It started with a pinch of dirt, and suddenly we're curious about Curiosity.
The Mars rover has fetched and processed a sample from the surface that prompted John P. Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist, to tell a National Public Radio reporter a few days ago: "This data is going to be one for the history books."
Then he declined to elaborate, and into the explosion of wonder that lingered, a thousand theories were launched. Did Curiosity find miniature Martians? Of course not. Fossils? Nope. Organics? Hmmm.
Curiosity's robotic arm fetched the sample Nov. 9, and its built-in chemistry lab analyzed it and relayed the results. Since then, scientists have studied, checked and re-checked but disclosed not one additional molecule of detail — while we wait and wonder about what kind of discovery could drive such rhetoric. We may be stuck on Earth, but we're closer to the edge of our seats, and when you think about it, isn't this what's best about scientific discovery, the pregnant pause that precedes the answers?
We're rough-drafting here, in a vacuum behind information that could change the way we think about the universe, that could chip away at our most primal questions. What's out there? Are we alone? It was even hard to concentrate on the news about Lindsay Lohan's recent arrest in New York because THERE'S A ROBOT SAMPLING SOIL ON MARS AND IT MAY HAVE FOUND SOMETHING.
What would it take to make us really excited, though? Would we collectively meh the discovery of microbial life on Mars? Has Grotzinger set us up for a letdown? NASA has tried to dial back the scientist's "history books" sentiment a tad. The PR team for Curiosity posted to Twitter: "What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission 'one for the history books.' "
The Curiosity team knows to be careful. An earlier air sample showed the presence of methane in Mars' atmosphere, suggesting the possibility of life. As it turned out, the rover tested air it had carried to Mars from Florida. (This state has a way of foiling all sorts of things, doesn't it?)
Grotzinger and others on the team are expected to announce the findings Monday. Until then, we are allowed to wonder. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe there are no microbial Martians or tiny fossils trapped in the pit of our roving chemistry lab on Mars.