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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2004 > May > May 6

Mars And The Teachable Moment

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Thu, 06 May 2004 11:55:11 -0400
Fwd Date: Thu, 06 May 2004 11:55:11 -0400
Subject: Mars And The Teachable Moment

Source: Space.Com



SETI: Search For Life

Mars And The Teachable Moment

By Edna DeVore
Director of Education and Public Outreach

We're back on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity roving the
surface and engaging the public in the search for evidence of
water. Overhead, orbiters image the surface in exquisite detail.
People worldwide are attentive to Mars - it can even be easily
seen in the evening sky with the naked eye. All of this makes
Mars the logical focus for teaching science as a part of current
events, and for dealing with pseudoscientific claims about Mars.

It's a good time for critical thinking in classrooms. With the
observations being made from Mars orbiters, students and
teachers can critically consider the "face on Mars". In a
reprise of an earlier column, I offered my thoughts on this
"face". Today, as NASA considers Mars as the past and future
home for life, the critical consideration of the "face"
continues to be relevant.

In late March of 2002, the SETI Institute education team was at
the National Science Teachers Association meeting in San Diego,
CA along with about 14,000 other science teachers. It's a good
thing that these NSTA meetings coincide with spring break, or no
science would be taught in US schools during that week every
spring. I had a long conversation with a high school science
teacher about teaching science in a world where his students are
continually exposed to pseudo-science or even phony science - the
stuff they learn from watching television and reading the
tabloids. What do they believe is real? The face on Mars, alien
autopsies, Area 51 in the Nevada desert as an alien storage
area, the "non-landings" on the Moon, UFO's, alien kidnappings -
these are all the grist of great story telling and speculation
in the media. It is easy for uncritical kids (and adults) to
"believe" the "evidence" of alien beings and encounters when it
is all carefully gift-wrapped by the creative television
producers who crank out dramatic programs depicting these events
with well-trained actors and elaborate sets. Of course, these
are the same folks who bring us fantastic science fiction films
which we ALL know are entertainment, not science education - or
at least I function under that illusion.

The pseudo-science accounts are carefully filmed and
professionally narrated for television as "documentaries" about
mysteries, or unexplained events. All aim to convince the public
that aliens have been here or nearby on the Moon or Mars, and
that all of the "evidence" is being covered up by a grand
conspiracy of seriously un-fun people in the government,
universities, and research organizations. Folks like me.
Denying, providing alternative explanations, or criticizing the
"evidence" simply proves there is a cover-up.

About 50% of the American public believes that UFO's are real,
and what they mean by "real" is that UFO's are piloted by aliens
from some distant world, not Earthlings from the local Air Force
Base or actors in Hollywood costumes. Think about that, and then
consider teaching space science and astronomy in this social

Take the face on Mars. The first photograph of this bumpy mesa
was snapped by the Viking Orbiter, and released by NASA to the
public on July 31, 1976.

[Picture:Cydonia area]

What did NASA say about the photograph?

"Caption of JPL Viking Press Release P-17384
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Viking New Center Viking 1-61
Pasadena, CAP-17384 (35A72)
July 31, 1976

This picture is one of many taken in the northern latitudes of
Mars by the Viking 1 Orbiter in search of a landing site for
Viking 2.

The picture shows eroded mesa-like landforms. The huge rock
formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed
by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth. The
feature is 1.5 kilometers one mile across, with the sun angle at
approximately 20 degrees. The speckled appearance of the image
is due to bit errors, emphasized by enlargement of the photo.
The picture was taken on July 25 from a range of 1873 kilometers
(1162) miles). Viking 2 will arrive in Mars orbit next Saturday
(August 7) with a landing scheduled for early September."

It is an intriguing image, and certainly does look like a face.
In fact, since then, this "face" on Mars has inspired a whole
library of books and groups of true believers that now find
"evidence" of a "Pyramid" and an "Inca City" as well - all, of
course, photographed by Viking but covered up by NASA officials.
Note that all of the publications help to put bread on the table
and pay the rent for the creative folks churning out books,
articles, and tabloid stories about "the face."

Now, image being a science teacher with a classroom full of 15-
year old students who believe the television accounts of the
face on Mars, cities on the Moon, alien autopsies, etc. etc.,
and you are teaching your unit on space and astronomy. A careful
excursion through the characteristics of the planets and their
moons interests your students - the red spot on Jupiter would
hold at least 3 Earths, a cool factoid - but it doesn't grab
them. The face on Mars does. And this was what I discussed with
the science teacher at NSTA.

The face on Mars is a teachable moment. Turn your students into
scientists. Present the evidence for the students to consider.
There is the Viking photograph, taken in 1976 and the Mars
Global Surveyor (MGS) photographs taken about 25 years later.
Ask the students what they see in the 1976 photograph - like
everyone else, they will see a face. I see a face in that
photograph too. Humans interact with the natural world by
organizing perception into recognizable form. Who has not
watched clouds on a summer day, and "seen" horses, dragons,
beautiful men/women, ships, and such? In the early part of the
century, astronomer, Lowell, was convinced he saw canals on Mars
through his telescope in Arizona. Subsequently, other observers
and photography of Mars proved that his mind was "connecting"
broken features into lines, the canals, but that it was all in
his mind not on Mars. We humans are pattern seekers, and seeing
familiar forms in strange places helps us to organize our
perceptions of the natural world. There was a rock formation
near my childhood home in the Sierra Nevada mountains that
looked like a bear, but I never assumed that it was carved by
some unknown being to make me ponder bears or believe in unknown
beings. I understood that it was jagged granite, and the fact
that it looked like a bear was a coincidence. I also had to
stand in the right place to see the bear; otherwise, it just
looked like a mountain peak. Like the bear, to see the face on
Mars, you have to "stand" in the right place, and at the right
time of day.

Move forward a couple of decades. We've returned to Mars. We
have new, higher resolution photographs of the same mesa taken
by MGS and posted to the web by Malin Space Science Systems, the
designers and builders of the camera onboard MGS. These are
detailed, new views, including views from different places at
different times of the day. The raw data from MGS is image
processed to bring out the details on the mesa, and a clear
explanation for how scientists accomplish this work helps
students to understand that there is not cover up. It's more
like an uncovering to reduce raw data to images. There are
movies that allow you to fly around the "face" and check out the
terrain for yourself. Send your students there for the evidence.
What does the mesa look like see more clearly, more closely?

You decide:

[Picture: C.U. Mars 'Face']

The shadows cast by the low Sun angle in 1976 created a lovely
illusion - a giant face-like mesa on Mars. The new images, taken
by MGS reveal the "face" as a rocky mesa, one of many in the
Cydonia region of Mars. It looks a lot like mesas in the western
region of the United States. In fact, it looks a lot like other
mesas in that same region on Mars - similar in size, dimension,
and height. It's an ordinary feature on Mars, not a gargantuan
piece of artwork left to make us ponder whether alien artists
who sculpted on a grand scale had visited Mars. But, don't ask
students to "believe" in science, provide the evidence, and
allow them to critically consider what we now know about the
"face" on Mars. Give them the same opportunity granted the space
scientists who took the images with Viking and with MGS.

Finally, ask yourself and your students how much money people
made and continue to make from selling pseudoscientific accounts
and films to the gullible public. That discussion might reveal
why the "face on Mars" is so persistent.

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