Disneyworld Day 5: Kennedy Space Center

  • We booked a trip to Kennedy Space Center today with Gray Line, which looked like the best choice for people staying at Disneyworld who don’t (or in our case, can’t) drive. By and large it worked out pretty well – we got picked up directly from our hotel.
  • Unfortunately, our coach driver provided wholly unwelcome running commentary about the history of Disneyworld, nearby shopping centres, Florida, Orlando, etc. I get that some people appreciate this, but there’s no way to turn it off and it’s pretty loud. To cap it all off, the driver got a speeding ticket on the highway so we had to stop for 15 minutes.
  • Kennedy Space Center is an odd mishmash of historical artefacts from the early days of rocketry plus a heavy dose of NASA and corporate propaganda. Now, I’m a big fan of space exploration but I couldn’t really figure out whether they were more about education or entertainment. None of this detracted from their collection of truly sensational rockets and artefacts though.
  • You can see some decent rockets and Space Shuttles at other museums, but KSC has one thing that they can’t match: an actual working launch complex. Included in entry are frequent bus tours of the launchpads, Vehicle Assembly Building, crawlers, and if you’re lucky, some alligators and falcon nests.

  • Our driver’s very good commentary was accompanied by NASA videos that tried to convince us that their new Space Launch System rocket will be the bee’s knees rather than a billion-dollar-per-launch white elephant that can’t compete against SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy & BFR combo. But the driver was enthusiastic about the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy from a launchpad we drove around, so it’s all good.

Continue reading “Disneyworld Day 5: Kennedy Space Center”

Initial Thoughts on KSR's Aurora

Spoilers abound for the entire plot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy changed my life. I was 14 and reading plenty of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov when I idly flipped through our monthly book club brochure. They usually didn’t have any science fiction, so I was surprised to see an entire page devoted to a book called Red Mars. It was by some author I’d never heard of and therefore of questionable quality, but Arthur C. Clarke himself urged readers to give it their time. “The ultimate in science fiction,” or something similarly unambiguous.

We bought the book – we had to, that’s how book clubs worked – and I fell in love with the idea of colonising Mars. I felt as if Kim Stanley Robinson had demonstrated that not only was it possible, not only was it sublime, but it was absolutely necessary for the project of humanity becoming a fairer, more enlightened people. At an impressionable age, this book made the biggest impression, and was enough to spark my ambition to write an essay, win a competition, travel to a Mars conference in the US on my own, organise youth groups, speak at TED, and so on.

I am not active in the Mars exploration movement, or even the space exploration movement any more. I remain deeply interested, but it became clear to me that the road to Mars would be much longer and much harder than anyone had expected. Even now, even with SpaceX, it feels as if the decades keep ticking up. What once might have happened in 2020 will now happen in 2030, or 2040, or later. And when we get there, what then? Creating a world from scratch is hard, slow work.

Kim Stanley Robinson regrets the effect the Mars trilogy had on people like me. At least, that’s the impression I got from Aurora, a tale of the near-impossibility, and hence near-pointlessness, of creating an Earth-like environment outside of Earth. It’s not his fault; the science has changed since the 90s. We now know that Mars has much less nitrogen than we need for growing plants, and the vast amounts of perchlorates on the surface are a serious hazard to humans. These, and other new obstacles, could lengthen the time to terraform Mars from centuries to millennia, or tens of millennia. Perhaps our technology will advance to meet the challenge, but there’s no question the challenge is herculean.

Yet no-one seems dissuaded by this. In fact, I had never even heard of the nitrogen and perchlorates problem until reading Aurora. It’s as if merely asserting that colonising Mars is an imperative for the survival of humanity suddenly makes it possible. What must happen, will happen.

And why is colonising Mars an imperative? Because, in part, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

So Aurora is a corrective. We follow an attempt to colonisation a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, light years from Earth. In short, it fails. Everything fails. Not the just colonisation of Tau Ceti, but the very starship that took the colonists there as well. All the beautifully designed miniature Earth-like biomes on the starship fail, because that’s what happens to enclosed ecosystems with a wide variety of flora and fauna, all evolving at different rates.

