The other day, someone wanted to pick a fight with me. This person said to me in a forceful, almost rude tone, that there is absolutely no chance we will ever discover life on Mars. If you know me at all, you must surely know: them’s fightin’ words!
Except before this conversation could escalate into a full blown argument, it became apparent (to me, at least) that we were not actually talking about the same thing. You see when I talk about life on Mars, I mean life of any kind, including microorganisms—especially microorganisms. This other person was using the word “life” to mean, specifically and exclusively, intelligent life.
No, I do not expect we’ll find intelligent life on Mars. There are no canals, no cities—none of that stuff Percival Lowell once imagined he saw in his telescope. Nor do I expect to find non-intelligent animals or any kind of plant life.
The best we can hope for is that there might be Martian microorganisms hiding under a glacier, subsisting off a trickle of meltwater. And to be honest, I’m not overly optimistic about finding even that much life on Mars. But to say it is absolutely impossible? No, I cannot agree with that.
And after explaining what I mean when I talk about life on Mars and what my expectations actually are, this person conceded (grudgingly, perhaps) that I might have a point. Thus what could have been a bitter and fruitless argument turned into an opportunity to educate someone about the science of astrobiology. Why? Because I asked the question “Wait, what do you mean by life?”
Language is not as precise a tool as we often imagine. People sometimes use the same words to mean very different things, leading to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and unproductive arguments. I think a lot of those arguments, both big and small, could be avoided if more people would stop and ask: “Wait, what do you mean by (fill in the blank)?”
Next time on Planet Pailly, am I too judgmental? We’ll find out in this month’s posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.