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Students study possibility of life on Mars

November 15, 2011

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

They may not have just come back from a mock mission to Mars as a six man-crew did earlier this month, but Geology Professor Carl Mendelson’s students are also asking the same question: How feasible is a journey to Mars?

In “Colonizing Mars: Science Fact and Fiction” − a First-Year Initiatives course blending geology, political science, economics and psychology – students also use scientific evidence to study the possibility of life on Mars in the past, present and future. Establishing the prerequisites for life is not, however, the same as establishing a human presence, according to the course synopsis. Perhaps early microbes colonized Mars, but can we? And if we can, should we?

The idea for the course stemmed from a conversation Mendelson had with Political Science Professor Georgia Duerst-Lahti about the science fiction book, “Red Mars,” which is part of a trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, that asks how humans can operate on a new planet and perhaps not make the same mistakes. Mendelson’s students are reading that book along with a more technical book called “The Case for Mars” by Robert Zubrin, who asserts that we have the technology needed to go to Mars right now.

Students are encouraged to read critically and closely by keeping a journal where they note descriptions that demonstrate Robinson’s knowledge of Mars. For instance, Mendelson said students should read, “the extra splashy water,” and recognize that that is because Mars has one-third the gravity of earth.  Students also watched, “Mission to Mars,” and “Red Planet,” and will write a movie review on one of them, analyzing all the accuracies and inaccuracies.

Mendelson has taught “Colonizing Mars” six times now and continues to enjoy it because it’s fun to learn about the latest missions to Mars. He thinks it is feasible to get there, but he’s not so sure we should.

“It’s very expensive, so ethically should we spend money to go to Mars or to fix the economy?” said Mendelson, adding he would not want to go himself – at least not now.  “Maybe in the future. I’m not interested in being a pioneer living in a special habitat and never seeing trees. It’s still intriguing nonetheless.”

Source: Carl Mendelson is a Professor and Chair of Geology who also holds the Robert H. and Jane Solem Chair in the Natural Sciences. A faculty member since 1981, Mendelson’s teaching interests include paleontology, the physical and biological history of Earth, all aspects of dinosaurs, women in science, environmental issues, and the history of geology. His research interests include the early evolution of life, the earliest phases of evolution as evidenced in microfossils preserved in chert, microfossils in general, especially across the Proterozoic-Cambrian boundary, evolutionary history of an enigmatic group of microfossils known as acritarchs, and exobiology (potential for life on Mars and beyond). Mendelson can serve as a media resource on topics related to his research and teaching interests.