Our colonists do try, though. A engineer/biologist is positively heroic in her efforts to keep the starship running, a rather unusual note in a science fiction novel (although not, to be fair, The Martian); and some colonists are so determined to press on with the project in Tau Ceti that they choose to take the one in ten thousand chance of creating a new world. Those are, of course, terrible odds. Only in a certain kind of story do you win that gamble, and this is not that kind of story.

What kind of story is it, then? An anti-space exploration story? Not really. Robinson describes a solar system full of thriving outposts and colonies, all trading with one and another, and most crucially, with Earth. He talks about the eventual colonisation of Mars – in a few thousand years time. This is not the imagination of someone who wants to smash rockets. In his world, Space exploration is exciting, it’s laudable, it’s inevitable, but it’s not a solution to preserving the future of humanity. And while volunteers will line up to take the riskiest of gambles, it’s not so clear that their children and grandchildren, left on a fragile miniature ecosystem too far from Earth, should have to risk their lives as well. No, the future of humanity is best assured by preserving the future of Earth’s ecosystem.

This kind of talk used to sound like sedition to me, spread by shortsighted fools who’d say, “Why explore space when we have problems on Earth?” It still does, sort of. It may not seem like it, but humanity is wealthier than ever, and I still think we can well afford to explore and travel in space, and to Mars.

The problem is, it’s not just on Mars that the facts have changed, with its nitrogen and perchlorates – it’s Earth as well, with its warming air and rising seas and fraying ecosystem. So I don’t feel unjustified in changing my mind as well about our priorities and how we think about the future of humanity, not after reading Aurora.

It’s been almost twenty years since I first opened Red Mars, but I’m still impressionable – at least, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.


Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

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…

Star formation

Another long-haul flight, another blog post. After I’ve exhausted the in-flight movies, this month’s issues of Scientific American and the New Yorker, listened to one and a half episodes of In Our Time, and even done some work, I’ve had to fall back to the option of last resort – writing a post for this weblog.

There’s something about long distance travel that engenders it to writing diaries or journals. For me, it’s a combination of being forced to spend lots of time thinking about nothing in particular, and soaking up large amounts of varied information from articles, podcasts and observations in general about people and airports.

Airports – now who couldn’t be moved to write a few hundred words about them? They’re an experience that everyone has to suffer once in a while, a shared environment that exists independent of location. Personally, I’ve often thought of airports as being extremely slow teleportation devices, in that you move between two near-identical buildings without any experience of the space in between them. Even the styling of airports resembles teleporters, from the retro ‘2001’ space-age look (60s US airports) to the high-tech space-age look (00s Chinese airports). Unfortunately the analogy falls apart when you spend 90 minutes waiting in immigration at JFK, but otherwise it’s a nice though.

US immigration – surely one of the worst flying experiences ever. No doubt in theory the fingerprinting and photo process shouldn’t take thatlong, but the geniuses in charge of the process forgot two things. One, that the immigration desks would be chronically underfunded and understaffed; and two, that there is a high proportion of fuckwits (and I use the term after some consideration) that pass through airports and slow the entire process down for everyone. Clearly the challenge of filling out a couple of forms and correctly stating your nationality was just too much for a good 75% of people – although the incredibly poorly designed forms didn’t help matters. I found myself wondering whatever had happened to the US free market – why can’t someone set up a few fast-track immigration lanes that you could pay $5 to use? I certainly would’ve stumped up the money to save myself an hour.

I also felt sorry for the US citizens who had to go through immigration. When entering the UK, EU citizens just have to flash their passports and get waved through. I have no idea what happens to US citizens, except that it seems to take about ten times longer. So much for American ingenuity.

One of the In Our Time podcasts I listened to was about galaxies. Normally, In Our Time’s treatment of science is not quite as good as the arts or humanities – I put this down to Melyvn Bragg’s slight disdain for the field, and the sad fact that many scientists just aren’t good communicators. However, this one was pretty good, mainly because there was a charming American scientist on the panel.

