Mars beckons

It’s now just over a week until I go to Mars – or more accurately, to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station. Things are looking up – the Station took delivery of three new Kawasaki ATVs recently, and when I get there, the hab will have been in use for a month, meaning that a lot of the small maintanence problems should have been sorted out. Qiagen have kindly donated fifty DNA isolation minikits for the simulation, and the commander of the simulation will be taking along the equipment that will allow us to do some gel electrophoresis – serious biological research, in other words.

I haven’t had nearly as much time as I would have liked to plan a research project for the simulation, so what I’ll be doing is more likely to build upon current projects. I’m hoping to correlate the abundance of life found with other factors – light intensity, temperature, moisture, altitude – and also extend upon a psychological study we’re doing about stress, by monitoring the weather, sleep patterns and so on. It promises to be a great trip, and I’ll admit that riding around on an ATV in a spacesuit should be no small amount of fun.


Not many updates recently, alas. I’ve been watching The Princess Bride and reading The Code Book, both of which I heartily recommend. I’ve also been emailing my crew mates for my upcoming mission at the Mars Society Desert Research Station in December and writing content for the MetaFilter wiki. I plan to write a couple of book reviews soon, and I’ve had some ideas brewing around (uh oh) in my head about a three-part essay series looking at the future of psychology, the Internet and gaming.

Christmas on Mars

Today I received an invitation from Space School UK to their ‘Christmas on Mars Reunion Weekend’ (it’s not really Christmas, but mid-December). I went to a Space School UK course several years ago, and it was enormous fun – building rockets, going to lectures, and meeting lots of other teenagers who were interested in space. Somewhat unusually, there were far more girls than boys, which is surprisingly considering that space has not normally been their domain; perhaps this is a sign that the tide is turning.

Anyway, it was a little ironic to receive the invitation considering that I will be spending Christmas* on Mars – or at least, the next best thing. Yesterday I bought my air tickets to fly to Utah in early December, where I’ll be taking part in a Mars Society expedition at their Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). The place really does look like Mars, and much of the expedition will be conducted in full simulation mode, wearing space suits and the like. My role will be crew biologist and psychologist. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t daunted by these tasks, but I think I’ll learn a lot there and be able to do some interesting research.

The expedition will last for two weeks, and it’s part of an ongoing season that aims to explore the kinds of techniques and problems that will face any human mission to Mars – thus, it concentrates more on human factors rather than technology demonstration.

I’m missing quite a lot of good stuff at home by going to Utah; there’s a friend’s 21st birthday party which I was looking forward to, and of course there’s this Space School UK reunion which I certain would’ve gone along to otherwise. But, I think Utah will be worth it.

*again, not really Christmas, but 7th – 22nd December.


In ten minutes, I’m going to be interviewed on a national Japanese radio station about First Words. It’s been a while since I was last interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service) and that time wasn’t live – this time I’ll be live on air, plus it won’t be from an English speaking country. I predict fun and foibles galore.

I’m a bit wary of live interviews – it’s too easy to completely lose it, start talking gibberish and making stuff up; you’d better hope you’re talking to a sympathetic DJ, or else you’re in for a humiliation. I’ve done my homework though – I have several web browsers open with all the information I might need and I have large quantities of water standing by. Hopefully it’ll all go well.

High notes

First Words ended today on a high note with a feature article in a major Australian newspaper. We could’ve kept the competition going on for a few more days and tried for some more publicity, but I felt that it was best to finish the competition and get the results published while we still had some good momentum. It accomplished its purpose and more, by attracting the attention of thousands of people around the world to Mars and also spreading a bit of fun around – there was no point squeezing the idea dry.

So, what now? Well, the competition has to be judged, of course, and luckily I have a few people helping with that considering there are about 3700 entries. All of it will be over in a few days though – we’ll announce the winners, send out a press release and that’ll be that. I’ll have a rest from Mars activities for a few weeks, maybe edit an article or two for New Mars. After that, I’m planning to set up a Mars Wiki which in theory should only take an hour or two. I’m tending towards projects that leverage the ability of other people to do work and create content these days – as you’d expect, they require less work (but more thought in conception) and produce more powerful results.

On Top Of The World

Forget about the Nobel Prizes and throw that article about the Space Shuttle into the bin, because at the time of writing, First Words is the top story on’s news homepage! The competition just broke through the 1000 entry barrier an hour ago, as well.

I should probably say something about starting my new Anatomy A: Research into Neuroscience course today, which is looking extremely promising. Basically, the course has no lectures – only workshops and seminars. There’s a great deal of emphasis on group work and research projects (which you’ve already heard about here). It might sound a little woolly, but I’m convinced that it’s superior to the traditional didactic method of having people talk at you for hours – maybe that’s because I always fall asleep in lectures, but aside from that, I really do believe that a more interactive mode of learning is better in the long run.

I’m slowly getting the hang of MatLab now; the last few days have seen me constructing ever more complicated graphs and programming increasingly sillier things. My current task, which I’m two thirds of the way through, is analysing a set of neural recordings, visualising it in a number of ways and using it to generate simulated neural data which will then be altered in a few more days.

Yes, it’s been a good day…


The interview with the Discovery Channel correspondent went very well; we had a good chat about the competition and related things, and it was nice talking to a journalist who had a clue about space. Hopefully an article should be up on their website sometime tomorrow, and the journalist promised to drop a note to New Scientist about the competition.

I love it (dramatic pause) when a plan comes together.

I’ve just this minute decided to extend the competition for a couple more days, until October 12th. It would be a shame to end it just as it was getting ramped up.

More First Words

I was a little disappointed at the response last week when I launched First Words – it didn’t seem that many people were visiting. If that wasn’t enough, my Slashdot article was turned down (grumble) and that didn’t help my mood. But slowly and surely, the might of the bloggers and the strength of the Internet is ensuring that First Words is spreading its insidious tentacles across the world… mwuhahahaha!

But seriously. I did a search on Google today for first words on Mars and it generated a whole load of websites that are linking to the website. Plus there are all sorts of weird places on the website referrer logs. Plus I’m getting interviewed by a Discovery Channel correspondent today. So I’m in a good mood about all of this.

First Words launch

The First Words competition (where we’re asking people what they think will be the first words on Mars) is about to launch ‘officially’ in under an hour. It’s the product of a lot of thought and work, and it’s nice to see that it’s all pretty much finally done. All the essential functionality is there – it’s not perfect, but it does the job.

So if you’d like to head over, check out the website, maybe even enter it, that’d be wonderful. As for linking to it on your own weblogs, well, I wouldn’t like to be so presumptuous, but of course any linkage would be greatly appreciated.

A potential problem averted

There’s been a bit of a disturbance on the New Mars forums I administrate. In the past two days someone has signed up and made 40 posts, all of which are hostile to space and Mars exploration. People got upset and complained (very politely though). I decided to do a bit of research.

One peculiar thing about this newbie was that he managed to do a huge amount of writing in only two days – too huge. A quick search on Google Groups revealed that he was merely reposting old material that he’d sent to Usenet several years ago. Problem solved.

Here is a copy of my message sent to the newbie. Firm, but fair, I thought. I certainly don’t want to discourage debate on the forums and I don’t mind if people disagree with what people say – we already have a couple of those types of people on the forums – but I do care if people repost old material and don’t seem to be prepared to engage in useful discussion.