There’s something about a nuclear-powered alien that falls from the sky, looks around with its dozen or so electric eyes, and then begins blasting things with a laser that makes me smile. But then, I’m not a Martian.
The Times described NASA’s latest exploit as “a triumph of scientific technology,” and it is certainly a triumph. But technology is not so much scientific as science is technological. Science relies on instruments, such as Galileo’s telescopes and the latest NASA probe, to extend human senses far beyond what biology has provided us with.
While science emloys sensing technologies, it is also a technology in and of itself. Science relies on the systematic communication, verification, and explanation of discoveries to build a body of knowledge. In this organization of information, the whole enterprise of science is an information technology, a form of intelligence about the universe we inhabit. But what good is intelligence without eyes?
In 1609, Galileo heard about a spyglass that could make distant objects appear much closer. He immediately grasped the potential of this new tool, and set about grinding lenses for a spyglass of his own. Within a year he had perfected a telescope that could magnify 30 times, putting him in possession of the most powerful telescope on Earth.
His tool-making paid off immediately in astronomical discoveries of moons, rings, and other previously invisible phenomena. Everywhere he pointed his telescope, Galileo made another discovery. His findings challenged the medieval cosmological world view and inaugurated a new dawn of understanding.
How far we’ve come from those first extensions of our senses. I am peering into a device, much as Galileo did, and from where I sit I can see the surface of Mars in megapixel detail. I don’t see any Martians yet, but our spore of living technology is just beginning its journey across an alien land.