One of the interesting facts in the program was to do with the Milky Way’s spiral arms. What with all the ‘photos’ of the Milky Way showing the magnificent spirals (obviously they aren’t photos, since we’re in the Milky Way), you would think that all of the stars are packed into those arms. But apparently, they’re not. The stars in our galaxy are actually formed into a disc, so they’re also present ‘in between’ the arms. The arms themselves are regions of star formation, and because the new stars shine so brightly and light up the gas around them, that’s why the arms outshine the rest of the galaxy.

What’s even more interesting is that the spiral arms do not travel at the same speed of rotation of stars within the galaxy – it’s a bit like the way in which waves in the ocean aren’t composed of water that’s moving sideways, they’re composed of water moving up and down. The arms are also waves – they’re compression waves that roll around the Milky Way, collapsing the clouds of gas that lie in between the stars so that they form new stars. Where do the clouds of gas come from? From the ashes of exploded stars – which are themselves the engine of the compression waves.

*The Earth takes about 250 million years to travel around the galaxy.

The first time I heard this wasn’t from the podcast, it was from Will Wright at GDC this year. Because of a common connection, we happened to be at the same dinner one night and he, as ever, was talking about Spore. I was supposed to be talking about Perplex City and ARGs, which I did with a few folks, but I neglected my duties with Will and instead spent my time learning about spiral arms and swapping ideas about the chirality of amino acids (I think Will was pleased to find someone at the conference who also knew about astrobiology). I remember being absolutely fascinated by the notion of the spiral arms being a natural phenomenon writ impossibly large, like the carbon cycle or tectonics, but on the scale of hundreds of thousands of light years. Something that everyone recognises as being beautiful – the spiral arms of our galaxy – is made even more beautiful by knowing how it works.

I was impressed (although admittedly slightly dubious) by Will’s intention to actually show players in Spore how this worked in an interactive fashion. It’s not as if anyone needs to know the mechanism of star formation in our galaxy, but it’s one of those wonderful, perfect facts that just makes startling sense.

Accelerating Mass

The last couple of episodes of In Our Time on Radio 4 have been particularly good. The first was on Pragmatism, not a topic that I initially had much interest in until I discovered that the philosophy of pragmatism, especially that of Charles Peirce, is rather close to what I support – unsurprising, given that it has large similarities to the scientific method. Peirce’s pragmatism seems to be a very solid middle ground between complete relativism (an accusation leveled at some versions of pragmatism) and the idea that there is some immutable ‘truth’ out there. I feel like reading up more on this subject now…

Last week’s programme covered Gravitons. Again, not a terribly inspiring subject – I went off physics when I was about 13 or 14, and never seriously looked back. Still, the guests were unusually good at explaining the subject (much better than the guys who talked about Asteroids a month ago, at least). There was one explanation I liked in particular:

“There might be an analogy between the production of gravitational waves and the production of electronmagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves – light waves or radio waves – are produced by the acceleration of electrons. If you accelerate an electron, it radiates electromagnetic waves – light. But we know that light can either behave like a wave or like a particle, depending on how you look at it.

“By analogy, accelerating mass can radiate gravitational waves, or perhaps we can think of the gravitational waves in some way of having particle-like properties – gravitons. But the difficulty is, if you want to think of the graviton like a particle, if we can detect gravitational waves, really what we’re detecting is large numbers of gravitons. We won’t see individual gravitons, but it’s kind of equivalent to when you detect radio waves, you don’t detect individual photons, you detect a large number of incoming photons.”

This was by Sheila Rowan, Reader in Physics at Glasgow University, and I thought it was a wonderfully elegant analogy. I assume it’s accurate as well, given that neither of the other physicists there disagreed. It was amusing that throughout the programme, the host kept on referring to Sheila for these sorts of clear explanations of the difficult concepts that were being talked about; to be sure, the other physicists tried to be clear, but they weren’t always successful. I’m looking forward to hearing the final half of the programme on the walk to work tomorrow.

