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The Phoenix lander alighting on the surface of Mars

Later today (or early tomorrow morning depending on your current time zone), the Phoenix probe lands on Mars to investigate if life, or traces of ancient life, exists in Mars’ polar wastes. There is a fascinating video on APOD today showing the probe entering Mars’ atmosphere and unfurling its instruments.

It is possible that today may mark one of the greatest discoveries in human history – finding life on another planet. But what are the repercussions, really?

From a religious perspective, there appears to be two possibilities: many of the moderate religions would be relatively open to the idea that the universe is teeming with life, a view bolstered by the Vatican astronomer recently. The fundamentalist religions would appear to have a problem, having accepted that the Earth is the ultimate focus of God’s work. It’s unlikely though that any of them will collapse, inoculated as they are against logic and evidence-based thinking. A bit of word-smithing will usually suffice for most of their congregations and to hell with those throwing stones from the outside. In other words: business as usual.

From a scientific perspective, the discovery on life should not come as a surprise. Over the last 400 years, a stong body of evidence has been built up that we are not so important, or unique, in the greater scheme of things. Given the vastness of the universe, and the ability of life forms to survive even in the most inhospitable of conditions on Earth, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would only bolster this viewpoint. Philosophically, the existence of life would be uncontroversial enough. What’s far more interesting would be the questions that this discovery would pose. What is the composition of the DNA? Would the chemical composition be different? What are the origins of life on Mars? Where else might we look for life? What would the implications be were we to bring samples back to earth? What would this tell us about the creation of artificial life in the lab? To put it mildly, the discovery would have the effect of reshaping and redirecting the research agenda in the 21st Century.

From a man-in-the-street perspective, it would be enlightening, a topic of conversation. I’m not sure if it would change anyone’s life irreperably, as we have now become so used to the announcement of impressive scientific discoveries in our lives. It would be a flitting moment of celebrity, until the media find something else to absorb their attention.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is moot and the more probable event of life not being found will be the result. In any case I’d welcome any views you might have.

There. I’ve done it. “Colm” it is. I’ve been itching to use my proper first name for a while.

It’s not as if it is a huge secret anyway. The Irish Gaelic word for “woodpigeon” is “colm choille” – dove of the woods, just in case you were interested. “Colm” means dove, or pigeon. It is derived from the Latin word “Columba”.

“Christoper Columbus” is translated as “Christy Pigeon” in English. Lucky he didn’t come from England, or many places one the American continents would have different names today – “British Pigeonia”, “Pigeon University”, “Pigeon River”, “Bogotá, the capital of Pigeon-land”, etc.

I’ll get my coat…

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

A couple of weeks ago, an unusual advertisement appeared on RTE Radio 1. It called to attention the amount of litter on the N25 road from Cork to Midleton, sarcastically inviting people who wanted to see real litter to take a trip on this road. This was the brainchild of Zoe Malone of Ballymaloe Country Relish who decided to take Cork County Council to task in a very public manner*.

According to the County Manager Martin O’Riordan, this was a much more complex issue than it might seem. There were health and safety issues, the traffic would be disrupted and the costs would be astronomical. As a result, the county council did nothing for well over a year, leaving one of the busiest roads in Cork to become a veritable rubbish tip.

It’s an ongoing problem in Ireland. We spend billions on building new roads all over the country, but once they are up and running, no-one can be bothered to spend any money on maintaining them. Before long you have mounds of litter, overgrown hedges, unkempt verges and noxious weeds such as ragwort running riot.

Anyway, as you can see, it looks like the Cork County Council have come to their senses. The road is being cleaned this week. It’s just a pity that it required someone taking a public stand to prompt them into action. Well done to Zoe and the team at Irish Business against Litter.

* More information about this can be found on this stream (Real Player required) at the 14.43 minute mark.

This weekend, the “Independence of the Seas” arrived in Cobh, Co. Cork on it’s maiden voyage from Southampton. It’s the biggest cruise ship in the world, but from what I can gather, it won’t hold that record for long.

Rather than show photos this time, I’ve recorded a short video instead. Enjoy.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

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