Bits and Pieces: Centuries


In a book about weather (called ‘Weather’) that I’m reading, there’s a fact that blithely states:

Driest location: The Atacama Desert in Chile has virtually no rainfall (0.08mm annually), except for a passing shower several times a century.

Not several times a year. Several times a century. What impresses me about this is not the fact that it’s a dry place, it’s that records exist to the extent that meteorologists can say this with confidence.


I’ve been selling a bunch of games on eBay lately, and I have to say that it’s really improved. The last time I sold something on eBay was several years ago, and the entire experience was unpleasant, from listing the item, to writing the label, to queuing in the post office. It wasn’t something I wanted to repeat, so I didn’t.

In the meantime, I was always amazed by the fact that several hundred thousand people in the US alone make their livings over eBay. How were they not driven into a murderous rage by the clunky interface and the all the other attendant irritations? The reason, it seems, is because the selling interface is really pretty decent now. What’s really cool, though, is a tool that lets you automatically buy postage – with the correct address already on it – and print it out at home. Given my long-standing hatred of the post office, I really appreciate anything that lets me avoid the place. It’s not a particularly sophisticated tool, I suppose, although it did need eBay, PayPal and the Royal Mail to all work together. In any case, it’s not the sophistication that matters, it’s the result. Well done eBay!

24 hours and 39 minutes

That’s the length of a day on Mars. What you’re thinking is probably, ‘huh, why is it 39 minutes longer than our day?’ But what you should be thinking is, ‘wow, why is it so close to our day?’ The fact is, there’s no reason why it should be close: the day length on Venus is 243 (Earth) days, which is 18 days longer than the time it takes to orbit the sun. I don’t think anyone knows why it’s so close, but it is certainly convenient for anyone who wants to live there.

The Mars Society has a base in the Arctic that is an ‘operational’ simulation of a base on Mars. Long-time readers will know that I spent a couple of weeks at a similar base in Utah a few years ago. Since the base in the Arctic is 75 degrees north, and it’s currently summer, the base is basically in eternal sunlight. By blacking out the windows at appropriate times, this means that the inhabitants of the base can effectively simulate living on Mars time. The question is, will the people at the base be able to cope with their usual routine (e.g. collecting rocks, conducting experiments, etc) without suffering any number of ill effects? And will Mission Support be weirded out by the time on Mars apparently slipping forward by 39 minutes every day? That’s what makes this (apparently unprecedented) experiment so interesting, and I’ll be waiting to see the results.

Rock Band

While writing this post, Firefox suffered a bizarre semi-crash that stopped it from talking to the Internet and then lost everything I’d written. Let me just say that while I love Firefox, it clearly has some real issues. To calm myself down, here’s a video of Rock Band, the spiritual successor to Guitar Hero:

Say what you like, but one thing’s clear: those guys are rocking out. So come Christmas, when the games released, I’ll definitely be buying it. Along with a 360 or PS3 – whichever has the least rubbish lineup by then…

Ares Express 3

Ares Express Issue 3 is now online – this week’s issue covers a talk I’m giving to the Oxford University Society Society in a fortnight, in addition to a selection of the best threads from the New Mars forums and interesting Mars news from around the Internet.

Fourth Rock

Instead of watching the Superbowl last night, I ended up catching A Life Less Ordinary, which was assuredly a better experience than seeing American Football and Janet Jackson. It’s a much more quirky comedy than I thought it would be, and could in some ways be seen as a proto-Moulin Rouge; it even has a dance number compete with bizarre and unreal imagery! It also brings up the number of singing Ewan MacGregor films that I’ve seen up to three (Moulin Rouge and Down With Love being the other two). Time will only tell if Obi Wan Kenobi breaks out into song in the next Star Wars movie.

In other news, Scarlett Johansson has become a topic of contention in our kitchen. Previously, Julia Stiles was the undisputed winner of our ongoing ‘most attractive girl’ competition (voted for by both men and women), for her sterling performance in Ten Things I Hate About You and her generally acerbic yet intelligent outlook on life. Comments such as ‘probably a demon in the sack’ were heard at the last vote. The arrival of Lost In Translation has changed all of this now – I’ve defected to the Scarlett Johansson camp and am trying to convert the waverers, who at the very least agree that Scarlett is definite contender for the throne, if not actually in pole position.

Finally, Oliver Morton (writer for Science and Wired) has a well-hidden weblog called MainlyMartian that has some interesting insights onto the current Mars missions and the fate of Beagle 2 in particular. Definitely worth checking out for its insider view.

Ares Express Issue 1

Ares Express – I’ve just finished writing the first issue of a new weekly newsletter at New Mars that will highlight the best threads and discussion in the forums, as well as links to Mars news across the Internet. I’m hoping that the bulk of subsequent issues will consist of submissions from forum members.

Renewed Mars

I’d be quite surprised if readers of this weblog didn’t know about my assorted Mars adventures both on and off the web, but it’s been a while since I’ve talked about them so here’s an update about New Mars, one of my longest running projects. The New Mars forums have, as I predicted a few years ago, completely outgrown its parent New Mars magazine (which is terribly, terribly neglected by me) and matured into a bustling web community of intelligent and thoughtful posters.

