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What would the first human on Mars say?  The words chosen will echo through history in the same way that Neil Armstrong’s famous line has.  That’s a lot of pressure for whomever is chosen to be the first person on the planet.  They’d better pick something profound!

The BBC has been asking people to contribute on Twitter, using the hashtag #BBCMARS, and in the comments of this article.  Here are some of the best (serious and otherwise):

hum “Mars, the Bringer of War” by Gustav Holst (@oz_penguin)

It was once said ‘a small step for man’ but today we make that giant leap 4 mankind (@welsh_steve25)

once again my dear friends we take a step into the unknown (@SirPhil1983)

‘Well, for this night we will repose us here: /To-morrow toward London back again’ Shakespeare 2H6 II.i. (@Shakes_Today)

Where’s the Mars bar? (@JohnnyReaction)

‘we step beyond the capability of man kind, yet again.’ (@caitlin_ent)

“It’s land, Jim, but not as we know it.” (@eridanus)

Here are my suggestions.  Bonus points for people who recognise the source of inspiration for the first few.

“Quick!  Get the Easy Listening music!”

“Dark is the suede that mows like the harvest.”

“Yesterday, the moon.  Today, Mars.  Tomorrow, the universe!  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”

“Hey, what are all these dead cats doing here?”

And, more seriously,

“That’s just one more step in mankind’s journey to the stars.”

What would you like the first person on Mars to say?  What would you say if it were you?

Have you ever watched a TV show where the main character decides to murder their ex-husband’s daughter’s dog, and been utterly confused as to the reason why?  How about someone who walks up to a complete stranger in the street and kisses them?  How would you like the ability to ask your TV for a summary of the reasons behind it?

That possibility is coming closer.  With all the episodes that are now stored in digital TV recorders (a whole week’s TV plus every episode of the six different series’ you are watching, for example), all we need is the software to analyse them, and it’s here.

StoryVisualizer, created by scientists in France, can analyse the faces, surroundings, and key phrases spoken by the characters in a show and stitch together a summary of the parts of the plot that contain them.  At the moment it’s PC based, but it won’t be long before it’s integrated into TVs – perhaps in combination with a Siri-like command structure (“TV, show me what Jimmy Olsen did which led to him jumping out of the plane without a parachute.”).

I can see it being useful if you’ve had a long break from a show and lost the plot, something which given the lunacy that surrounds TV scheduling these days seems to be ever more common.

Today I bring you an article about whether your biological make-up influences how you vote.

I’m not going to summarise it; if you want to know more you will have to read it yourself.  This is because I have brain-freeze, not from NaNoWriMo, as you might expect in November, but from a two-day course at work run with the aim of learning how to analyse processes to improve them.  It involved simulating a business by doing soldering to make an incomprehensible widget with no purpose, which was good fun, but also an awful lot of brain-numbing analysis and long days.

The planet loomed large in Goldie’s viewscreen.  She zoomed out a little and sat back to study the latest adventure opportunity.  The planet was pretty big, especially compared to the other planets in the system.  She was puzzled – why were the orbits of the others not affected more by this planet?  How did they all manage to survive in the same orbit anyway?  Everything she had ever learnt about astrophysics told her this should not be possible.

Shrugging off the mystery for now, she brought up the sensor analysis of the planet.  The atmosphere was good, mostly oxygen and nitrogen.  A little thicker than she would expect, but nothing too unusual.  There was a smattering of plant matter, mostly small things, but the sensors couldn’t see any animal life.  Half the time the sensors couldn’t pick up animal life when she was over inhabited worlds, though, so that didn’t mean anything.

Idly she wondered when they were going to invent better sensors.  With all the advances they were making in other fields of science she couldn’t understand why sensor technology was so bad.

Well, she wasn’t going to find out anything more about the planet from up here.  She slid along the console to the flight controls and tapped in some commands.  The ship began to descend towards the planet.

