Curiosity taking a self-portrait. Image: Nasa
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Curiosity sniffs farts on Mars, could mean extinction of humanity

Fluctuations in methane gas in the Martian atmosphere, detected by the Curiosity rover, could mean that there's life living below the surface of Gale Crater. The implications could be surprising.

There's life on Mars! Maybe. Again. What's going on?

Nasa has announced that the Curiosity rover has detected spikes in methane concentration in the atmosphere within the Gale Crater. Over the last 20 months Curiosity has sampled the chemical makeup of the air around it a dozen times, finding that normally there are seven methane molecules per ten billion other air molecules (which on Mars is about 96 per cent carbon dioxide) - except on two occasions, where it jumped to ten times that. That's a big deal because methane doesn't just linger around; it's produced by some chemical process and then dissipates relatively quickly, so whatever's producing it must be doing it recurrently and frequently.

We all have experience with methane production (particularly around the Christmas season, with brussel sprouts on the table), but it's important to stress this isn't a definitive proxy for Martian life. Sure, it could be microbes, but it could also come from the reaction of the mineral olivine with water, as this Nasa infographic shows, and that's been the suspicion ever since methane was first detected in the atmosphere by astronomers in 2009. But we've always known that Mars' methane is unevenly distributed, and possibly seasonal, and that there are a number of alternative sources for it than bacteria "burping".

The announcement also included the news that the rock sample that Curiosity drilled into in May 2013 yielded further organic molecules when analysed, and also revealed important data about the history of the planet's water - and when it was lost. What we can really say here is that we have even more evidence to support the conclusion that Mars was habitable and Earth-like (or at least from the perspective of microbial life) billions of years in the past, but also that we don't know yet if it still is today.

Something we have to think about when we find life somewhere else - and we will find aliens, eventually, in centuries if necessary - is what the means for us, humanity, in the big picture. Statistically. Those of us who gamble might well consider it a bad omen.

There's this idea that there's a "Great Filter" which none, or very little, life gets through, on the cosmological scale. It was first outlined by economist Robin Hanson in 1996, and others have since refined it or challenged it, but basic premise is this: we haven't met aliens yet because all intelligent life capable of star travel is killed off before it spreads beyond its home star.

We know now that the number of planets far outnumbers the number of stars in the universe, and that it's therefore probable that there are billions upon billions of planets capable of hosting life. And, if life is like us, and works out how to colonise other planets and stars, we know that the amount of time it should take to colonise a large part of, say, a galaxy, should be short compared to galactic timescales - that is, if there's a lifeform that can colonise another star, it's reasonable to assume that it'll colonise almost all the stars it can in pretty short order, at a rate of a few centuries perhaps. So, if there are lots of Earth-like planets with (presumably) Earth-like intelligence on them, where the hell is everybody? (This is the famous Fermi paradox.)

The explanation Hanson and others have suggested is that somewhere, between the emergence of single-cellular life and interstellar travel, there's the Great Filter - many planets reach it, but few get through, because of asteroid strikes or runaway climate change or resource depletion or... anything we have yet to experience as a species. We can't see anybody else, and the universe feels like an empty place, because the cumulative probability of making it through every step - a safe planet where RNA appears and then single-celled life and then multi-celled and then the evolution of a tool-using lifeform that then develops interstellar travel - is so low as to be zero.

What makes the possibility that life evolved independently on Mars (especially multi-cellular life) so worrying from this perspective, then, is that it means the first few stages of that process are even easier than we thought - and that means getting beyond the stage we're at now must be much, much harder than we thought. The probability works out to tell us that we're at the stage of biological and cultural and technological development where we're wiped out before we take the next step.

There are, though, a dozen or more retorts to this: maybe intelligent life is intelligent enough not to have to colonise everywhere, or maybe it's intelligent to the extent that it's able to choose to remain invisible to us. But it's still a sobering thought that the thrilling discovery of alien life could be one of the last great moments in our species before a statistically-likely mishap hits us from left field.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Disney didn’t buy Twitter — partly because it can't master the Bare Necessities

Walt Disney Co. has decided against bidding for the social network.

Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your – @simba DIE U STUPID LION UR SONG IS SHIT.

That was a short representation of one the alleged reasons why Walt Disney Co. opted out of bidding for Twitter last night. Despite hiring two investment banks to help them weigh up a deal, Disney have dropped out of the running partly because – according to Bloomberg – of the social networks’s reputation for bullying and harassment, as well as its falling profits. Individuals close to Disney management allegedly told the business news website that Twitter did not fit well for the company, which, after all, is more famous for feel-good anthropomorphic animals than angry, anonymous eggs. 

Those who mistakenly believe Twitter is a happy place where ev’rybody wants to be a cat might need an explanation. Despite the apparent abundance of cat gifs, Twitter can be a violent and angry social network – a report last year stated that 88 per cent of the abusive mentions on social media happen on the site. Twitter has long struggled to stop abuse overwhelming discussion on the social network. This has fed the perception among some of its 300 million users that tackling abuse is a low priority, with efforts at reducing trolling overshadowed by the release of new features such as increased message length and curated news feeds known as Moments. Because of this, the site has become seen as – in one former employee’s words – “a honeypot for assholes.” Oh, bother.


Earlier this year, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was bombarded with racist tweets upon the film's release, forcing her to leave the site for a few weeks. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines," she wrote. The company did take action in the wake of the Jones case, permanently banning the prominent right-wing journalist and notorious troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, from the site for his role in fanning the flames of the abuse. But, while Google has set up a new company, Jigsaw, to make the internet a safer place, Instagram regularly bans offensive hashtags and Facebook has devoted time to constantly updating its anti-harassment tools (most recently making it easier to report revenge porn), Twitter’s trolling problem continues.

Even Twitter's former top employees have criticised the company's efforts. In a leaked memo from 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo said: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years." Earlier this year, the current CEO Jack Dorsey admitted Twitter "must do better" at dealing with abuse. Salesforce, another potential buyer, have also allegedly been put off by the site's reputation. "The haters reduce the value of the company... I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion," reported CNBC's Jim Cramer

Neither company has declared publicly that Twitter's abuse problem dettered them from the sale, but could the loss of this latest suitor push them to take the problem more seriously? Having some sort of pre-emptive anti-harassment tool has become the bare necessities of running a successful social network, but Twitter still waits for users to report abuse and then, frequently, tells them that the abusive content actually didn’t violate their rules. 

It is not too late for Twitter to turn itself around, as many of its users are still loyal despite the abuse. With one successful attempt to tackle harassment, a resurgence for the site could be just around the riverbend. In the words of the wise Rafiki: "Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it."