There have been mishaps since I took over the reins of the site three years ago, and there have been arguments and trolls and bannings on the forums. Yet the forums are still going strong and with the current upswing in Mars activities – namely the NASA Spirit and Opportunity rovers – we’ve had a surge in traffic with dozens of new members not just signing up but participating, and a flood of posts. Right now, we have over 600 members and 25,000 posts. It’s hardly a huge community by the standards of other sites, but it’s a community nonetheless and probably the best place on the web to find serious Mars discussion of any kind.

So, I’d like to salute the forums and all those that dwell within them, for creating such a wonderful new community from scratch, and doing it almost entirely without my assistance! Huzzah!

KSR is Missing

Artists and the Red Planet – It seems scarcely possible, but BBC News Online has written an article about Mars novels and films, and managed to leave out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. This is not a trifling omission; KSR’s trilogy is unchallenged as being the best and most important modern fiction about Mars. And yet they still included ‘Mission to Mars’ and ‘Mars Attacks’?

Who wants the Gobi Desert?

Bruce Sterling, SF writer, has pointed out that the Gobi Desert is far more hospitable than Mars, so before we ever settle Mars we’ll have settled the Gobi Desert (i.e. not any time soon). He also points out that by the time we have the ability to terraform Mars, we’ll be doing much more interesting things.

Sterling is missing the point here. People don’t want to settle Mars just because it happens to exist, they want to settle it because it happens to be very interesting. The Gobi Desert is not that interesting and it does not require settlement to find out whatever little that is interesting about it. However, Mars is a giant world-sized sandbox of possibilities that could tell us about the origin of the solar system, the formation of planets and perhaps life in the universe. There is no more closer or easily-reached place than Mars for finding those things out. Robots and other kinds of unmanned exploration can find out a lot from Mars, but scientists are agreed that humans beat the pants off robots when it comes to science and discovery, and that they will probably continue to do so for the next few decades.

Given that we may want to explore Mars and that using humans may be a very good way to do it, a permanent human settlement makes sense where the settlement of the Gobi Desert does not. The terraformation and material exploitation of Mars, however, is a completely different issue.

The Road to Mars is Paved with Money

I haven’t been following the Beagle 2 Mars Mission anywhere near as much as I ‘ought’ to be, but I loved this quote from the lead scientist of the project, Colin Pillinger.

Interviewer: What happens if you find life on Mars?
Prof. Colin Pillinger: I’ll find it a lot easier to get funding for the next mission

Spoken like a true scientist.


Tonight I saw the planet Mars with my own eyes.

We’ve all been hearing that Mars is as close as it will be to Earth for the next sixty thousand years. Unfortunately, since I live in the UK I haven’t really had the opportunity to look for Mars since our skies have been swathed in cloud for the past week. This evening, though, I noticed that the skies were very clear and began to scan them occasionally. A few hours later, I pointed to a chip of bright light in the south that almost seemed as big as a disc and said to my friends, “That’s got to be Mars.” There wasn’t anything brighter in the sky.

When I got back about an hour ago, I decided that I wanted to look at Mars through my telescope. I’ve never been a particularly diligent astronomer – to be honest, I’m just not that interested in it. So I’m forced to say that the lovely Bausch and Lomb reflector telescope that I won five years ago from the Mars Society was a bit wasted on me. Nevertheless, when it arrived from America and I put it up on the first clear night that came, I managed to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, all in one night, by the simple (and simple-minded) expedient of pointing it at interesting-looking bright points of light.

Of course this is no way to use a telescope; what I should have done is lined it up on the pole star, gotten a star chart out and actually figured out what the telescope’s various lenses did.

I’m embarrased to say that I haven’t gotten any better at all in the five years since, so tonight I just got the telescope out, lined it up on Mars using the little finderscope and spent about ten minutes fiddling about with the fine grain controls, swapping lenses in and out and the messing about with the focus. While I was futilely scanning around, I noticed a bright patch of light at the top of the viewfinder. I immediately looked towards it and brought it into focus.

It was Mars, and I could see it as a bright and clearly defined disc. It was a tiny disc, but it was still there. After pausing for a couple of minutes just to savour the moment and think that I was finally seeing it with my own eyes, I swapped in a 7mm lense to up the magnification – and yes, it became a slightly larger disc. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I convinced myself that I could just about see the poles; there was an almost imperceptibly subtle difference in the shading on the disc.

I stood there, stooped over the viewfinder, and I thought for a moment that I could reach out and touch the planet. I thought, What I would give to walk on there for a just a few minutes. And then eventually I carefully packed away the lenses, collapsed the tripod and carried the telescope back inside.

It’s easy to look at the photos of Mars on the Internet and in the newspapers and wonder what the point is of staying up at night in the cold and peering through a telescope to see an image that isn’t anywhere near as big or colourful or clear. I know, because that’s what I thought yesterday.

But the sensation of seeing another planet with your own eyes, a planet that could have someone walking on it within your lifetime, a planet that’s big enough to hold a million dreams – it’s not something that you can get by looking at a piece of paper or a computer monitor. It conjured up the same feeling I had when I first saw the Milky Way, that the universe is impossibly vast and beautiful and bursting with things to see, that we as a species have the wonderful opportunity to explore. There’s an awful lot to see out there.