When she was still a couple of miles off the surface, Goldie became aware of a strained whine coming from the speakers.  She glanced at the engine logs and noticed that they were straining slightly.  Ever since the 21st century and the advent of the electric car, people had known that engine noise was important.  Originally, it had been so that people noticed the near-silent vehicles, but pretty soon people had realised that the driver got a lot out of it too.  These days, engines made “noise” inside the control room of spaceships to give pilots another way of monitoring what was going on.  Goldie couldn’t remember how many times engine noise had caused her to find a problem that she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

The straining wasn’t too bad, though she would have to have a look at the engines before she tried to take off again.  It was probably just one of the drive pods drifting out of alignment again.

Soon she was setting down on the planet.  There hadn’t been any particular features to aim for on this one, so she was in the midst of a large open savannah.  She would take some samples and have a quick look around.  If none of the plants turned out to be toxic this might make a good planet for a colony.

Pulling on her spacesuit, Goldie checked that the bot was fully loaded with supplies.  Gesturing it to follow her, she stepped into the airlock and touched the controls.  Air began hissing out around her, and she stood briefly in a vacuum before the planet’s air began to fill the chamber.  When the cycle was complete she opened the outer door and stepped through.

As soon as she left the spaceship the artificial gravity fell away and she felt a crushing weight pushing down on her.  She staggered and her vision went a little grey around the edges.  The bot, less at the mercy of whimsical human biological responses, merely shifted its weight to compensate for the new circumstances.  After a moment she was able to stand up straight, but she could tell that she would be tiring quickly and the continued greying of her vision was a problem.

The high gravity worried her.  None of her scans had implied that there would be anything like this level of force at surface level.  The size of the planet meant it should be higher than Earth Standard, yes, but not this high.  She took some readings on her data slate.  4.6 times ES!  No wonder she was having trouble standing up.  She couldn’t stay here very long.  She was already going to have a whopping headache from this.  Considering her options, she gratefully decided to go back inside straight away.  She could send the bot out to get the samples.

Head spinning, she stepped back into the airlock and felt the blood rush back to her head.  Instructing the bot to leave most of its supplies in the airlock, she gave it the sampling kit and sent it with the instructions to walk a hundred metres before taking a sample of the earth and the vegetation.  As soon as it stepped outside of the airlock she started the cycle and was soon making her way back into the comfort of the main cabin.

After she stripped off her spacesuit, she focussed the viewscreen on the bot.  It was making slow but steady progress towards its target, so she decided to spend the time checking over the engines.  She headed out of the main cabin and into the bowels of the ship.  The engine room was right at the back, well away from the main cabin.  The door swished open as she approached and she surveyed the room.  Nothing appeared to be out of place, but the sounds she had heard on the descent were more consistent with small mis-alignments than large problems.  She was going to have to check each component individually.

Sighing, Goldie reached for the toolbox that was strapped to the wall by the door and set to work.

—-

Goldie sat back on her heels with a groan, rubbing the small of her back with one hand.  She had found and corrected two minor problems with the engines, but neither of them were large enough to have caused the pained whining from earlier.  She frowned thoughtfully while she put the tools away.

Back in the main cabin, the bot was standing by the airlock, having stopped there after it returned.  It was still holding the samples it had collected, and Goldie examined them carefully before storing them in the lab for later analysis.  For once, it seemed, the bot had done its task well.

Well, if she couldn’t go outside, there was nothing keeping her here.  Perhaps the next planet would be more hospitable and she could have a true adventure.  Slipping into the command chair, Goldie set a course to leave the atmosphere.

The ship slowly took off – more slowly than normal, she thought, and increased the power from the engines.  That whining was back, too.  She must have missed something when she did the inspection earlier.  Well, she couldn’t fix it while in flight, so it would just have to wait.

The whine increased in volume and when she glanced at the instruments she saw that the ship had slowed down again.  They were barely a mile off the ground, when they should have been ten by now.  Even as she watched the speed dropped another notch.  She boosted the power to the engines.

Now running at full speed, the engines were definitely complaining.  What on earth was going on?  She checked the controls again.  Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a red flashing numeral, and glanced at it.  What?

The gravitational force on the ship was now 10.3 ES and climbing.  How was that possible?  She spared a moment to thank whichever deities were listening that it hadn’t been that high while she was outside, then turned her attention back to the problem at hand.

