7 Biggest Questions of Mars

Mars was known as the "fire star" to ancient Chinese astronomers, and scientists are still burning with questions regarding the Red Planet. Even after dozens of spacecraft have been sent to Mars, much remains unknown about that world. Here are some of the biggest unsolved mysteries we have about Mars.

Why does Mars have two faces?

Scientists have been puzzling over the differences between the two sides of Mars for decades. The northern hemisphere of the planet is smooth and low — it is among the flattest, smoothest places in the solar system, potentially created by water that once flowed across the Martian surface.

Meanwhile, the southern half of the Martian surface is rough and heavily cratered, and about 2.5 miles to 5 miles (4 km to 8 km) higher in elevation than the northern basin. Recent evidence suggests the vast disparity seen between the northern and southern halves of the planet was caused by a giant space rock smacking into Mars long ago.

What is the source of methane on Mars?

Methane — the simplest organic molecule — was first discovered in the Martian atmosphere by the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft in 2003. On Earth, much of the atmospheric methane is produced by life, such as cattle digesting food. Methane is suspected to be stable in the Martian atmosphere for only about 300 years, so whatever is generating this gas did so recently.

Still, there are ways to produce methane without life, such as volcanic activity. ESA's ExoMars spacecraft planned for launch in 2016 will study the chemical composition of Mars' atmosphere to learn more about this methane.

Does liquid water run on the surface of Mars now?

Although large amounts of evidence suggest that liquid water once ran on the surface of Mars, it remains an open question as to whether or not it occasionally flows on the face of the Red Planet now. The planet's atmospheric pressure is too low, at about 1/100th of Earth's, for liquid water to last on the surface. However, dark, narrow lines seen on Martian slopes hint that saltwater could be running down them every spring.

Were there oceans on Mars?

Numerous missions to Mars have revealed a host of features on the Red Planet that suggest it was once warm enough for liquid water to run across its surface. These features include what appear to be vast oceans, valley networks, river deltas and minerals that required water to form.

However, current models of early Mars' climate cannot explain how such warm temperatures could have existed, as the sun was much weaker back then, leading some to ask whether these features might have been created by winds or other mechanisms. Still, there is evidence suggesting that ancient Mars was warm enough to support liquid water in at least one site on its surface. Other findings hint that ancient Mars was once cold and wet, not cold and dry nor warm and wet, as is often argued.

Is there life on Mars?

The first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, NASA's Viking 1, began a mystery that remains tantalizingly unsolved: Is there evidence of life on Mars? Viking represented the first and so far only attempt to search for life on Mars, and its findings are hotly debated today. Viking had detected organic molecules such as methyl chloride and dichloromethane. However, these compounds were dismissed as terrestrial contamination — namely, cleaning fluids used to prepare the spacecraft when it was still on Earth.

The surface of Mars is very hostile to life as we know it, in terms of cold, radiation, hyper-aridity and other factors. Still, there are numerous examples of life surviving in extreme environments on Earth, such as the cold, dry soils of the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the hyper-arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

There is life virtually wherever there is liquid water on Earth, and the possibility that there were once oceans on Mars leads many to wonder if life ever evolved on Mars and, if so, whether it might be extant. Answering these questions might help shed light on how common life may or may not be in the rest of the universe.

Did life on Earth begin on Mars?

Meteorites discovered in Antarctica that came from Mars — blasted off the Red Planet by cosmic impacts — have structures that resemble ones made by microbes on Earth. Although much research since then suggests chemical rather than biological explanations for these structures, the debate continues. These findings do raise the tantalizing possibility that life on Earth actually originated on Mars long ago, carried here on meteorites.

Can humans live on Mars?

To answer whether or not life did or does exist on Mars, people might actually have to go there and find out.

