The Curiosity rover recently celebrated its fifth birthday on Mars, and it did so without so much as a cupcake. No presents, no candles, no nothing.
Perhaps that does not surprise you: Curiosity, after all, is a machine, and machines are notoriously low-key about celebrations. Wish Siri, the digital assistant on the iPhone, a happy birthday, and she’ll say, “Only biological entities can have ‘birthdays,’ you pitiful sack of organic matter.” (Well, OK, I made that last part up, but still.)
But Curiosity did celebrate its birthday … once. To commemorate its first year on the Red Planet in 2013, its engineers programmed the little planetary explorer to hum the “Happy Birthday” song to itself all day.
So why has Curiosity not engaged in similar modest, celebratory spurts of humming ever since? The Atlantic posed that question to Florence Tan, the electrical lead engineer for a key part of Curiosity’s apparatus.
“The answer to your question will sound rather cold and unfeeling,” Tan began, and she wasn’t kidding. Apparently, there’s just no scientific benefit in Curiosity humming softly to itself. As The Atlantic’s Marina Koren wrote, “In the battle between song and science, science always wins.”
Tan points out that we sacks of organic matter tend to anthropomorphize things, attributing to them human characteristics and emotions that simply aren’t there. Curiosity doesn’t care one whit whether it hums “Happy Birthday” or not. It doesn’t care about anything.
We know that, of course.
So why, when we hear about a little robot singing to itself on a cold, lonely planet, does it make at least some of us smile a little? Or feel a little sad? Or make us wish that we could go up to Mars to give that bucket o’ bolts a little birthday hug?
It speaks, I think, to the innate human desire—the God-given desire, I’d say—to form relationships. We’re built to care for one another, and in a world where our machines and things becomes such a critical part of our lives, we wind up developing strange relationships with them, too. We want to humanize them.
(A confession: Twice while writing this piece, I’ve tried to turn Curiosity into a “she.”)
I don’t get that attached to most of the machines in my life, but (as I’ve written about before), I make an exception for my cars. I drive a lot to get to various movie screenings and, over the years, my vehicles and I have been through a lot—rainstorms, snowstorms, fire and hail. When I walk out of a screening and press the “unlock” button, my current car greets me with a chipper flash of lights. On our way home, my cars have entertained me with music, baseball games and old radio dramas.
On any given week, I spend almost as much waking time with my car as I do with my family. We’re bound to get close.
And even though I’ve owned three separate cars during my years here at Plugged In, I haven’t been able to truly say goodbye to any of them. The first I gave to my son. The second I sold to my son-in-law. They’re all still, almost literally, part of the family.
I bet a few of you have strong attachments to your cars, as well. Or maybe to your phones. Or blenders. We humans are not persnickety about showering affection on things.
There’s nothing really wrong with these attachments. Again, it just confirms what we’re built for. Unlike the mechanical creations we create, we’re made to love. And when we show a little love for our favorite cars, we’re engaging in God’s greatest gift to us.
But I do believe that sometimes we love things at the expense of the real-life people in our lives.
I understand why: Real people are inherently more unpredictable than the things we build. There’s an illogic to them, an element of unpredictability that can frustrate and exasperate us. Truth be told, real humans aren’t always as reliable as a good car. They’re not always as lovable, either. We’re broken, fragile creatures. We say the wrong thing. We do the wrong thing. We disagree with each other. We fight.
God built us to love, yes. But He especially built us to love other people—even the ones we find unlovable at times. Sure, it’s harder to love a guy spilling vitriol than a cute, inoffensive robot humming “Happy Birthday” to itself. But I think we all know what sort of love we’re really called to show.