover project and was then head of the JPL Mars Exploration Program from 1994 to 1998).
Given this, it's a bit of a pity that Robin's article takes a classically dismissive attitude to science fiction: "The idea -- known as terraforming -- sounds like science fiction. But turning Mars into an Earthly paradise is being taken seriously by increasing numbers of researchers." The implication is that the fact that terraforming is being taken seriously by increasing numbers of researchers (something I'm not sure I believe) means that though it may "sound like" science fiction it must be something else, since science fiction is by definition not serious. So let's be straight about this: terraforming doesn't just sound like science fiction. It is science fiction. It's a term invented by the science fiction writer Jack Williamson in the course of writing science fiction about themes that only science fiction was then concerned with. It has become a significant trope in the genre, and for fifty years or so it has dominated the fiction devoted to Mars. This doesn't preclude its consideration by serious scientists (or, more accurately, by practitioners of serious science); it was the pre-requisite for that consideration.
The problem is that saying all this goes against the fairly constrained forms in which it is considered permissible to talk about science fiction in a newspaper or magazine science story. When you invoke science fiction, you have to make an explicit opposition between it and science proper, thereby keeping it in its place. You can say "It sounds like silly old SF, but it's not", and you can say "science stranger than any science fiction" (a claim which normally just shows the writer hasn't read much SF, and certainly not much of the stranger variety). The more complex reality, in which science fiction and science are continuous as well as opposed, partaking in strange and multilayered conversations about what the world is, might be, should be, shouldn't be and isn't, is just not something it's felt that the reader wants to face. And that's a pity.
Robin goes on to quote from Paul Murdin, a very distinguished astronomer and space science administrator whom I like a lot. Paul's take on terraforming also depends on the "great divide": "If it was just a silly science-fiction notion, you could laugh it off. But the idea is terribly real. That is why it is dreadful. We are mucking up this world at an incredible pace at the same time that we are talking about screwing up another planet." Leaving aside the dissing of my beloved SF, though, this simply seems both silly and self-contradictory. It's silly because of the many things that terraforming may be, "terribly real" just doesn't seem like one of them. Vast sulphur hexafluoride plants on Mars (and the strip mines to feed them) are not something a civilization that strains its capabilities just to send golf buggies there is going to be trying anytime soon. It's self-contradictory because if you do think that the threat to Mars is terribly real, isn't that exactly why we should be talking about it? Isn't discussion our friend here? Isn't the gist of a discussion on Paul's terms highly likely to be "Should we screw up another planet?" "On balance, no"? Aren't the worst things we tend to do, including the things that are mucking up this planet, the ones we don't discuss before we get started?
Lisa Pratt is then quoted as saying "It is very depressing. Before we have even discovered if there is life on Mars -- which I am increasingly confident we will find -- we are talking about undertaking massive projects that would wipe out all these indigenous lifeforms, all the strange microbes that we hope to find buried in the Martian soil. It is simply ethically wrong." Again, this seems to me to confuse the talking with the doing. Wiping out some Martian bacteria, it seems to me, is probably ethically wrong and certainly scientifically disastrous; talking about modifying the Martian environment is not. As Chris McKay will undoubtedly point out at the debate, the Martian bacteria, if they are there, are not doing terribly well, and a bit more warmth and running water would probably be welcome. Large amounts of oxygen might not be such a good idea, but a) not all people entertaining the idea of changing the martian environment want to build up oxygen there and b) getting serious oxygen into the system is a multi-millennium idea.
For a more temperate run through some of the ethical issues, this article by John Carter McKnight is a good place to start. It also points out that though the "terraform at all costs, martian life has no worth" position feared by Paul Murdin and Lisa Pratt is a pretty marginal one, some form of terraforming has support in some forums. That's why debates are a good idea. That said, one of the topics such debates do need to discuss is why science fiction has not presented us with any serious terraforming-free narrative of the Martian future. (A partial exception is Aldiss and Penrose's "White Mars"; but its opposition to terraforming shapes the book so much that it's more a negative of a terraforming novel than an independent alternative.) It's probably true that it would be easier to have a really good debate if the imaginative space provided by the "unacknowledged legislators" of science fiction were a bit broader, and it would nice to have some thought on why it isn't.
The thing that's interesting me most about terraforming at the moment, though, is not the ethical dimension (undoubtedly important, but neither fresh, at least to someone who's tracked these things, nor pressing) but the practical dimension. With ESA showing that there's relatively little frozen carbon dioxide in the southern polar region, and the Mars Odyssey GRS showing that the pore spaces in the high latitude regolith are full of ice and thus can't contain a huge amount of carbon dioxide, quick early warming looks much harder for terraforming to achieve. The idea -- one which dates back to Carl Sagan in the 1970s -- that there is an easily triggered positive feedback in which a little warming releases more carbon dioxide which in turn leads to more warming which in turn leads to more carbon dioxide depends on there being a fair amount of accessible carbon dioxide to flush out into the atmosphere. It may be that there just isn't. (Martin Fogg has been arguing this way for some time, as this paper on his excellent terraforming pages shows.) The idea that Mars cycles through climatically distinct "ice ages" also suggests that its current climate is not, as some terraformers wanted to believe, poised in a metastable state where just a little push would set vast changes in motion. The modelling result (discussed in this post) that a thicker atmosphere leads to a lower possibility of liquid water at the surface also seems a bit of a blow to terraformers, though since liquid water might have formed a sink for the liberated carbon dioxide, it may be that the less water there is around to begin with the better.
The broader point, though -- and my apologies for reaching it so far down the post -- is that this all seems decreasingly relevant. To some extent, I think, the terraforming debate was a creature of the eighties and nineties. This is why I tend to doubt the idea that "increasing numbers of researchers" are taking the time to think seriously about terraforming. They're too busy with Mars as it is to work hard on ideas about how to engineer its future. As far as I know, no-one has looked at the sulphur-and-halogen rich rocks of Meridiani and cried out with glee "wow - raw materials for super-greenhouse gases".
Ideas about terraforming flourished at a time when there seemed a fairly solid model of Mars based on the Viking data, and people interested in Mars had the time to engage in thrilling thought experiments on the basis of that model, with its carbon dioxide southern cap, and buried aquifers, and relatively simple warm-and-wet past. Now there is a torrent of new data and no time for thought experiments. The new Mars isn't semi-static, as the Viking Mars was for a decade or so. Our understanding of it is in constant flux. And so, we are beginning to see, is the planet itself. You don't have to imagine climate change -- we are seeing its effects right now. You want a changing planet? We have one beneath our eyes
(Musical note: while I've been writing this, iTunes has randomly thrown up both Joe Jackson's "Sunday Papers" and the Divine Comedy's cover of Bowie's "Life on Mars". What a fine thing coincidence is.)
Updates: In the original post I got Donna Shirley's career history wrong. It's now been put right. The Pathfinder mission was managed by Tony Spear. And Greg Bear points out that in "Moving Mars" no-one terraforms the planet in any normal sense. But given the title it's not much of a spoiler to point out that they do move it, which Greg admits might seem a little intrusive...