Painful Truth: Lawyering up for the rock fight

I think it might be time to get myself a good lawyer. I might need to sue some folks.

The bar for what constitutes a lawsuit has been lowered, or possibly raised, by the heroic efforts of American scientist/professional eccentric Rhawn Joseph.

Dr. Joseph (who is a real scientist and has published legitimate research, but who has also written that dreams can predict the future) is suing NASA, over a rock on Mars.

But not just any rock! No, this is an amazing mystery rock, that appeared somehow near the Opportunity rover. One day, no rock in view. The next week, funny looking rock.

Neat, you’d think. How’d that get there? 

Well, NASA is considering two possibilities. The first is that the rock might have landed there after a meteorite hit the surface nearby, spraying chunks of the Martian surface into the thin atmosphere, and one of them happened to land near the rover.

That’s pretty unlikely, though. More plausible is that the rover itself kicked over a rock as it made a recent turn, the way your car kicks up bits of gravel as you head through a road construction site. Mars needs better roads!

Dr. Joseph’s hypothesis, based on him staring intently at the photos of the mystery rock, is that it’s some kind of living organism, like a fungus.

He has demanded that NASA take 100 high resolution photos of the doughnut-sized lump, at various angles, take microscopic photos of the rock, and supply him and the public with all of these images.

It’s nice that he wants to share, but there are a couple of reasons why this lawsuit might not be a good idea.

First, it would open the floodgates at NASA. Dr. Joseph had apparently contacted several NASA employees and asked for this photo session before he called his lawyer. Can you imagine if NASA had to answer every request from the public?

“Dear Astronauts, can you send my little brother to Mars, he’s really bugging me.”

“Hey, NASA, aim the Hubble at my backyard next Thursday at 2 p.m. I want to get a picture of my birthday party!”

“Dear NASA, I think you should read my 900-page manuscript about the alien who abducted me from a gas station in Oswego, and the love we found among the stars.”

Second, this is not exactly how science works. Although Dr. Joseph has a real Phd., he is not an expert on planetary science, geology, or, as far as I can tell, on xenobiology or even regular fungi from Earth. He was originally a brain researcher who now holds a number of interesting ideas, mostly about areas where he has less rigorous training, like evolutionary biology. He believes life on Earth came from other planets and that evolution doesn’t work the way the other 99 per cent of scientists think it does. He’s not a disinterested observer, in other words – he’s trying to prove a theory that has little to no evidence, on NASA’s dime.

Ironically, NASA was interested in the rock. Most of the rocks on the surface of Mars are weathered and don’t get to move around much. Flipping one over gave them a chance to take a look at the underside of a stone that might have stayed in place for millions, maybe billions of years.

Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Mars rovers, should have the last word on this one.

“We have looked at it with our microscopes,” he said. “It is clearly a rock.”

Sometimes, a really cool, interesting, educational rock is still just a rock.

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