Let me tell you about my day


Red Mars

I’ve just finished reading Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Again.

It’s one of my favourite books and I’ve read it a couple of times already, the first time when I was probably only 14-15.

It wasn’t until now that I realised what an effect it has had on me.

If you’ve never read it, or never heard of it, I couldn’t recommend it more. Even if you’re not so into sci-fi, I would think you would find something you like about it.

Red Mars, the first part of the Mars Trilogy describes humanity’s colonisation of the Mars. It delves into the political, economic, scientific and personal ramifications of doing so. And I now realise that it’s what made me who I am today.

I remember, I know, that reading Mars, by Ben Bova, is what started my decade long (so far) obsession with the red planet. That definitely came before. But the Bova book is… lighter, ‘pulpier’ than Robinson’s. It only really describes going to Mars–apart from the slightly silly revelation at the end, it is more of an adventure story set on Mars than a story about Mars. The characters are simpler. The situations less complex.

I not aim to criticise – I re-read the book recently with no regrets, and enjoyed the latest sequel, Mars Life, but I understand what the book is.

It is not Red Mars.

On my latest reading I realised that Red Mars is me. It is, in fact, nearly everything about me. It is my dreams, my ambitions. It is my political and economic beliefs. It is the science I love, all of it, and it is the exact combination of science and life that I so desire.

I have often wondered where a lot of this came from. It didn’t come from my parents, or any of my friends, because I share almost none of it with them. Now some of that mystery is answered.

I am Sax. I am Ann. I am Nadia. I am Arkady. I am John. All these people are me, to some extent.

I could go on, at length, until nobody could not be bored. It makes me wonder how much of these people are a part of Robinson himself, and how much are fictional, probably based on people he knows. But the fact that I can map so much of who I am onto this one book.

The other books in the Trilogy, as well as the miscellaneous collection volume The Martians are all in my reading queue, so I will no doubt write more about them.


A little taster…

Of what’s happening with my I’m A Scientist Money…

Terrible photo, I know. Soz.

Hey, I AM a scientist!

(This is a long post. Forgive me.)

I’m a Scientist is over.

The results haven’t been announced yet, but we have no more live chats, we’re unlikely to get any more questions, and who knows how many kids will vote at this point in the week?

It’s been emotional. It’s been fun. It’s been frustrating, interesting, mouth openingly astounding, downright odd, amusing and insane in almost equal measure. I’ve met (as much as you can really meet people on the internet) some awesome people, stolen some of their ideas, and maybe opened up some new ideas and projects.

I was genuinely surprised by how much fun being bombarded with questions constantly for two weeks could be.

In the end though, it’s those questions that were the best bits. So I thought I would collect some of the best ones here.

There were amazing questions…


Questions that were so simple that only a kid could think of but were actually the most insightful…

questions that made us think…

topical questions…

questions that made me feel ridiculously unintelligent…

some more personal questions, which was really the whole point of I’m a Scientist in the first place, I think…

some interesting themes…

but by far my favourite bits were where our answers, either to the offline questions or the live chats, inspired further questions, opening up a dialogue with the kids, something that I think the format of I’m a Scientist really lacks, and really made me feel like what I said was getting through

I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow, when I have no questions to answer. Maybe I’ll just start spouting random facts to my friends and strangers I meet. Maybe I’ll find another outlet for this enthusiasm that I want to get out. No matter what, I’ll miss you, I’m a Scientist. Sniff.

Weekend diversion: I for one bow to our animal overlords

I saw a crow today, battling with a large stick. It was about three times as long as the crow, and probably weighed about half what the crow did. I stood for maybe five minutes, watching as the crow carefully balanced the stick in its beak, taking its time, moving it around, flying from the ground, first, to a low branch and eventually to the near top of a spindly tree. It was a struggle, or must have been, the bird straining to lift each time, but have what looked to be a gentle touch the whole way through.

It perplexed me. I could see no reason for the crow to want such a big branch. It would be no good for a nest, unless it was a contender for structural support in some kind of crow mansion. In the end, it seemed that there was no reason for the crow to want it–it dropped it, stood for a little while, then flew off.

The episode reminded me of a TED talk I saw a while ago. All the time I was watching, I saw a kind of intelligence underlying what the crow was doing. I didn’t understand it, but could see that at least it knew what it was doing.

The TED talk was all about just this–the unnervingly high intelligence of crows. They adapt quickly, learn to use tools. They learn from each other. Not only do they do all this, but they seem to be getting better at it, and they’re getting better because of us. This is slightly scary.

One of my favourite animals is the octopus. A while ago I read this article, which details the amazing mental faculties of these fascinating animals. I’ve played with some in my travels underwater, and observed some of their amazing behaviour, including their rock gardens and camouflage. According to the article, they have personalities, play with toys, can solve puzzles and seemingly can possess a sense of humour.

None of this was anything compared to sense of dread that developed after watching killer whales hunting on Frozen Planet. The killers work as a team, employ fairly complex fluid dynamical properties, and play with their prey.

At this point I am starting to fear for my life. If any of these creatures decided to, they could probably do us serious harm. More than that though, we walk around our planet with this strange sense of entitlement because we are (or seem to be) ‘intelligent’. Really though, this idea is challenged more and more regularly, and maybe we shouldn’t be so entitled.

Loving your job

I’m currently throwing myself (fairly weakly, admittedly) at the literature review of my first year report. The part I’m on at the moment is trying to give some background context, by talking about the scientific exploration of Mars. This means I’m getting paid to sit and read about this, something that I have been paying for the privilege of doing for many years, and would happy continue doing so for many years to come.

The other great thing is the reading itself. From a few different sources I’m learning about all the very human stories of these different missions, their failures, their triumphs. It really brings the science aspect down to Earth, especially when I’m sitting round the corner from one of the guys with probably the most human of all those stories.

All of this tied in quite nicely to the fact I’m listening my way through the Life Scientific podcasts. These provide a similar glimpse behind the science curtain to the people behind some really important discoveries. Professor Pillinger was one of the guests, and I heard his episode live, which is what turned me on to the podcast.

I really think that this is something that needs promoting. People like stories and they like stories about people more than just stale science. The problems and issues and fights and triumphs that we all face as scientists are all part of those human stories, and they make science so much more personal.

Another piece of serendipity – on one of the episodes, Professor Colin Blakemore makes a point about his controversial neurological experiments on animals. He says [Paraphrased] “I took my children into the lab. I realised that if I couldn’t explain, couldn’t justify what I was doing to them, then should I really have been doing it?”

A lot of the questions we’ve been getting on I’m a Scientist have been about the more personal aspects of science – were we nerds at school, did we enjoy it, what our days are like, and one I particularly liked, “If you were to find anything on mars what would you do? (jump up and down, laugh, tell the world immediately).” Some of them, though, have required me to think hard about what my research entails, with questions about how it would help people, how it would affect the world and so on being rather prevalent. My answer is definitely getting better.



I seem to have been subject to quite a bit of serendipity recently.

Writing the literature review for my first year report, I was focussing on the martian atmosphere, what we know, how we know it, the processes going on, things like that. In the meantime, in my OU course (S216 Environmental Science) I was reading up on the Earth’s atmosphere, what we know about it… how we know about it… the processes going on… It didn’t really connect at the time, but started to give an unerring feeling when the assignment for that part of the course involved writing about how variable warming affects weather patterns, while I home I started writing an article on climate change about how… small changes can affect our climate.

But it none of these really sunk in until today. I changed tack with the lit review, starting to look at geology in a bit more detail. The papers I was reading were buzzing with the names of rocks – “hydration of periodite”, “primarily basalt and andesic composition”. Most of this would have made very little sense to me, at least, if I hadn’t spent to morning studying the composition of different igneous rocks like periodite, basalt and andesite…

It’s nothing more than happenstance, I suppose, but I think it shows that I’m on the right track.

I’m a Scientist (lordy), Get Me Out Of Here!

I signed up for I’m a Scientist… quite a while ago, not expecting it, like most of my projects, to go anywhere.

But go it did, and started today.

It was an interesting day. I started early, as I wanted to get some studying done before my first live chat. I had already answered a large batch of questions over the weekend, some in between giving diving lectures for USSAC. But none of those, no matter how random or strange, quite prepared me for the chats.

The three half hour sessions couldn’t have been more different.

The first was frenetic, full of spam, kids being stupid or trying to impress their friends (we get no impression of the classroom at the other end of the chat window). But between the dross and repeated entreaties about dubstep were some real gems. I managed to have a couple of (short) discussions about the geopolitical ramifications of the development of atomic weapons and how a society beginning life on a new planet could arrange its political structure.

Just before lunch we talked to a slightly younger group. Their questions were simpler, their spelling worse (on the whole) and it seemed as if they had been primed a bit more–lots of questions about how big/far away planets were.

Finally, hours after they should have been home from school, we talked to an after school club. “For the clever ones” as they put it. All three of them. They showed a remarkable breadth of knowledge and interest. A couple already seemed to have a good idea what they wanted to do at University and asked us the best way to get there.

A strange day, definitely, but fun. The best bits were getting follow ups to questions I had answered or comments I had made in the chats.

I think I’m hooked.