NASA's plan as of 1969 was to have a human Mars mission by 1981 and a permanent Mars base in 1988. However, interplanetary human voyages pose definite scientific and technological challenges. One would have to deal with the rigors of travel — issues of food, water and oxygen, the deleterious effects of microgravity, potential hazards such as fire and radiation and the fact that any such astronauts would be millions of miles away from help and confined together for years at a time. Landing, working, living on another planet and returning from it would offer a host of challenges as well.

Nevertheless, astronauts seem eager to find out. For example, this year six volunteers lived in a pretend spacecraft for nearly a year and a half in the so-called Mars500 project, the longest spaceflight simulation ever conducted, aimed at replicating a manned mission to Mars from beginning to end. There are even numerous volunteers for a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Tiny rock-eating microbes could mine precious extraterrestrial resources from Mars and pave the way for the first human colonists, and farmers could grow crops on its surface. The mystery as to whether or not humans will ever go to Mars may rest largely on whether or not the powers-that-be can be convinced to go there.



Visions of the World in 1000 years

“What will the world will be like in 1,000 years” seems like an absurd question to even ask, especially since the degree to which the world changes in 100 years is overly ambitious enough to consider. Yet curious people do wonder, and certain people like Ray Kurzweil (thought by many to be the Thomas Edison of today) spend all their time working to find the answers.

In honor of our 1,000th Toptenz article, Ray is going to take the podium to share with us some of his ideas about the future. According to Ray, some of the same people living today will still be around in 1,000 years! Technological visionary, leading inventor of our time, the recipient of the National Medal of Technology, inductee into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, and the recipient of 19 Doctorates and Honors from 3 U.S. Presidents, Ray gives us the top ten reasons to look ahead.

10. A Future With Aliens?

Contact with other species, other civilizations? With technological advancements looming large in the distance, a future with aliens may in fact be on the horizon. Ray believes that advancements in technology will soon enable us to travel farther and longer into space, where we may encounter other planets and other life.

According to Arthur C. Clarke, another futurist, inventor, and science-fiction writer, technology is advanced enough already for us to make contact with aliens. To our good humor, some people already believe they have come in contact with alien life, and television shows like “Alien Hunters” and the like are around to prove it. Ray, more of a humanist than an alien hunter, focuses more on technology and of the progress of humankind and our current world, which takes us to our next topic – the future of the Earth itself.

9. The Future Of The Earth?

When people think of the future, they tend to think of the planet Earth, and the mark we are leaving on its oceans and forests, and the havoc we have brought to it. Which lands will be swallowed up by rising sea levels? About climate changes: how to support a rapidly growing population in respect to food, fuel and natural resources?

Many pessimists foresee the worst (many doubt we will even survive another 1,000 years). Material greed is swallowing up the Earth’s resources faster than it can replenish itself. The future, in this vein, sounds rather dark, but Ray believes technology is going to help solve many environmental problems.

Still, who can stop asteroids and comets from colliding with the Earth? Who can keep it from spinning off its axis like a marble shot out of bounds on the play yard? And what about exploding stars in space shooting out bursts of gamma-rays stronger than millions of atomic bombs in far-away galaxies, with power strong enough to obliterate everything within millions of light years? What kind of future exists for the Earth then? According to Ray, much more interesting things, and less destructive possibilities, are on the horizon.

8. Solutions To Energy And Environmental Concerns?

Ray believes that environmental and energy concerns can, and will, be solved with technological solutions in the future. He claims that that the Earth will not turn into a polluted, over-crowded, tumultuous wasteland, but instead believes that nanotechnology will be capable of cleaning up environmental damage, meet our energy needs, purify water and air, and capture the energy of the Sun through solar panels and more.

He believes that we will meet our projected energy needs by 2030, with the development of these new technologies. Will his overly-positive predictions win out to restore the planet Earth, or will the technology only be more waste to add to the heap? Certainly the next 1,000 years will reveal the correct answers to Ray’s claims, either about our resourcefulness or about our inability to solve the problems we have created.

