Freshers’ week arrives every year with stunning regularity. Penned into the last seven days of September, to those of us returning to Newcastle this week is as familiar as the university itself. But to the uninitiated, freshers’ week still unravels like a Pandora’s Box of new experiences.
In the midst of it all, while first-night-out-in-Newcastle memories were being made (and likely forgotten), less bleary eyes were trained skyward. Nasa broke the news that Mars, encased in rust and capped in ice, our closest interstellar neighbour and home to the little green men of our imaginations; holds water.
We’ve known for a while that the contours which permanently scar the planet are likely remnants of an aquatic Martian world that has long since vanished. However, dark lines which recede and reappear seasonally on the planet’s surface, like furrows in a brow, may be our best evidence yet that liquid water remains. It may well be incapable of supporting life and scientists are baffled as to the source of it but regardless; the idea of water tumbling down red gullies and slopes has reinvigorated the debate around life on other planets like a rainstorm in the desert.
Understandably, something like this isn’t easily buried in the blur of 24 hour news. But it shared a news cycle with a mass shooting on an American college campus, which provided a sobering and poignant counterbalance. Because it wasn’t a team of government scientists, generously funded and working with the best equipment money could buy that made the discovery. It was a student.
A 20 year old at the University of Arizona, Lujendra Ojha scanned the monochrome horizon of Mars from photographs of its surface in 2010. He noted details where others had seen only mundanity, like the dark streaks spilling down Martian hills- fresh brushstrokes on an old painting.
“It wasn’t a team of government scientists, generously funded and working with the best equipment money could buy that made the discovery. It was a student”
Five years on and Lujendra’s casual observations have turned out to be revelatory. But while the world celebrates the fruits of his curiosity, it also bears the pain of families who will never see their loved ones realise their full potential. Who knows what the ten minds taken from the University of Oregon could have told us of the universe, and our place in it?
In a week where there was so much to be hopeful for, there was much to mourn. As Carl Sagan once put it: “We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?”
New students could be forgiven for tying their attention pretty tightly to things closer to home for the time being. University is after all a time of unprecedented opportunity in your young life, and so to you incoming freshers, I urge you to embrace the same tired clichés you should have by now grown accustomed to. Dream big! Follow your dreams! Reach for the stars!
But I’d like to add some more. Take care of yourselves, and each other. Have confidence in your ability to do great things and never lose sight of how precious life is, whether it’s on this planet or another. The next three years stretch out before you like an alien landscape and who knows what you might find?