July 5, 2021.
We have had a busy, enjoyable week. I learnt about Mars, mushrooms, tardigrades, panspermia ….
After my Thursday tennis match, I had conversation with 2 friends. One said, ‘The rest of the world is laughing at us because we have cut our country off with this policy of ‘Fortress Australia’. I disagreed. I think the rest of the world is envious of how we have managed in the past 18 months. How normal our lives have been.
We could debate this variance of opinion. More later.
On Thursday night, we attended a Field Geology Club lecture at Adelaide University given by Assoc. Professor Victor Gostin on ‘Planet Mars, What Surprises Await us?‘ The audience of over 100 all had to wear masks because … there just MIGHT be a few Delta Covid-19 cases in the South Australian community. A miner returned from the Granites Mine in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territor, to Adelaide and tested positive. He has not been active in the local community but there MIGHT be other positive cases from the mine. Since then, there has not been any outbreak – or any cases -but the fear of the Delta variant is spooking our state premiers.
Back to Mars – Prof. Gostin explained what NASA’s Perseverance Rover has found geologically. Even without a scientific background, I was able to enjoy the lecture. Mars is without plate tectonics and so the planet is without many of earth’s features.
There are Australian connections in this Martian expedition. Brisbane-born geologist, Dr Abigail Allwood, now at NASA, leads the team who developed an instrument on the Rover’s arm that is designed to detect signs of past life. And an Australian planetary scientist, Dr Adrian Brown, is also working on the remote sensing of rocks. Rocks in some of our harshest Australian deserts – called gibber plains – resemble Martian landscapes.
Scientists are very excited by the Perseverance Rover mission.
Mars is not a place you want to visit under normal circumstances. Prof. Gostin described it as ‘hostile’ with freezing temperatures, high levels of radiation, oxidizing chemicals and no liquid water.’ The air is thin, 100 times thinner than earth and consists of 95% carbon dioxide. But once upon a time, it was different and water ran on the surface.
In 2016, NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovered glauconitic clays, and thus scientists are postualting that Mars was once (maybe a million or so years ago) habitable. But since we are making a mess of our very habitable planet, I am not sure why we would want to go and mess up another planet.
And, there might still be microbial life deep under the Martian surface. A ‘subsurface biome’ like we have kilometres deep under Earth’s surface.
Prof Gostin also raised the issue of our Moon and Mars landers inadvertently polluting other planets. In the 1950s a biologist, Joshua Lederberg, (Nobel Prize winner) alerted the USA’s National Academy of Sciences warning them about celestial contamination. Either we might inadvertently take organisms onto other parts of our solar system or we might bring them back here. Lederberg spoke about the possible ‘cosmic catastrophe’. There is a possibility that the places where the early moon landings took place are already polluted with bacteria.
Oh, tardigrades or water-bears! I must mention these tough little creatures. Why? because they might be able to travel to other planets, they are such tough micro-animals. Almost indestructible.
I was exposed to two new exciting words before I came down to our own messy Earth with all its confusion.
‘Panspermia (from Ancient Greek πᾶν (pan) ‘all’, and σπέρμα (sperma) ‘seed’) is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and also by spacecraft carrying unintended contamination by microorganisms.’ (Wikipedia)
…formerly known as exobiology, is an interdisciplinary scientific field that studies the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it. (Wikipedia).
Meanwhile at home in Australia…
Near panic has broken out amongst the politicians and politically employed medicos about the Delta variant’s appearance in Australia. Foremost amongst them is Dr Jeanette Young, Chief Health Officer of Queensland, (and Governor Designate of Queensland), who has come under fire for her emotional tirade against the possibility that under 40 year olds might choose to have the AZ vaccination AFTER consulting their doctors.
We have had a few Delta-variant outbreaks. The largest is in NSW and once more this involved an infection escaping hotel quarantine. Five million Sydney residents are in lockdown and 300 cases have been detected so far: about 30 new cases a day although most of these people are already in isolation. Borders are closed again and we had to cancel our planned trip to NSW – once more.
‘Politicians continue to heighten fears to justify their responses and strengthen their standing.’ The Weekend Australian (July 3-4)
Lss than 10% of Australians are fully vaccinated. This is a problem. Having had an easier time with closed (mostly closed) borders, we were slow to get vaccinated. If our Prime Minister had had perfect foresight, he would have set up custom-built quarantine facilities in each state, and have paid up front for an early supply of four different vaccines being developed – but he only chose only three. One (being developed by our CSIRO) did not get off the starting blocks, which left us with Pfizer and AstraZeneca (AZ).
Then in March, AZ vaccine supplies to us from the EU were slowed or cut – depending on who you listened to. (3.4 million doses did not turn up). Shortly thereafter, in April, the question of fatal blood clots arose – even though the odds were tiny, Australians and their politicians reacted. After all, there were few cases here, why should we rush to have a vaccine that was dicey – even if it was only a tiny, tiny bit dicey? (Much more dicey than taking an asprin every day). Then our ATAGI – Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation – took ‘one of the most conservative risk-adverse management approaches in the world‘ to the AZ vaccine (Weekend Australian July 3-4).
Then Federal Government found that the Pfizer vaccine was in huge demand and supplies were limited. On top of this our administration of the vaccination process – being done by our states – was slow and inefficient. Again – no sense of rush. For example, some states were slow to offer health workers – especially those working in retirement facilities – vaccinations, even though this was highly recommended. Foolishly, it was not made mandatory.
This is a time of complaint and whinging in Australia. And we are very good at that. However, It gets boring to listen to negativity on the ABC 7am news every morning – especially when you are aware of the real suffering going on in so many parts of the world through other media. Not an enjoyable start to the day.
Covid-19 has resulted in a bonanza for media companies. Not only are we all watching TV for entertainment but, daily, we seek information on what is going on. We rely on the experts – medical experts. But the medicos don’t agree and some are more expert than others!
In an attempt to cut through all the back-biting and confusion, PM Morrison has announced a ‘deal’ with our state premiers for a 4-stage blueprint for emerging from the grip of Covid-19. This hinges on vaccination rates. Optimistically, this is a step forward whereby within six months, we should be able to have no lockdowns, open the borders, and, eventually in Phase Four, something called ‘Covid-normal’ will allow uncapped travel for the vaccinated and Covid-19 will be managed as other serious infectious diseases are managed.
All likely to be very slow – but we will get there.
Finally, back to Mars. Here is a fascinating YouTube NASA video showing some of the exploring of the Martian surface that Perseverance Rover is undertaking. Beter than our 7 am news.