7. Population Growth Problems Solved?
1,000 years from now, the world population is estimated to be roughly 14 billion. Although such predictions are unlikely to be accurate, the concern is real, and more and more people are working fast and hard for solutions. Will engineered food solve hunger and meet with growing food needs, or will it prove to be harmful to our health and environment in the end?

According to Ray, one day we will take in our nutrition like plants take in the sun, and as technology grows more advanced, our dependence on the Earth’s resources with become less and less. Sounds like something straight out of a science fiction book, only better, if it proves to be true.

6. Technology Of The Future

Ray calls it “the singularity,” a time when technology itself will merge with those creating it. From devices in our eyeglasses and contact lenses, to displays being written directly into our retinas, emergent technology will not only change us, but will change everything. There will be a time when we can use space itself to generate energy.

By changing our DNA, Ray believes that farther and farther space travel will be possible. Sound like a technological utopia? Certainly. Taking it a step further, the technology we are currently creating will soon grow more intelligent than we are. What to do then? Simple: merge with that technology in order to compete. Due to our slower evolutionary processes, only by doing this will we be able to survive against the uprising of future intelligent machines. One day soon, Ray says, you will not be able to tell the difference between human and artificial intelligence. This brings us to the next section on our list: intelligent machines.

5. Visions Of Intelligent Machines

The emergence of intelligent machines, Ray believes, will quantify in the future as another species, regardless of whether we encounter life outside of our solar system or not. He believes we will be sharing our planet with robots, who will soon surpass our own intelligence, and only by becoming like the technology we create, will we be able to compete with those intelligent machines. Ray says “the result will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.”

Ray explains extensively the exponential growth of technology versus the growth of evolutionary processes. Intelligent machines will make it imperative to change ourselves and, in the process, we will be changing the evolution of life through intelligent machines.

4. Space Exploration In 1,000 Years

Humanity has not kept its feet on the ground and, whether it be to the limits of the Earth or our own biology, we are always on a quest to discover and explore our world, and the space beyond it. In 1,000 years, just how far will we have gone? According to Ray, we will have mapped out much more of the the cosmos. We will be able to foretell future cosmological occurrences that can affect the Earth, and the repercussions that any those events could incur for humankind.

The biggest reason for space exploration, however, is not only to discover how the universe works, but to scout out new and interesting planets that have the potential to support human life, should unfavorable conditions appear. So far, possible planets to live on that we have discovered are too far out of our reach, which brings us to our next section on the list.

3. The Future Of Space Travel

Futurist Arthur C. Clarke, considered a visionary about space travel, believes it is only a matter of time before we have safe and economical space propulsion systems. The questions, however, are not just in building that technology and making it affordable, but to change ourselves to withstand the negative effects that space travel has on the human body. Ray believes that we will soon be able to alter our own DNA with emerging technology in order to withstand space travel, as DNA does not fare well in space. By doing so, we will be able to take farther and farther journeys out into space.

2. Progress With Extending Human Life?

Of all that has been listed, number two probably has the most evidence to support it, specifically in recent years. Gerontologists and scientists are finding more and more evidence that the aging process can be slowed down. Ray speaks extensively on how nanotechnology and nano-bots will slow the aging process, by travelling into the bloodstream to destroy pathogens, reverse the aging process, and correct DNA errors. To add to that, Ray even talks about downloading the mind into another carrier, which is easily the most unlikely, but most thought-provoking, idea that Ray has introduced yet.

1. Future Visions Of The Obliteration Of Death

If stopping the aging process wasn’t enough to shock you, try taking it even farther by saying that future technologies will stop aging completely, one day making death obsolete. Ray believes that, one day, humans will live forever. He refutes the idea that “the purpose of life is to accept death,” that “death always means a profound loss in relationships, talent and potential, but that up until now we have had no choice but to rationalize it.”