If the gravity was fluctuating, that could be causing the problems with the engines.  They weren’t built to deal with gravity that was so strong.  She glanced at the gauge.  11.8 ES.

Briefly, she considered going back to the surface and waiting until the gravity went back to normal.  But what if it continued to increase?  The ship’s artificial gravity was only built to withstand 20 ES, and if it died she would be crushed like a bug. There hadn’t been any sign of strain while she was in orbit, so hopefully when she got back there whatever effect this was would stop and she would be free.  She was just going to have to push on.

Overriding some safety alerts, she pushed the engines to 110% of their normal maximum.  When the ship started to gain some height she pushed it further.  120%.  130%.  The whining was becoming louder, and she slammed the mute button.  At this point all it was telling her was that the engines were being pushed past their limits, which she knew.

The ship was, incredibly, slowing again.  She glanced at the gravity monitor and winced.  18.9 ES.  If this didn’t let up soon she was going to have problems.  Worse ones, anyway.  She watched with a kind of sick fascination as it ticked upwards.

Just as it reached 19.7 the ship lurched so much that she felt it, and rocketed away into space.  The gravity monitor was saying zero, and the engines were quickly winding down to normal levels.

Wait.  Zero?

Even in deep space there was always something going on, some star exerting force.  Had the exertions of the planet broken her sensors?

Even as she watched, the monitor went into negative figures and the ship began moving away from the planet.  Eyes wide, Goldie stared in disbelief.

Reaching a swift decision, she cut the engines off and allowed the gravitational forces to push the ship away.  She chuckled slightly when she noticed she was being pushed towards the next planet in the system, one of only two she had yet to explore.

Eyes on the controls, alert for any changes to the gravity waves, Goldie rode the storm towards her next adventure.

Sort of.

It’s not quite “So long and thanks for all the fish”, but this beluga whale has learnt to mimic human speech.  Go on and take a listen.

The whale doesn’t have a firm grasp of sentence structure, phrasing, or even vocab, but the sound patterns he emits are closer to human than beluga in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.

I’m reminded of the dolphins living on Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, which had been transplanted there with the rest of the colonists after humans recognised them as a sentient species and they learnt to speak English.

How long do you think it will be before that happens in reality?

 

Japanese phone users will soon have the option to have their conversations translated as they talk, using the new app from NTT Docomo, one of the country’s mobile networks.  The app provides a translation, both written and spoken, after a short pause.

They aren’t the only ones working on this, either.  France’s Alcatel-Lucent is developing a version for landlines (more tricky because of the lower sound quality), and their ultimate aim is to be able to do conference calls with many people, in many different languages, with each person hearing the conversation in their own language.  They even have a project to make a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one.

This is beginning to sound like an episode of Star Trek.  All we need now is for it to be able to analyse new languages and learn them on the fly, and we’ll be set to go!

Some people are not holding their breath, though.

“These kind of real-time technologies have been ‘two to three years away’ for the past decade,” said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

 It does bring to mind another question, though.  Language learning, so we are told, helps to stave off the effect of Alzheimer’s.  If we invent technologies which eliminate the need to learn new languages, are we contributing to the declining health of the human species?

In addition to that, there is the consideration that speaking to someone in their own language can be seen as a sign of respect.  One which would be lost if everyone had access to Universal Translators.

What do you think?  Is the ability to communicate with anyone more important than the effort involved to do so?

Two things have caught my attention today.

The first is this, an article about the skydiving record attempt that Matt Williams talked about on his blog.  However, in contrast to most mentions of it, this one is about how he smashed the record for most live streaming views on YouTube.  It’s nice that they have their priorities straight.

The second is the attempt by the US Navy to produce a robot that acts like MacGyver.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, as you might expect, the robot will not be able to prevent nuclear explosions using only a shoe lace and a piece of chewing gum, or escape from madmen using duct tape and a false eyeball*.  But stacking boxes to climb and building a functional bridge out of debris are no mean feat for a robot, which will need to both recognise the objects and figure out whether they are strong enough to hold its weight before combining them to create the solution.

