Work Header

Houston, We Have Graduation.

Work Text:

To the University of Chicago graduating class of 2051, I have only one thing to say to you: don't eat potatoes.

Now, you're all smart people. Smart, charming, beautiful, and incredible geniuses to go to this great, wonderful, excellent school. And so I know that you are looking around at each other -- also because I can see you -- and saying, 'Mark, don't be stupid, potatoes are great.' And there is a ground-swelling of disagreement and people murmuring 'but French fries are awesome!' And I agree, French fries are awesome.

But don't eat potatoes and let me tell you why.

Potatoes grow on Mars.

Now, you are all smart, good looking people who have paid attention to the news, but if that brochure the provost sent me when asking to address you all is correct, a lot of you are young people. I'm talking 21, 22, 23. You were just kids in '35. So maybe for you, the fact that things can grow on Mars isn't a problem. But the non-traditional students amongst you, I know you're nodding your heads. Because I've got a newsflash for you, sonny boy. Things don't grow on Mars.

I mean, have you looked at Mars? Really actually looked at it? It's a rusty pile of nothing! It's full of sand! And rocks! And sand and rocks! And rocks and sand! And then more sand! There's also some ice. That's an important bit, geologically speaking, but we'll get to that some other time. But what you need to take away from this is: nothing grows on Mars.

But potatoes grow on Mars.

I will admit that potatoes did not grow on Mars without a lot of help, but none of you grew into a whole person without a lot of help, either. Oh, and none of you should go to Mars. We've been there, done that. You all have to go to Io and Titan. Just to get that out of the way at the beginning. Great. So let's move on.

Now, you've all seen models of the solar system, and I will tell you right now, they are lying to you and actively harming you. Oh, they're important to begin with, but the problem is, they set you up for failure. Because you see the sun and the planets around it in nice, clean orbits and you think that things are nice and neat and orderly. WRONG. This is so wrong.

None of this is orderly. Everything is in a barely-controlled gravitational dance. Way back when, I mean really far back, early baby planets got eaten up by the solar system rearranging itself. Jupiter was a big part of this, just being a huge serial killer, murdering so many proto-planets. Things got ejected from the solar system or sent careening into the sun. Think it's all over? Look at comets. We're still in a chaos system around here. Because, yeah, planetary orbits? They aren't going to stay that way forever. Or even really for all that long a time, on the solar system's time scale. We're living in a blink of an eye, so all this is a pretty long time-frame from a human's perspective. But planets don't work according to our schedules.

So is it not important, then? So maybe that model is fine? Maybe that's all you need to walk away with, the sun in the middle, staying firmly in place, the planets in order, the moon (which we're still not 100% sure how we got, just by the way, but we do know it's slowly moving out), the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud?

But that's not good enough, because what it isn't showing you is the chaos. We got comets, we got asteroids, we may not be completely sure of the difference between them, we got a ton of dust, we've got a lot of space we don't even know what it is. We got lots of things flying here and there, this way and that, all of it out to fuck you up.

I'm not talking death from the skies here. I'm talking about the fact that they're all around us and it fucks with your head to think about it if you think of the solar system, our neighborhood, as a place with nicely-manicured lawns and houses all painted the same color and if you're coming home drunk you might go to the wrong door. That's not what this place is. There are rocks moving around everywhere. They've got their own orbits. You think you have body problems? Come over here and let's talk about astronomy's body problems. Now, I'm no astronomer, I just grow stuff and break things, but I know that everything has gravity and everything with gravity has to deal with other things with gravity, and this is just a big chaotic mess.

And if you come into this expecting things to be neat and clean, your head is gonna explode. But that's okay, that's fine. Humans aren't really equipped to handle the complexities of space and the delicate mathematical chaos of our solar system. That's why we have computers to do it for us. Space is really big, but it's also a huge goddamn mess. A somewhat predicable mess in the short term, but still, a huge mess. You ever try to feed a kid something the kid doesn't want to eat? You get big chunks, you get small chunks, and, man, you are cleaning that mess up forever, better get a mop and a vacuum. It's just in this case, the mess is made up of chunks of ice and metal and other stuff, and it can kill you.

Which brings me back to growing potatoes on Mars. Which isn't possible, I just want you to keep that in your heads. When I grew up, nothing grew on Mars. Hell, when I grew up, no one thought we'd ever get a human on Mars in our lifetimes.

The problem with expectations is that it can kill you really hard and really dead. We can't expect space to be clean and neat, because it's not. Space wants to kill you.

And so I grew some potatoes on the planet where things don't grow.

I think I'm pretty notorious for the potatoes by this point. They've named a variety after me, and I think there's a potato festival or four where they carve potatoes in the shape of my face. It's a good time. But potatoes are an Earth food. They started up on Earth, they are evolutionarily adapted for Earth, they are as out of place on Mars as humans are.

So I took some Earth soil, and most importantly, Earth bacteria, and dumped it on another planet. Add water, wait a bit, and boom, potatoes.

Potatoes are not, are not, supposed to grow on Mars.

Now, that's one of the things they sent me to Mars to check out. NASA and the scientific community wanted to know if you can grow things on Mars, given the appropriate circumstances. And we've pretty definitively proved at this point that you can grow things on Mars, if you sprinkle a little bit of Earth on it first.

This is creepy as fuck-- can I say fuck? This is creepy as hell.

Guys, life finds a way. It might need special circumstances, it might need to be in a certain habitat, but it finds a way. We've introduced Earth bacteria to Mars and there's really no going back at this point. You can't get anything back into Pandora's Box, especially not potatoes. The universe loves its tater tots, man. And if we were working with expectations, because we expected nothing could grow on Mars, so we didn't even try, I'd be dead right now. You can get into a rut, expecting things. Things aren't in a nice, neat order, all clear lines and circles. They're really more like a two year old's crayon scribblings than the music of the spheres. It's a beautiful harmony, sure, but let no one lie to you: it's a total mess. It's beautiful, but the human brain can't really behold it in its true mess-ness. Hence the really faulty models, because you gotta start somewhere. And then when the models aren't good enough, when you've outgrown them -- I need you to throw them out with extreme force, because you still have to survive even when the models say you can't.

But, yeah, potatoes.

Now, Mars has a pretty decent immune system. It wipes out the virus -- I'm sorry, the bacteria -- when it's outside of lab conditions. But that's really just for now. Because, guys, life finds a way. Two hundred years from now, if someone picks up a rock on Mars and it has Earth bacteria thriving on it, I wouldn't be that surprised.

One thing we wanted to discover with the Ares missions was if Mars could support life. My experiences proved that life could exist on Mars in spite of Mars. But our grandchildren are going to live in a different world.

So until then, don't eat potatoes. They've glimpsed the future and they shall be our overlords. Sentient potatoes will conquer Mars and subjugate the human race, and when that happens, I hope you're able to say, as I am able to say, that you would never ever even think to eat a potato.