In Ray’s earlier book, “Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever,” Ray writes about how people can start taking steps now to extend their lives, until the advancements in medical technology have a chance to catch up. Nanotechnology will develop over time, becoming more capable to repair and restore our body parts. Biotechnology is advancing and will soon make it possible to turn on and off enzymes, the workhorses of biology. Current medical technology is taking its first steps in using these techniques to destroy HDL in the blood to stop atherosclerosis, as well as many other diseases. By creating ever-increasingly powerful technology, the future means extending human life. Life expectancy grows longer and longer every year: where life expectancy was 37 years in the 1800′s, a thousand years from now, according to Ray, it may just be infinite!

Technology merging with biology? There is no doubt you will peruse our Top Ten list with all kinds of skepticism, and you certainly should be; these are perhaps some of the most radical ideas about the future yet. Still, for someone like Ray Kurzweil, who has accomplished great feats within his lifetime, is there some value in even considering it? Whether you are a believer in science, futurists, in prophets or Gods, or merely in the “little things,” certainly these visions of the future are big enough to color your imagination, and light up a place where space, time and possibility surrounds us all on every side.


10 Things China Invented First

10. Government-Issued Paper Money

Paper money was first introduced in the 7th century as a way for wealthy merchants to avoid having to carry large quantities of heavy copper coins. Original banknotes were essentially bank slips with the amount of total money available to the merchant written on them, like our deposit receipts. These notes were initially used only by the very wealthy, but eventually they were circulated by the Song Dynasty when there was a shortage of copper coins. They were called jiaozi. These notes did not replace copper coins- they were organized by region (rather than having a national currency) and were more like credit notes with a time limit. A national currency was introduced in the 11th century using another Chinese original, woodblock printing.

9. Printing

The Chinese initially developed two types of printing: woodblock printing and movable type. Woodblock printing is created by carving a design or character text into a block of wood, covering the relief with dye, and printing the relief onto the fabric or paper. The earliest existing example of woodblock printing is on a piece of hemp paper, dating from around 660 AD. It is also the medium of choice for the oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra printed in 868 AD during the Tang Dynasty.

The other type of printing is the predecessor of typesetting, called movable type. It was a process in the making for 630 years. It began as a theory by Chinese scientist, Shen Kuo during the Song Dynasty in 1088 AD. The theory wasn’t put into practice until 1298 AD when official Wang Zhen of the Yuan Dynasty created a model arranging the characters by rhyme scheme on a round table with compartments for the characters. In 1490, Hua Sui perfected movable type by putting the characters on bronze blocks instead of wood or clay. The final tweak was added in 1718 when porcelain enamel was used.

8. Paper

If you’re going to print, then you need paper, or some sort of printable medium, and pulp paper became popular because it was cheaper and faster to make than other mediums, such as silk, bamboo strips, or clay tablets. There is evidence of pulp paper making that dates back to the 2nd century BC. Then, in 105 AD, a Han court eunuch named Cai Lun improved the process (he is often credited as the inventor of paper). His process involved mashing up tree bark, hemp, linen and fishing nets and adding water until a wooden frame with a sieve of interwoven weeds could be immersed and removed from the mixture. The frame was then hung out to dry and bleached in the sunlight.

7. Gunpowder

Gunpowder’s invention was actually an accident by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century. One of its first uses outside of the lab was for fireworks, which were used to ward off evil spirits starting in the 10th century. However, since at least 1044, it has been used as the destructive and explosive component that we all have come to know. It was originally used in flamethrowers (no joke), flame tipped arrows, and a “gunpowder-whip-arrow,” for which I can’t think of a modern equivalent. The first firearms did not appear until the 13 century, and were used heavily by the Mongols in their exploits. The first recorded formula for gunpowder was relatively tame as it was not capable of exploding but still very flammable. By the 15th century though, they had perfected 6 formulas for gunpowder, some with up to 91% nitrate, the chemical that makes gunpowder go BOOM.

