2013: My Life

Continuing a practice I established at the end of 2012, here is a chart showing the highs and lows of 2013 for my life!  I created it by giving each day a grade throughout the year and then calculating an average for each month.

my life

Compared to last year this was a real rollercoaster.  Crests appear during February and May, both exam months and both for different reasons – February was extremely stressful while May was extremely boring.  Then a spike in June, as I had fun rehearsing for and performing an awesome play, before falling as I had a somewhat uneventful Summer.  It peaked again significantly when I started university, before becoming quite crazy indeed – I might write a future post explaining these last few months sometime.  I have to say, I prefer it when the chart is a straight, relatively high-up line.  Here’s hoping 2014 is less dramatic!

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Fringe Vlogs

So, I’ve decided to start a vlog!  You can see it at FringeVlogs on Youtube (I only have one video uploaded thus far).

My reason for doing this is that I’m beginning to see how the written format of WordPress isn’t ideally suited to charting interesting things in my life.  It has its place but I think I’ll be more encouraged to observe and be excited by the world around me if I’m carrying a camera around and filming things.

I originally wasn’t planning to start vlogging until I began university (this September – 48 days!) but I thought I’d sneak a bit of home in first.  Please take a look if you have the time.

Gaia: Why Mars is Probably Dead

As a tangent to yesterday’s post (and also because discussing bleak prospects for Mars appears popular), there’s another point in James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth that seems relevant for today.  It’s just been announced that NASA will send another rover to Mars in 2020 to compliment the work of the current Curiosity rover in its search for life.  While Curiosity has been generally examining the environment with its hi-tech equipment to see if it could ever have been fit for life, this new rover would focus on studying the planet’s geology.

When writing the book, it was Lovelock’s view that the development of life on a planet inevitably acts to terraform that planet to make it even more fit to harbour life – such as how on Earth life has regulated our atmosphere in the last 3 billion years to keep the temperature constant, despite the fact it ought to be lowering.  If Mars has ever had life on it, then this life should have modified the planet to make it more habitable, thereby leading to more life.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mars should still be habitable now if it ever sustained life – some catastrophe could have destroyed the atmosphere, for example – but signs of former life ought to be more obvious.  Certainly, it would suggest with certainty that no life exists now.  In this theory I think it’s still possible that life never developed past basic bacteria before being wiped out, but the chances of such a short lifespan can be considered unlikely.  If this is true then our search for life on Mars is probably in vain.

That’s not to say I don’t think we should be sending rovers to Mars.  Quite the contrary!  There is still so much we can learn from our neighbours whilst developing our own technological capabilities.  I just don’t think we should be getting our hopes up for any big announcements.

Gaia: Shifting of Scientific Consensus

I’ve just finished reading the 1979 book Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth by James Lovelock.  It’s a good read and I’d highly recommend it, even if it may be a bit outdated.  In it, Lovelock sets out a summary of his ‘Gaia’ theory, a theory of the ‘Organic Earth’.  He visualises life across the planet as, although existing in an array of individual life forms, comprising something greater – a bit like how cells and bacteria in our bodies come together to comprise us.  His evidence and conjecture really are fascinating; he uses the improbable stability of the atmosphere as evidence, for instance, with there being an optimal level of oxygen to support life but not so much that there’s a danger of flammability.  This is an easier example to understand how Gaia works: if the oxygen level gets too high then forest fires would begin breaking out, adding carbon dioxide to the air and also limiting oxygen produced by plants.  If it gets too low in favour of carbon dioxide then plants will prosper, thereby creating an increase of oxygen into the air.  He also discusses the implications of human civilisation on Gaia.

