In describing the rough terrain Mars Curiosity Rover is currently riding over, Dr. Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan recently employed the word “unforgiving.” As a co-investigator on the Mars Phoenix Lander and a Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, he spoke from a place of authority.
Unforgiving, though. Has the planet Mars placed the Curiosity Rover under condemnation for attempting to scale Mount Sharp in Gale Crater?
Of course a scientist calling a planet’s terrain unforgiving is a scientist using a figurative expression to convey sense of place—specifically Mars, a distant exotic locale that neither he nor his audience will ever personally visit. Unforgiving seems a great word. In addition to coming close to the topographical reality of Mount Sharp, it taps into my sense of emotion.
Having at times in life felt myself wanting forgiveness, the impression becomes acute. If the Curiosity Rover is crossing unforgiving terrain, the surface must be rough and difficult. There must be no easy way forward or back. Perhaps the terrain is taking a toll on the rover’s components. Am I suddenly feeling empathy for a machine?
Here then is the curious side effect of calling physical terrain unforgiving. I sit here feeling emotion for a machine. I’m like Han Solo staring longingly at the Millennium Falcon. Is this a good thing? I believe so. Dr. Renno’s word choice succeeds on a pedagogical level, taking me closer to the literal reality of Mars by way of figurative language.
To learn more about Curiosity’s unforgiving location, visit NASA JPL.