Space Odyssey

When you think of big budget BBC documentaries, Walking with Dinosaurs normally comes up top. While it was a big hit, I wasn’t too fond of it because I didn’t think the CGI looked quite as good as Jurassic Park and hence looked a bit too shiny and unrealistic. However, their latest documentary, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, is very impressive, on par with Apollo 13 in terms of cinematic quality. This is hardly surprising since spaceships are easier to do than dinosaurs, but they still deserve a lot of praise for getting it right.

Space Odyssey is one of those strange beasts, a fake documentary of a real six-year ‘grand tour’ of the solar system, taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter and other planets on the spaceship Pegasus. It works well – I’ve always been of the opinion that in order to get people’s attention, you need to tell a story. You can have all the lush visuals in the world, you can even have poetic dialogue, but there’s something lacking without a sense of drama and personal involvement. Hence Space Odyssey, with its banter between the astronauts and conflicts in mission control, makes the whole production a lot more compelling.

The science can’t be faulted either. The producers have made the wise decision of not trying to cram too many facts in and instead concentrated on the salient points, e.g. Venus is so hot you couldn’t stay there for long, solar flares are really dangerous, the Martian atmosphere is very thin, etc etc. Granted, it is rather unlikely that if you conducted a grand tour of the system you’d spend a little more than the few days on Mars that the crew of the Pegasus did, but to be fair, you have to balance scientific accuracy with the very real chance your audience might fall asleep. Besides, I think there’s a real opportunity to make a big budget fake Mars mission documentary in the future.

My website New Mars has a great interview by Stu Atkinson with the producer of Space Odyssey, Chris Riley, about the show. It’s a good thorough read and goes into much more depth than any other interview you’ll find about the programme.

Fight the good fight

I’ve often wondered what it is I’d like to do in my life. Science, Mars, politics (of the non-traditional sort), education, alternate reality games have all appealed and continue to appeal. But perhaps one of the things I feel most passionately about is intelligent thinking and rational thought – science and the enlightenment, in short. Reading an article at the Columbia Journalism Review about how journalists feel the need to conduct ‘balanced’ reporting of things like creationism and abortion when empirically they are not balanced whatsoever simply makes me furious.

I don’t believe that all ideas and beliefs are equal to each other. I believe that there are such things as facts, and that there are competing positions – like creationism and evolution – that are by no means balanced in terms of factual evidence and theoretical underpinnings. Yet a good proportion of people who’ve had secondary or even university education – even a majority – would not agree, or even care. The notion that a handful (at most) of agenda-motivated scientists who say that smoking is not harmful, or that creationism should be taught alongside evolution, or that the MMR vaccine is not safe, are deserved equal time and consideration as the rest of the entire scientific community, backed by countless peer-reviewed, top-tier studies, is not even laughable. It’s disgusting. It’s even more horrific that most people don’t even give a shit, despite the fact that these issues affect them on a deeply personal level.

The typical and tired response to what I’m saying is, ‘Well, how can you say they’re wrong? No-one believed the Earth was round, etc etc.’ That sort of response is ridiculous. Firstly, science today is not the same as science as it was centuries ago, or even decades ago. Secondly, there is no scientific conspiracy to keep new theories down. In fact, speaking from experience, every scientist would like to be the one that transforms a field and the way we think about things.

I recall seeing a pro-smoking lobbyist on TV recently. When challenged with a new metastudy that showed unequivocally that passive smoking is extremely and significantly harmful to public health, this lobbyist said, ‘This study doesn’t have any new data, it doesn’t mean anything, and there are other studies that show passive smoking isn’t harmful.’ I was literally speechless. Not only does this guy misrepresent what a metastudy is, but he also goes and implies that all studies are equal, and if he has one that says passive smoking is fine – never mind whether it’s flawed or not – well, that means it’s fine. Even worse, I have no doubts that this guy is fully aware that he is misrepresenting the issue.

What I want to do is make people think rationally about these issues. I want them to understand what the scientific method is, what a theory means and what it means to prove something. I want them to think for themselves. And I think I can do it at the same time, and within, my other interests as well.