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Space School UK: A knob on the end

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Changing the world

As I write this review of Space School, I am gradually losing my memory of what actually happened in reality. It's about three days after I got back, and I can't remember much at all. So bear with me.

I can't remember much at all about Mark Williamson's two talks, but I'm sure they were wonderful. The Astronomy practical wasn't bad, although the two grad students weren't exactly the best of speakers. Mind you, the practical bit was good.

You know how it goes. There were a series of teams who had to determine the types of galaxy shown on a bit of film (ellipse, spiral, spiral bar, etc.) My team actually took the whole thing very seriously and I thought that we were doing pretty well.

And consequently, we lost. Badly. We hadn't filled in most of the answers because we spent too much time discussing exactly whether we thought this bit of smudge was in fact a halo or just a smudge. That meant that we had to guess most of the answers (and I think our guesses got us the most points, at that).

It was pretty close. The DRACO team pulled off a magnificent manoeuvre, going from last to the top three, although I'm fairly certain that they guessed their points as well. It's just that they guessed better than us. Who did win? A group of girls, I think. They'll be after my job next, I tell you now <grumble grumble>. What's the world coming to, eh?

Aha. Possible the best lecture of the entire week was given by Dr. Jack Cohen, about ET and Evolution. I'd heard of this guy before, he invents realistic (well, as realistic as you can get) aliens for science fiction authors - like the 'thread' for the the Pern universe. I knew that he was a great guy, because he'd brought along his wizard's staff. So there he is, bumbling around, setting up all his stuff, then when some people are still filling in and talking, he holds it up and says 'Why is this a wizard's staff?'

Well. It's an easy answer. 'Because its got a knob on the end!' I cried out. Unsurprisingly, this caused a number of people to give me strange looks. But it was right.

Why was it right? Let me give you a few lines from the 'Wizard's staff' song by Terry Pratchett. I believe it goes:

A wizard's staff has got a knob on the end, knob on the end, knob on the end...

...'tis big and round, and weighs five to the pound

And that's all I can remember, offhand. Haven't been reading much Terry Pratchett lately.

But, yes, he gave a very good lecture. I'm just wondering how much we paid him. It was by far the funniest, anyway.

Project Cygnus wasn't too bad. By a stroke of luck, we were given a kit rocket, which had a viciously sharp spiked cone at the end, instead of the rounded version most people had. More about that later. Instead of messing about with extra payload sections, the Sakigake team went for the simplest solution (which, alas, worked, but not fully). We just cut the payload section into two bits, stuffed a parachute up it, and made a small elastic band-tab solution upon which our entire glider and parachute mechanism depended upon. NASA we ain't.

Ah yes, the Dr. Gillian Pearce lectures. Apparently, according to Dennis (an organiser bloke), they were 'some of the most popular lectures we have during Space School.'

Well, Dennis, you could've fooled me. The topics of Supernovae and the Sun are pretty good for a talk. The problem is, Gillian Pearce wasn't a very good lecturer - much of what she did outlined the various fusion reactions within the sun's core, neutrinos and so on. Most of that 'whooshed' over people's heads, and even if I did understand it (which I did, sort of), it wouldn't have made any difference because, you see, I couldn't give an arse about it.

Aye, and there's the rub. I'm not saying that she's a crap lecturer. Okay. I am. But I'm not saying that she's crap, because when a number of us went up to ask her a few questions about sun related matters (mine, I recall, was whether it would be possible to use a Sundiver-esque vehicle that refrigerates itself by sending out a 'cooling laser' to explore the sun, as featured in David Brin's Sundiver novel). And she answered those questions very well. Which was a shame, because most people left that lecture hall with very bad (or good, since they were asleep) memories of her lectures.

What happened next? Not much, really, apart from the Unfortunate Incident involving Italians which most people who went to Space School probably know about. Needless to say, Sabah (or SAB-AHHH as most people pronounced it) went into a righteous fury and kicked ass.