I’m interested at the extent to which his ideas have entered the scientific mainstream opinion.  Lovelock clearly wrote Gaia knowing that parts of it would be perceived as a radical new idea, yet, much of it is familiar to things I recall learning at school.  I can’t name any specifics but the general concept of all life on Earth existing in a mutually-dependent relationship is one which seems obvious to me as a result of my education.  Has the consensus changed that much in just 30 years?  There are other things I noticed that have changed, such as successful steps taken to limit the emission of CFCs to save the ozone layer from depletion (a remarkable feat, in retrospect) which was only beginning when Lovelock wrote the book.  It’s now accepted that this action was well-judged and may have saved us from terrible consequences.

One thing which hasn’t changed is the debate over fossil fuels.  Lovelock seems to hold the position that they are not as great a problem as is often claimed (he even considers whether activities on land could ever truly threaten Gaia as long as the oceans are left intact; I disagree, though his example of the destruction Ice Ages cause is convincing).  He is outspoken in his opposition to renewable energy and even seems in favour of using fossil fuels which is, uh, a strange position for an ecologist to take.  To be fair, Lovelock aside, most scientists are in agreement that the use fossil fuels ought to be limited – it’s largely the public which still grasp on to outdated ideas.

Another idea I found fascinating was Lovelock’s speculation on the ‘purpose’ of humanity for Gaia.  Unlike evolution within a species, changes to Gaia don’t seem to necessarily require being advantageous to it so it’s possible that humanity could simply be an ‘accident’, but it’s interesting to speculate nonetheless.  He wondered whether an intelligent species (intelligence defined as having the ability to store information collectively and add to it throughout successive generations) might act as a kind of guardian of Gaia.  He pointed to a hypothetical asteroid collision with Earth, which in normal circumstances would be a catastrophe for life on Earth.  Humanity’s presence, however, through our development of technology might actually be able to stop this threat to Gaia.  It’s certainly a challenge to the accepted view that humans are nothing more than a cancer to the planet – though Lovelock does warn of the dangers human overpopulation might have for Gaia.

Despite being out of date in places and even despite disagreeing with bits of it, Gaia is still a book well worth reading.  You’ll need a basic understanding of chemistry and biology to understand everything but it is generally written in a readable and often quite poetic style.

Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

Related articles:

2012: My Life

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2012: My Life

Here’s a graph showing the ups and downs of my life in 2012.  I calculated it by giving every day a grade and then taking an average for the month.  It’s interesting to see my best month being May, when the exams were. I know which factors caused this chart to take the shape it is – for example, June onwards really should be much higher if some awful things hadn’t happened – but that might be getting too personal for this happy blog. So I’ll leave you with this cloudy window into my life.

Sunday Again (and again)

Four Sundays ago, I began this blog.  Each following Sunday I’ve woken up and thought, “Sunday already?  Where did the week go?”  It’s a valid question.  As I’ve grown older, the pace of time seems to have sped up.  I’m not the first by any means to have noticed this, but it’s terrifying nonetheless.  I remember childhood as this almost eternal state of existence where nothing changed, where a year felt like a year.

A year ago today occurred what you could call our school’s Christmas ‘prom’, which was a rather fascinating experience for me.  Which, unnervingly, did not feel like a year ago.  My life hasn’t changed enough for a year to have passed!  And yet, as soon as I write that, I can see my life has changed in so many ways.

Perhaps part of it is also down to my current chaotic, semi-homeless lifestyle (more on that soon, again!).  This increase in pace of time has been particularly more rapid in the last few months.  Events of a month ago literally feel as if they were only last week.  It’s like I don’t know where my life is going; time is slipping through my fingers.  I’m not sure what could be done to slow it down, to give time some actual meaning once more.  Perhaps slowing time down wouldn’t be desirable.

But not all time is racing ahead.  Some memories do feel in their proper place, such as exam results; it feels as if there was never a time I did not know of these.  Friendships seem to blend well in time – thinking back to before I made certain friends definitely feels like a very long time ago.  So perhaps, rather than my experience of time changing, it’s a phenomena of memory.  If so, I can’t decide whether this means my memory is improving or weakening.

To-morrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.