Haverford College

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We asked faculty from the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities at Haverford to give us their thoughts about the upcoming year by responding to the following question: "What do you think will be the most significant development or trend in your field of study in 2004 and why?"

Bruce Partridge is the Bettye and Howard Marshall Professor of Natural Sciences, and an expert on cosmology and radio astronomy, the formation of galaxies and the evolution of large-scale structure in the universe.

" ‘Expect the unexpected,’a Greek philosopher and student of nature advised. His words certainly apply to astronomy, a field full of surprises. So the prudent prediction for the big astronomical event of 2004 would be the one we have no idea is coming.

One thing we do know is coming is a golden year for the exploration of our Solar System. A European spacecraft is in orbit about Mars (sadly, it appears that the British "Little Engine that Could," the Beagle 2 Lander, didn't). NASA has a robot rover on Mars now, with another scheduled to land on January 24. In July, if all goes well, a probe will drop through the thick and nasty atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan. And we head back to Mercury for the first time in a quarter century.

So what will come of all this exploration? First, there is the profound wonder of exploring entirely different worlds. While none of us have walked on the surface of Mars or sniffed the winds of Titan, we are exploring these worlds in the same way those of us who have never been to Bali have explored that island -- through images and reports. The media take on our explorations of Mars is that they are basically searches for water -- past or present -- because water is a crucial requirement for life -- past or present. But I would argue that the presence of water is just part of the larger story, the evolution of planetary properties. If liquid water was ever present on the surface of Mars, it is only because the conditions on the surface were warmer and more benign than they are now. Any discovery that Mars had a warmer, watery past may and should remind us that the properties of planets do change in time. ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end,’is simply not true of the surfaces of planets, including the Earth. This is a point we might do well to remember in 2004, as additional evidence for rapid global warming comes in, and continues to be disputed by the present US administration.”

Originally posted at: http://www.haverford.edu/news/stories/27181/23