5/9/99: During the Space School Cornwall Eclipse trip I learned from Tak that during the Unfortunate Incident, there was a huge, massive misunderstanding involving me. I, in all innocence, accompanied a girl to the 'common room' (it hardly merits the name) at night, to get her room keys. We both went into the common room, she got her keys, and we left.

Now, according to Tak, after we left the residents of the common room raised various eyebrows at each other in knowing ways and said 'I wonder what they're up to.' For the interests of posterity, I must iterate that I was merely accompanying this girl because she didn't want to go out at night alone. After all, why would an upstanding person such as me attempt to take advantage of a girl? Surely such an accusation is nothing short of insanity? (not really, but nothing did happen).


The rest of the evening (or morning, I suppose) was spent arguing with various pessimistic people about we could get to Mars, or open up Earth-orbit for space tourism, space power stations, and so on. I used the opportunity to plug the Mars Society a little.

Since I still have a fair bit of space left on this page, I'll talk about the attitudes of people at Space School concerning Space, of all things.

A large number of people wanted to be astronauts. Normally, I would have a good laugh about that, but I'm not going to beacuse these people were perfectly serious and focused about their ambition, and my hope goes out towards them. I see two paths for those people, for getting into space:

a) They will have to emigrate, if they want a decent chance.

b) They will either go into commercial spaceflight, which I predict will take off within the next decade, or into governmental spaceflight, which isn't exactly big and isn't exactly growing.

So commercial spaceflight it is. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the commercial pilots of spacecraft such as the Roton and Kistler Spaceplane will be experienced airline pilots. There is hope, though, and I don't pretend to know everything. In fact, I'm probably wrong.

A largish proportion wanted to do pure science, like astrophysics, particle physics, etc. I myself used to want to do that, I found it all very interesting, until I realised that there is no money whatsoever in particle physics. That goes for the entire world, not just the UK. It's hard to get a reasonably paid job, and it will remain difficult. Particle physics and astrophysics, like all the other theoretical sciences which don't really have much practical and commercial use in real life will forever remain the underdog.

And of course, there are a lot of naïve people out there. I recall someone saying 'Well, only if someone put a lot of money into particle physics, we could make some amazing discoveries.'

And? So what? Do they make money, because if they don't, you won't be getting any money, sunny jim.

Then there was the other comment. 'When we work out how to make superconducting materials, then loads of money will go into particle physics.' Wrong again. Loads of money will go into making better superconducting materials for the industry. Not much of it will go into pure science research. Sorry, lads, but that's the way of the world.

I hear you ask, 'Well, what the hell do you want to do, oh-so-cynical Adrian Hon.'

Interesting question.

I want to make a difference. So many of my friends want to be lawyers or accountants or doctors. The world needs both, but probably the latter most. But it's just so damned normal, so boring. Yes, they'll all make heaps of money. Will they do anything? Will they make things better, on the whole? Will people remember them? When they are old, will they think 'Yes, I have done what I wanted to do with my life'?

You know that I'm a member of the Mars Society. My outlook is strange. I am very optimistic regarding the humans to Mars mission. There's an interesting quote I know:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

--Margaret Mead

So many people think that we ourselves, just one person, cannot do anything to change the world. That's rubbish. We all have the potential to change the world, for better or worse. The people I know in the Mars Society are devoted to their goal, and they are intelligent and almost fanatical, while also knowing their limits. I have no doubt in my mind that we will succeed.

Why am I so cynical with other things? Because I know that in our present world, perhaps due to education, perhaps due to other things, the vast majority of the world's population are both wilfully ignorant and apathetic. They have no interest in trying to understand the important issues around us, instead being short-sighted and believing anything our tabloids write.

It's easy for me to hate them, because it is these people who force our governments to make useless short-term short-sighted 'voter-friendly' projects. It's not their fault. It's society's fault. And the only way you can change society is by starting again. First we did it with America, and next we'll do it with Mars.


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