Being the rabidly nationalistic patriot that I am, I heard with delight that NASA had landed an $820 million dollar golf cart on Mars. Always get the best, I say. The planet has always seemed to me a reasonable place to play golf. I bow to no one in my mindless enthusiasm for technotrinkets. And I quietly gloated a bit that America had done it and not, say, Vanuatu or Papua-New Guinea.
Then I thought: Wait a minute. Mars is a gazillion miles away, probably whole whoppaparsecs or gigawhatsises. Mostly you can’t even see the place. NASA says it shot a golf cart all that way and hit the right crater? After the thing bounced all over the place wrapped in inner tubes? The federal government did this — who couldn’t make a functioning doorstop?
Nah. Buncha engineers just wanted funding.
When I was eight I used to throw rocks at the hub caps of passing cars. Those cars were all of twenty feet away, not going over forty, and I had a pretty good arm for a tad. I almost never hit those hub caps. Of course after every rock I had to hide in the woods till the driver stopped looking for me. Still, I couldn’t do it.
Neither can NASA. You can’t hit something that far away, going that fast, in all whicha directions, with a golf cart. It ain’t doable. Any fool can see that if he thinks about it, and probably if he doesn’t.
And those pictures they always show up after they spend $820 million, or more likely put it in a Swiss bank — they really do look just like Arizona. They’re always grainy, because grainy pictures look authentic. Besides, if the resolution was any good you might see jeep tracks, or a distant sign saying, “Pepi’s Miracle Cat Tacos.”
I have another question. Why do we think Mars even exists? Have you ever been there? Know anyone who has? Have you ever even seen it? Sure, maybe some teacher pointed to a dot in the sky and said, “Yay-us, brother, thass Mars. Fulla them little green rascals. Got canals all over the place too. Go fishing.”
Nah. Red speck. Could have been a red balloon with a flashlight inside it, or just about anything. We think Mars is there because people tell us it is, people who got told by other people who didn’t know anything about it either. Sure, astronomers say they see it all the time, but they get the money. An astronomer would see Mars if you put a bag over his head.
Those pictures mean nothing. I’ve seen pictures of an island full of dinosaurs that look more real than some of my old girlfriends. They stomped around and ate people, and if you showed them to a four-year-old kid and told him they lived in Africa, he’d never think to doubt it. Isn’t it so? I mean, a dinosaur is no stranger than, say, a four-foot iguana, or a Pacific tube-worm living inside an underwater volcano, or Michael Jackson, or Democratic social policy.
Fact is, NASA could show us a piece of Nevada with a shopping mall and a K-Mart, tell us it was Ganymede, and we’d rejoice because we’d Discovered Life. That’s assuming you believe there’s life in shopping malls. We’d believe it because we believe anybody in a white coat. Then we’d have to give the space people a billion or so more so they could send a complicated prongy space thing to fingerprint everybody on Ganymede and search for weapons of mass destruction.
Tell you what: I don’t think the solar system exists. The only part of it you can see is the sun, except in Los Angeles. Long time ago, that fellow Galileo hollered that he’d found planets, and a bunch of moons, Ganymede and Io and Callisto and Europa, sailing around Jupiter like they had something in mind. (How did he know those were their names? Was it written on them? None of this adds up.) We believed it, and then we believed in Pluto which is so far away that if it was there, you couldn’t tell.
The truth is that we have nothing more than fifth-hand evidence for most of the things we believe in. None of it would stand up in a court of law. Atoms, for example. We all know that they are really, really tiny things that have electrons flying around them like disgruntled hornets when you shoot their nest with a BB gun. The definition of an atom is that it’s too small for you to know it’s there. Which means we don’t.
Attorney: “Mr. Reed, how do you know that these…er…atoms exist?”
Me: “Well, this teacher I had said she read in a book that some scientists wrote about some experiments she said some other scientists did, she thought, a long time ago, somewhere she’d never been.”
Other attorney: “Objection. Hearsay.”
Me: “But it was in a book….”
Other attorney: “So are Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”
Scientists don’t really know anything. In chemistry they have this thing called Avocado’s number, which is how many atoms there are in a mole. Seriously. Six-point-oh-two-three-times-ten-to-the-twenty-third atoms per mole. It makes no sense. What size mole? Obviously a huge bermole with great hairy forepaws like scoops (the only kind I get in my lawn) has more atoms than a dwarf mole or a baby mole. Why moles and not, say flying squirrels?
But what I want to know is, who counted those atoms?
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Fred, be reasonable. Physicists know this stuff.” No. They’re crazier than Rasputin’s loony brother, who used to stand on his head in a corner and sing the Marseillaise.
They have what they call the Wave Equation, invented by some disturbed German. The Wave Equation is full of second partials derivatives, and del-square, sigh, and all the orphan constants in the world. What it says is that you can never be sure where atoms are.
Aha! Then how can you count them?
The wave equation says — honest, they told me this — that an electron can be here now, and over there later, but it can’t ever be in between where the plot crosses the x-axis because when you square zero you mostly get zero. (Unless you went to school recently, in which case it’s up for grabs.) You believe that? I don’t.
What I think is, NASA made up the solar system. It was to get grants. When the Feddle Gummint wants money, it makes things up — the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, nerve gas, Mars, the universe. It always works.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.