6. Compass

The first iron compasses created during the Han Dynasty were not used for navigation. In fact, they were used to divine the future in large bowl-like compasses that used a spoon-like instrument. A thermoremanence compass, which uses a heated metal object in water to produce a magnetic force, was documented in 1044. There was also the South Pointing Chariot, circa 3rd century AD, which was a figure on a chariot that would always point south, originally without the use of magnets. This compass instead operated on a differential gear system, much like you find in a car now. Shen Kuo was able to describe magnetic declination and the use of a magnetic needle compass in 1088, while Zhu Yu offered the use of the true north compass for naval use in 1119.

5. Coffins, Tree coffins, Urns

The Chinese ancients seem to have been some of the first who were concerned with burying their dead. Chinese emphasis on showing respect for elders and ancestors by caring for your own body (which they provided you with by giving you life) was just as important as showing respect for theirs when they passed away. Evidence for the earliest coffins and urns have been found in China. The oldest coffin is dated around 5000 BC and holds a four year old girl. The thickness of a coffin and the number of coffins were reflections of wealth or nobility. Also, the earliest known tree trunk coffins, or boat coffins, were of the Songze culture and the Dawenkou culture, recorded dates between 4000-3000 BC and 4100-2600 BC respectively. Cremation was not popular outside of the Buddhist culture, which believed the body was a disposable vessel, as it was a mark of disrespect to destroy what physically remained of the deceased. However, because of the heavy influence of the Buddhist religion, buried pottery urns have been found dating back to 7000 BC.

4. Fork and Chopstick

While many people attend an Asian restaurant and attempt to eat with the traditional chopsticks, it would actually be more traditional to use the fork that they provide for their diners. Bone forks have been discovered at multiple burial sites dating from the Xia Dynasty, which was in power from 4205-1760 BC. Europeans wouldn’t start using forks until roughly 4000 years later. Forks were an exclusive dining tool for the ruling class, and came in two- and three-pronged varieties like they do now. However, due to the nature of Chinese food customs, chopsticks became popular and much easier to come by. Because Chinese culture did not permit that meats should resemble their living form, it was cut into bite-sized pieces. Also, the communal nature of Chinese eating habits made chopsticks an easier tool to maneuver. Not only that, but the chopstick could pick up or divide virtually any cuisine that was presented, thereby making it a much more effective utensil than the fork.

3. Holistic Health

Even more surprising to me than the invention of the fork, was that Chinese medicine was on to some major health points before their time, such as good health through proper diet. In the 4th century, the royal courts had Imperial Dieticians to guide the royal family down the road to healthy eating. In the Han Dynasty, Zhang Zhongjing found out through trial and error that certain foods would address symptoms of poor health. Imperial Dietician Hu Sihui published a similar book in 1330 that put together information on healthy diets dating from the 3rd century.

Not only were they proponents of a variable diet, they were also the first endocrinologists, meaning that they were clued in to and could address hormone imbalances before everyone else. In 1110 BC, they were able to extract sex hormones from urine using gypsum and natural soaps like saponin. They could then use these extracted hormones to treat a wide variety of sex hormone issues, from erectile dysfunction to menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea).

2. Restaurant Menu

The biggest reason that the Chinese beat other cultures to the finish line here is because they already had a handle on paper by the time the Song Dynasty rolled around. Due to even ancient China’s expansive populated regions that would trade with each other, hungry merchants could find an abundance of food to eat, but were not familiar with a lot of it. Thus, the menu was born to provide a guide for hungry merchants and foreign travelers. Menus popped up where ever food was sold: temples, brothels, theaters, and tea houses as well as typical food stalls and restaurants.

1. Toilet Paper

The classic over versus under debate is much older than previously thought. Its first mention is by official Yan Zhitui in 589 BC, again because the Chinese were ahead of the game when it came to paper manufacturing. Their purpose is stated quite clearly by an Arab visitor in 851 AD, who remarks that the Chinese wipe themselves with paper, while the rest of the world was using water, their hands, wood shavings, lace, or the ever popular Roman “sponge on a stick.” The Chinese even one-upped themselves, and proceeded to perfume their poo paper for the royal family in 1393. (Actual ancient toilet paper not represented in art above.)