Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mars, Symbol of Mystery and Longing

Unquestionably, in spite of the vast amounts of new knowledge about the fourth planet that have come our way in the past generation, Mars is still a symbol of “otherness” and “mystery”. From the time of Jules Verne and perhaps before, space travel has been one of the great dreams of humankind, and Mars, as our closest planetary neighbor in space, has received the most attention. Surely it will be the next extraterrestrial place that will receive a human footprint—perhaps even in my lifetime. Countless movies, documentaries, magazine articles both popular and scientific, television specials and series, short stories, and books have investigated this dream.

For me, the dream is only one variation on the desire, set deep in the human heart, for a place of beauty and adventure, whether we call it “over the rainbow”, Shangri-la or El Dorado, Wonderland, going “boldly where no one has ever gone before”, or use another of the many well-known literary descriptions of a beautiful, far-off place that draws our attention with painful yearning.

Mars has fascinated humanity from the time of the ancients who named it for the mythological god of war (because of its distinct red color, suggestive of blood). Orson Wells’ radio drama of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that aired on October 30, 1938 caused widespread panic when it was thought that Martians had landed on Earth and were wreaking immense havoc. Several movies made in the last few years have featured landings and adventures on Mars.

Much to my excitement and joy, a few days ago I came into possession of a fragment of a Martian meteorite—a piece of Mars. Wikipedia says, “A Martian meteorite is a rock that formed on the planet Mars, was ejected from Mars by the impact of an asteroid or comet, and landed on the Earth. Of over 50,000 meteorites that have been found on Earth, as of March 15, 2011 ninety-seven are Martian; they include fragments of approximately 58 individual Mars rocks that have fallen to Earth.”

Compared to my little stone, then, diamonds are as common as gravel.

Further technical reports conclude that, “Roughly three-quarters of all Martian meteorites can be classified as Shergottites. They are named after the Shergotty meteorite, which fell at Sherghati, India in 1865. ... Shergottites are among the rarest of meteorites. A Shergottite consists mostly of olivine, the pyroxene mineral pigeonite, and plagioclase feldspar, making it a basalt. Such a rock can only form in a differentiated body, that is, a fairly sizable planet. From studies of its age (much younger than other meteorites) and its gas inclusions (which precisely match the composition of the Martian atmosphere), we know that the planet in question is Mars. The Shergottites appear to have crystallized as recently as 180 million years ago, which is a surprisingly young age considering how ancient the majority of the surface of Mars appears to be, and the small size of Mars itself.”

The fragment now in my possession is from a stone that originally weighed 1.29 pounds that was collected in the Dar al Gani region of Libya in the winter of 1996-1997.

Here is the fragment in my possession:

Probably from the time the first man looked up with wonder, the red planet has been a place of mystery and symbol of mystical encounter, both satisfying and whetting the primeval longing in humanity for something beautiful beyond the horizon. When I looked up into the night sky in late August 2003 during the closest approach of Mars to Earth in tens of thousands of years, I found myself suddenly moved by the glowing, ruddy point of light in the sky. I felt that heart-longing myself, knowing it to be the longing for heaven and the Face of God as revealed in Jesus. The experienced surprised me, and greatly gratified me. Owning a piece of Mars is immensely satisfying, but I know that its possession only points more inexorably to the one Desire that is the deepest longing of my heart.