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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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.