Distant Tracks

A striking visual echo between two very different things:

The image on the left was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. (I found it here.) It’s a zoom-in from outer space, showing the newly arrived Curiosity rover shortly after it began trundling around on the surface of the Red Planet. As a science fan, I find it incredibly wonderful that we not only have a brand-new mobile lab roaming Mars, but we can look down on the surface from orbit with telescopes so powerful they can make out the rover and even the twin tracks it has left behind in the soil. In this image Curiosity has just left its touchdown spot; the bluish (false color, btw) splotch to the lower right is where the “sky hook” retro rockets have blasted away the dust from the underlying bedrock. What we have, in essence, is a story in a single image — the arrival of a visitor to a distant planet, and the beginning of its exploratory career.

The image to the right shows another wanderer and its strikingly similar set of tracks. It’s a little hard to read, so here’s a rendering of the tracks alone, without all the extraneous background detail:

Here we see not the beginning of a journey, but the end.  The circle to the left is the fossilized remains of a horseshoe crab very much like the kind that wash up on beaches today. Some 150 million years ago, during the reign of the dinosaurs, this individual got swept by a wave out of the ocean and into a stagnant lagoon. The water there had no oxygen, so the clock was ticking. The creature managed to scurry along the muddy bottom for 32 feet before expiring. Apparently it’s not entirely unusual for fossilized horseshoe crabs to turn up alongside traces of their final steps; what’s special about this one is that this particular set of tracks tells an entire story, from the disturbed area of mud where the wave deposited the beast, to the meandering course it took as it sought to escape, to its moment of death. To see the whole set of tracks, and read a more detailed story, click here.

What I love about these pictures is how similar they seem, though they represent two very different kinds of wanderers, separated by hundreds of millions of years and hundreds of millions of miles. Nabokov famously opined that true literature can be recognized as a thing that creates an “indescribable tingle of the spine.” What tends to be overlooked, it seems to me, is that science can create that same feeling.

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