Exploring the Earth ... and Beyond

Dec 21, 2010 by Dave Zobel

What do scientific studies and national boundary lines have in common?

According to Caltech geobiologist Jeff Marlow, both reflect something unique and profound about humanity: our need to explore. Marlow, a in Professor Victoria Orphan's lab, sees parallels between what we've been discovering about our world and the way we've spread across it. At next month's TEDxCaltech conference, he'll present an analysis of what drives us to explore, including how it affects us, what it suggests about the essence of being human, and why any of that matters.

A geobiologist is someone who studies the interaction between living creatures and their planetary environment, and Marlow spends much of his time poking around in extreme habitats—ice caves, acidic rivers, and smoker vents in the abysses of the oceans. Many of the planet's most inhospitable regions are home to a surprisingly diverse collection of determined little creatures. One important difference between an extremophilic organism and the human who comes to study it, Marlow notes, is what motivates each to show up.

Generally speaking, organisms only choose to move into more hostile environments in response to an evolutionary imperative—such as to mitigate resource shortages or to elude predators. Gaining a toehold is only worthwhile when it confers a survival advantage. Humans, however, "are arguably the only species to wilfully explore based on curiosity," Marlow says. In fact, an astonishing number of explorations throughout history—risky ventures that seem to fly directly in the face of natural selection—are the result of nothing more pressing than a desire to find out. What was it that drove tiny boatloads of Polynesians thousands of kilometers beyond the horizon, with no knowledge that they would eventually bump into Easter Island? Were the United States's ventures into deep space sparked only by a need to beat the Soviets to the moon, or was John F. Kennedy right in saying we choose goals of this sort "not because they are easy, but because they are hard"? Is wanderlust, both the physical and the metaphorical kind, an integral part of what it means to be human?

Geography and scientific inquiry recur together elegantly in Marlow's own work. In addition to his work on extremophiles, Marlow, an astrobiologist, investigates the possibility of life on Mars. He recently coauthored a paper cataloging various terrestrial locales that can simulate specific aspects of the Martian environment—which is important because although no part of Earth particularly resembles Mars, certain regions, in certain respects, are usefully Mars-like. For instance, South America's Atacama Desert, with an annual rainfall measured in millimeters, almost reproduces the sterility of Martian sands. In Denmark, the reddish soil of the forested area known as Salten Skov has the ability to break down organic molecules, thanks to a high concentration of the same iron oxides found on the Red Planet. And California's Mojave Desert presents a suitably unsteady testbed for Martian landers and rovers.

Whatever it is that has called to the explorer throughout history, its effects are visible in any map or lab report. Proving, once again, that the link between what we've learned so far and what we still want to learn is us.

Explore further: Study shows more than half of peer-reviewed research articles published during 2007-2012 are now open access

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Searching for life on Mars

Nov 11, 2010

The first and only attempts to search for life on Mars were the Viking missions launched in 1975. Now scientists are suggesting the next decade of robotic probes sent to the red planet should make the search ...

The three ages of Mars

Dec 10, 2010

There is no place on Earth that is a perfect copycat of Mars as it is now, or as it was at any specific point in the past. But scientists suggest Earth has little versions of Mars as it might have been over ...

It's a grind to make Mars red

Sep 18, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The widespread idea that Mars is red due to rocks being rusted by the water that once flooded the red planet may be wrong. Recent laboratory studies show that the red dust may be formed by ...

Mars Express - 5000 orbits and counting

Nov 23, 2007

On 25 December 2003, Europe’s first Mars explorer arrived at the Red Planet. Almost four years later, Mars Express continues to rewrite the text books as its instruments send back a stream of images and ...

The Meandering Channels of Mars

Dec 10, 2009

Sinuous channels on the Martian surface may be evidence of relatively recent rainfall. Researchers plan to test this hypothesis by studying sinuous streams on Earth.

Recommended for you

Color and texture matter most when it comes to tomatoes

Oct 21, 2014

A new study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), evaluated consumers' choice in fresh tomato selection and revealed which characteristics make the red fruit most appealing.

How the lotus got its own administration

Oct 21, 2014

Actually the lotus is a very ordinary plant. Nevertheless, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) a complex bureaucratic structure was built up around this plant. The lotus was part of the Imperial Household, ...

What labels on textiles can tell us about society

Oct 21, 2014

Throughout Chinese history, dynastic states used labels on textiles to spread information on the maker, the commissioner, the owner or the date and site of production. Silks produced in state-owned manufacture ...

User comments : 0