 

* I have no idea whether these are actual MacGyver plots or not, but they sound plausible, don’t they?

 

At the moment, I would have to say, New Scientist.  They recently (well, less than a year ago) started a digital magazine called Arc.  It’s produced quarterly and contains a mixture of popular science articles and short stories.

It’s focused on the end of the world.

Issue 1 was “The Future Always Wins”.  Issue 2 was “Post-Human Conditions”.  Issue 3, out now, is “Afterparty Overdrive”.  The world is ending, not in war or disaster, but in party mode.  Smash and grab is an online/real world role-playing game, celebrities are cloned for fun and profit (up to and including Jesus), and more.

The best bit?

For a limited time, they’re giving issue 3 away free.  Go here to grab your copy!  It doesn’t say anywhere how long the limited time is, so I would go now if I were you.

Since they’ve been so generous, I got myself a copy.  It’s going to take a while to read through it all.  So far I’ve read the two stories I mentioned above.

The celebrity-cloning story, Changing Faces, was mediocre.  The imagery of an army of Arnies, or seven Mother Teresa’s with machine guns, was fun, but I felt the story lacked something.  I did like the use of Kim Dotcom as the first human to be bittorrented, though.

Limited Edition, the story about smash and grab, caught my attention because it was set in the city I live in.  I recognised a lot of the places mentioned, and could visualise it really well.  The style was not my favourite (lots of text speak and colloquialisms), but once I got used to it I realised that it was used very well to give a feel for the culture these people live in.  It also had a better plot than Changing Faces.

The popular science articles included read more like the editorial pieces that New Scientist run – heavy on the speculation and light on the actual science – so they are accessible to people who don’t know a lot of higher science.

All in all, a good read, with something for most people in it.

What would it be like to have three parents?  This is a question which may get answered in the not-too-distant future.  Research is underway to fix problems with the mother’s mitochondrial DNA by using donations from a third person.

In normal IVF, the egg and sperm are collected and combined outside of the human body, before being transferred back into the mother.  This procedure, in contrast, takes the nucleus of the mother’s egg and combines it with a donor egg from another woman which has had the nucleus removed.  This is then combined with the sperm.

This means you end up with the DNA of the mother and father, and the mitochondrial DNA of the donor woman.

The scientists say experiments to confirm the safety of the technique may take three to five years to complete, and then there is the ethical debate to consider.  But that is still well within my expected lifetime – possibly even within my reproductive lifetime, although I’m not expecting to need it.

There are a number of potential storylines arising from this.

    • How would you feel if you were told that you had three genetic parents?  A struggle to figure out who you are and where you come from.  Kind of like stories where children discover they are adopted, only with a slight twist.
    • What if there is a trait which is carried in the mitochondrial DNA?  I’m thinking psychic powers, primarily, but it could work for other things.  When a child discovers they have this trait when neither of their parents do, it raises questions which they must strive to answer.
    • This becomes common, but it is later discovered that it has side effects.

“Get in the box.”

Katze hissed and swiped a claw at her human.  Her legs splayed outwards as she tried to make herself too large to fit.

“Katze, really.  It’s only a little box.  You like boxes normally.”  He lifted her away from the box and tried to manoeuvre her back legs into the space.  She hissed again and wriggled free.  Her human dropped her with a muffled oath.

From under the sofa she watched as he examined the scratch on his arm.  It was long and bloody.  Served him right, trying to put her in a box!

Tears were welling in the eyes of the little boy, and Katze felt a little shame.  It was true that normally she liked boxes, so it was only reasonable for Georgie to try to put her in one, and he was only four.  He didn’t know any better.

Today was not the day for it though.

The boy was looking at her again.  He sniffed.  “I don’t understand you, Katze.  If I left you alone you would probably go in the box on your own.  Why won’t you help me with my speriment?”

That, right there, that was why.  Experiment.

The boy’s father, Erwin, had explained enough of his experiments to her over the years that she was well acquainted with the word.  And given the experiment that Erwin had been describing to her yesterday, there was no way she was getting in any box today.

Not while the box was held by a Schrodinger.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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