By Alex Wolinsky
In the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 5, after a voyage of more than eight months and “seven minutes of terror,” NASA’s rover Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars. The mission will be the first to the planet since 1976 whose primary purpose is to search for life or, more likely, the bases for its existence.
Why the excitement surrounding this particular mission? After all, if the United States launched its first successful Mars mission in 1964 and has since discovered no conclusive evidence of life, why might Curiosity return more favorable results?
First, NASA has in the past decade found a series of indications that the planet might in fact be capable of supporting life forms: The Gale Crater, a vast indentation in Mars’ surface and Curiosity’s landing site, contains minerals only present in conjunction with water; methane gas, which is almost always a byproduct of life, has been found erupting from various points on the planet; organic matter was discovered on a Martian meteorite that recently fell to Earth. With these findings, in addition to other discoveries, scientists remain optimistic despite the failures of the past.
Additionally, Curiosity’s ability to gather relevant data immensely surpasses that of any mission of the past. The rover, which weighs about one ton, is comparable in size to a large automobile, and its scientific instruments are much larger — and more advanced — than those included in any previous vehicle, which will allow Curiosity to collect more material as well as analyze it more thoroughly. Furthermore, Curiosity made a flawless soft landing, meaning all of its equipment is perfectly intact, so — at least at the moment — its potential for novel discovery is highly promising.
Curiosity’s mission will primarily consist of taking geological samples of the Gale Crater and analyzing them for the one-time presence of water or other compounds conducive to the existence of life. Like previous missions, the rover will also capture photographs of the planet and perhaps even take video footage.
The exploration of the Gale Crater and the three-mile-high mountain it surrounds is currently scheduled to last two years, but if the previous two Mars rovers — each of which was to gather data for 13 weeks but continued (or continues, in the case of Opportunity) to do so for several years — are any indication, the mission could continue long after its projected termination date. Admittedly, the mysteries of Mars remain myriad, but Curiosity presents the greatest opportunity thus far to initiate a paradigm shift in our understanding of the enigmatic planet.
- On Sunday, August 26: William J. Clancey, chief scientist of the Human-Centered Computing Intelligent Systems Division for NASA Ames Research Center, will discuss "Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery," in a Commonwealth Club program at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Details
- PHOTO ABOVE: NASA
By Alex Wolinsky
On May 24, the Times-Picayune, which received two Pulitzers in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, confirmed that it would eliminate staff and drop down to three days of print publication per week, rendering New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper.
Such a decision piqued outrage among much of the citizenry and drew significant coverage from major news outlets, but it is merely symptomatic of the oft-mentioned difficulties currently facing the print journalism industry, which suffers from declining advertising revenue and a host of other issues resulting from the paradigm shift induced by the rise of the Internet. Print, however, is not the only journalistic media finding itself facing challenges: In the case of television news especially, objectivity — arguably journalism’s most integral tenet — seems to be losing its prominence.
“[W]hat engagement has turned into … is partisanship, and so you have right and you have left,” David Westin, former president of ABC News, said in a speech before the Club on May 30. “That in itself is not necessarily evil: We’ve always had opinion in newspapers; there’s an editorial page; there’s an op-ed page. What is the problem … is the blurring of the line.”
The warping of this distinction is deeply problematic, because this age of mass media has made news — and especially the manner in which it’s reported — among the most powerful forces shaping public opinion. Indeed, even the struggle for the nation’s highest office has been characterized as primarily an effort to manipulate the media. More troubling still is that pursuing such control has resulted in the appropriation of objective news sound bites in campaign advertisements, which has been the case in the current election cycle.
In a July 19 column for The New York Times, CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood described how a three-second sound bite in which he called — in an objective and factual statement — the year’s second quarter “the worst job-adding quarter in two years” became part of an ad criticizing President Obama. Crossroads GPS, the super PAC co-founded by former Republican strategist Karl Rove that paid for the ad, never acquired Harwood or CNBC’s permission to use the news broadcast footage. Other victims of such tactics include journalists as prominent as former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and New York Times columnist David Brooks. In taking footage for political purposes, advertisers may hope to gain — or, by extension, compromise — the credibility and objectivity of the mainstream media.
As journalism faces the challenges of the 21st century and the changing nature of the media, one cannot help but wonder how the distant future will look for the reporting industry. According to another New York Times columnist, David Carr, “great journalism … is the one sure hedge against irrelevancy.” Great journalism, at least by its current definition, entails objectivity and genuine integrity; so as the industry evolves, one can only hope Carr’s analysis is correct.
• On Monday, September 10, 2012, see NBC Bay Area News Anchor Diane Dwyer and media strategist Tom Sinkovitz discuss "The Media and Presidential Politics" at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco