Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

It’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

Jenna Sutela: Mars in a dish

Contemplating nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

The artist Jenna Sutela normally divides her time between London and Helsinki, but she has spent the last four months at London’s Somerset House Studios, thanks to a residency with Google Arts & Culture. Here, she’s been either making a video, learning about computers, teaching artificial intelligences to dream, or mastering Martian. Perhaps all of the above. It depends who you speak to.

The artists Google invites to explore the potentials of its machine learning systems normally wind up in its lab in Paris. This time, however, Google engineer Damien Henry (the co-inventor, incidentally of the Google Cardboard VR headset) has been travelling to London to assist Sutela and her artistic mentor, the Turkish-born data artist Memo Akten, in a project that, the more you learn about it, resembles an alchemical operation more than a work of art.

Here – so far as I understand it – is the recipe.

  1. Take one nineteenth-century French medium, Hélène Smith, who made much of her communications with Martians. (The Surrealists lapped this stuff up: they dubbed her “the muse of automatic writing”.) Make up some phonemes to match her Martian lettering. Speak Martian.
  2. Prepare a dish of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium that we expect would cope rather well with conditions on Mars. Point a camera at it, and direct the video signal through a machine learning system. (Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Atkin has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”)
  3. Lie to your AI. Tell it that your dish of wiggling bacteria is in fact a musical score. Record the music your AI makes as it tries to read the dish. Hide kittens.
  4. Keep lying. Tell it your dish of wiggling bacteria is a text.
  5. – a language.
  6. – a map.
  7. Write down the text. Speak the language. Read the map. Put the whole enterprise into a single twelve-minute video and hang it up in the foyer of London’s Somerset House Studios.

Titled nimiia cétiï and on view in Somerset House Studios until 15 September, Sutela’s video installation is heavy-going at first, but well worth some close scrutiny. Everything you see and hear came from that petri dish: the landscape, the music, the alien script, even its eerily convincing Martian vocalisation. “There is,” Henry tells me with avuncular pride, “absolutely no scientific goal to this project whatsoever.”

The point being that Sutela is one of the first artists, if not the first, to appropriate the rules of machine learning entirely to her own ends. It’s a milestone of sorts. She’s not illustrating an idea, or demonstrating some technical capability. She’s using machine learning like a brush, to conjure up imaginary worlds.

Which is to take nothing away from nimiia cétiï‘s considerable technical achievement. Sutela is forcing her recurrent neural network to over-interpret its little petri dish-shaped world. We’re a long way from inventing a machine that sees pictures in a fire, but these results are certainly suggestive.

«e tesi leca rizini nirnemea riechee sat ze po mizi» as a Martian might say.

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

“I love what I do and I’m really good at it”

martian

No matter how far he runs, Matt Damon cannot escape the attentions of New Scientist

 

Towards the end of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, marooned NASA astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) says goodbye to the habitat that has kept him alive for more than 500 days. As he enters the airlock to leave, he pauses, turns – and there, on a table, is his space helmet. Sourly, he snatches it up: he has nearly gone and killed himself again.

Set about 30 years in the future, The Martian tells the story of how Watney survives at the very cusp of death, at which every trivial error, every moment of forgetfulness, will kill him in about 35 seconds. Jeopardy is the stuff of adventure movies. What makes all this different is its remarkable lack of interest in what jeopardy feels like “inside”, and its loving depiction of how people should deal with it.

Before he shot his last scene at the Korda Filmpark, outside Budapest in Hungary, CultureLab caught up with Damon, who was tasked with conveying what it would be like to survive for 18 months only on potatoes grown in your own faeces. He explained: “Ridley and I agreed The Martian is not one of those existential survival movies. Neither is it just a popcorn kind of whizz-bang, he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience. The key is to have the audience feel the enormity without it seeming ponderous. And it has to be funny, because Watney and his colleagues are capable of doing really dangerous things and having a good sense of humour about them.”

No wonder NASA got behind the film: its tale of the administration’s daring, unsanctioned bid to rescue one of their own gives every department a hero. But where The Martian gets interesting is in its refusal to take heroism at face value. Watney survives because he is smart and knowledgeable, can get by without company and likes the sound of his own voice; and because coming up with a strong, snarky one-liner can make his whole day. He survives because, as he says in a message meant for his parents, “I love what I do and I’m really good at it.”

This distillation of NASA’s philosophy is endorsed by Ellen Ochoa, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who praised Weir’s book for encapsulating aspects of mission training. “It is a very realistic scenario of what we go through when we train crew members and flight controllers, who must quickly analyse a situation and prioritise tasks,” she said. She added that resilience is “probably the single most important characteristic to have as an explorer, and Watney proves to be extraordinarily resilient”.

The film’s whole approach favours accuracy over visual bombast. Less spectacular than Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and a lot less silly than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), The Martian has exploited NASA’s enthusiasm well, conjuring up habitats, spacesuits, spacecraft and launch vehicles that carry its stamp of approval.

Is The Martian a nerd thriller? For sure: you can’t have Damon declaring he will “have to science the shit out of this” and not find yourself moving your biros to your shirt pocket. But it’s more than a love letter to science. It is an entertaining depiction of a way of behaving that keeps people alive in extreme circumstances: love your job; embrace the little you can do and do it; like it or not, death is always coming, so to hell with it. This, more than any amount of Mars-mission razz, is the real heart of The Martian, the source of its optimism, and a quality deserving of praise.

Of Martians and machines

1908: The Island (work in progress)

Thought arises, not from matter, but from the way it is organised. Alexander Bogdanov, science fiction pioneer, philosopher, physician, Lenin’s friend and rival, explored the idea of automating society. The West calls this cybernetics and it fuels consumer culture. But in the Soviet Union, Bogdanov’s philosophy was discredited and suppressed. On Tuesday 18 December at 7.30pm I’ll be asking why the Soviets abandoned their early dreams of automating Man.

The talk’s at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA, and you can find more details here.