Just as scientists haven’t given up on their pursuit of finding life on Mars, humanity has never stopped questioning what it means to be alive.
When NASA downloaded its first image of Mars from the Mariner 4 flyby mission in 1964, our closest neighbor was still a mystery—a perfect landscape for the imagined civilizations found in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and even Looney Tunes’s Marvin the Martian. But when the pictures returned, they revealed a desolate and lonely planet, prompting then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to state, “It just may be that life as we know it with its humanity is more unique than many have thought.”1
Despite many setbacks, scientists have not yet given up hope that there is, or once was, life on Mars. As NASA has sent more missions to the Red Planet, they’ve found evidence of past water, proof that its environment is much more varied than previously thought.
In March 2020, NASA launched the latest Mars rover, sent to explore the landscape and search for signs of ancient life. As has been the tradition with all Mars rovers, NASA called for children across the nation to submit short essays with a proposed name for the new spacecraft. A boy named Alexander Mather won the 2020 Mars rover naming competition with his submission: Perseverance. In his winning essay he wrote, “We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh.”
Perseverance is one of the core attributes that has allowed us to continue as a collective community. And just as scientists haven’t given up on their pursuit of finding life on Mars, humanity has never stopped questioning what it means to be alive. While scientists look to the light in space to “address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe,”2 humanists study literature, art, language, and philosophy to “remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going.”3 The study of humanities isn’t rocket science, but it is essential to the mental and emotional health of a society.
So what role does the study of humanities play in our society? Science may be what helps us survive and understand the natural world, but the humanities is what helps us thrive and derive meaning from our circumstances. Yet, despite this important role, departments in the humanities have continually struggled recruiting students, especially as college students are increasingly gravitating toward fields of study that promise a large monetary return.
In response to this trend, Associate Professor Trent Hickman (English) reasoned, “I think sometimes people don't go into the humanities because they think it’s not a real-world major or it’s not a practical major, but I think you need to understand that the humanities are perhaps among the most practical of majors because they deal with the fundamental life questions, and they deal with the kinds of things that you get to carry with you into the eternities.”
In addition to the fact that studying the humanities is beneficial to our personal growth, Hickman argues, “Every field needs people who can tell stories and who can evaluate the stories that other people tell them.” And these stories that we tell each other are made effective by our ability to think clearly, act well, and appreciate life—traits that the College of Humanities seeks to imbue in students every day.
The Perseverance rover will reach the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021, and there’s no telling what might happen here on Earth in the interim. But if there’s one thing we could say for certain, it’s that humanity will persist to that day and beyond, just as it has for thousands of years; and the humanities will continue to provide meaning and guidance to those who choose to read, observe, and listen to the world around them.
This article was written by Heather Bergeson, a student majoring in English. To learn more about the Mars Perseverance Rover, visit mars.nasa.gov/mars2020.
This article was included in the Fall 2020 issue of Humanities alumni magazine.
1. APPEL News Staff. “This Month in NASA History: Mariner 4 Flies by Mars.” NASA. ASK the Academy, July 30, 2010. go.nasa.gov/367ZzMl
2. Jennifer Wiles, “Why We Explore,” (NASA, June 13, 2013), go.nasa.gov/3mPZovI
3. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013).