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Life on Mars


Katie Costello argues that Arts students should repopulate Mars

Yes, you read it right, there really is a planned trip to Mars. The mission, dubbed ‘Mars One,’ will see 40 earthlings given a one-way ticket to the red planet. And how shall we select which of our citizens should partake in this other-worldly exploration? Why, through a reality TV show of course!

The Dutch company behind the scheme claim it really will go ahead – funding permitting – with the first ships setting off in 2025. On the short-list for tickets are five Britons, including astrophysics students from Birmingham, Durham and Oxford. But surely you could learn the basics on the job. There must be other degrees necessary for becoming an extraterrestrial pioneer.

As one of an ever-growing number of Arts students slowly realising how useless their degree really is, this news came to me as just another reason why I should have thought more carefully before turning my nose up at STEM subjects. Fair enough, my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle probably wouldn’t help all that much if there was an engine failure at 40,000 feet, but perhaps political thought would be pretty useful once we touched down on our new homeland. Politics and Philosophy give crucial insights into human behaviour and society’s structure. The senior ranks of the military will agree with Machiavelli that it is better to be feared than loved if they want to prevent mutinies and secure obedience from their subordinates. Surely we will need some form of order when we set up our new civilisation – who better to organise it than a Politics student?

Ok, so maybe Politics and Philosophy have some slight practical application. What about the arts? English and Drama can’t be all that useful, can they?

Well, I suppose that depends on what you see as the real purpose of exploration. If it is simply to have some form of presence on an interstellar

body, then maybe culture isn’t top of your list of necessities. In my opinion, though, it’s the arts which make us human. We create things for the sake of creating them, fashioning beautiful paintings, or music, or poetry, distinguishing us from the animals. A good wordsmith, such as Brockes or Wordsworth, can make a being as common as a fly into a majestic examination of humanity and religion – just think what they could say about an entirely new planet. The most memorable parts of the Apollo space missions aren’t the formulae to make a rocket fly, or the coordinates they had to set off from. What sticks in the mind are iconic photographs of our blue-green planet from space and the quotable lines from Neil Armstrong and the like. We remember the culture the moon landing produced, and we’re human because of it.

Fine, so now we’re taking a good chunk of the humanities and arts as well as people with useful qualifications like the engineers and the doctors. Surely you don’t need anyone else, I mean – what use could a History degree really be?

Historians might not be the most useful candidates, but their knowledge of mistakes from the past could help with refining the politics of the new outer space state. Social scientists are already dealing with that, you say? Ah, but historians have another unique skill – have you seen how much they’re supposed to read? A typical History student may not have the most time consuming of timetables, but the books they’re – ahem – ‘supposed’ to read will fill up all those hours which

look like they should be reserved for Netflix. They’ve got to absorb and condense vast quantities of information, as well as retaining a fair amount of it for the occasional exam. How would that not be useful when we set up base on Mars? What’s the betting we’ll just be setting up the artificial oxygen generator when we realise we’ve forgotten the password – then we’ll need those historians’ memory to remind us of our mother’s maiden name or the street we grew up on.

The rocket’s getting pretty crowded now, but I presume you’re going to say the colony is in need of linguists too.

No, actually – weren’t you listening earlier? The project is Dutch, meaning that the standard of English will be higher than it is in my essays, written in a sleep-deprived fuzz at three in the morning. Linguists can stay at home, but the problem is they’ll probably be the ones that want to come. This mission is a one-way ticket, remember? Most people might have the odd niggling doubt about leaving their family and friends, and the whole of humanity forever. Linguists are more likely to seize this. They’ll be eager to jump ship and discover a whole new culture. A trip to Mars would definitely outdo their friend’s year abroad in Cadiz.

Granted, sciences and maths are probably the most useful subjects when it comes to interstellar travel, but if you want a real civilisation, you’ve got to value the arts and humanities! In Germany, many Arts degrees are seen as relatively useless, and to take a subject such as History to degree level would severely limit your employment options. But these subjects inform us about humanity, they help us appreciate culture and make us better people. So even if a bachelor of arts means your application for Mars One might be rejected this time, once the colony is established, you’ll be needed for that cultural insight three years at Exeter has given you.

Katie Costello

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