The Rosetta comet probe – alternative designs for the Philae lander

The Philae lander has now left the Rosetta comet-chasing space probe and is heading for a rendezvous with the comet in six hours or so.
Watching television reports about how the probe is designed to land on the comet doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. The three-legged design looks as though it wouldn’t take much to tip it over, and the surface of the comet certainly looks as though it’s littered with numerous trip hazards.
I can’t quite work out why the designers didn’t go for a more terrain-forgiving landing mechanism that had more latitude for error. Obviously there are issues of cost restraints and factors of technical feasibility that I know nothing about, but here are a few suggestions of my own.
Ideas that come to mind are such things as using a harpoon to anchor the craft to the comet before the craft actually touches down, then the craft could reel itself in no matter what the lie of the land. This method would obviously need the material of which the comet is composed to be harpoonable, which may be why the method was rejected. (The craft actually does have anchoring harpoons attached, but these are designed to be deployed after it’s landed, so they are more of a back-up system than a primary device).
Other landing systems that may have been appropriate could involve flexible or cushioning landing mechanisms such as inflated pillows (that deflate on impact), widely splayed, long, articulated legs (much more flexible and articulated than the rather rigid-looking ones that the spacecraft actually has) that buckle on impact to take on the topography of the landing site, or even the astronautical equivalent of long chains with grappling hooks that could fan out around the craft as it comes in to land to snag on any suitable features of the terrain.
In all of these designs the scientific instruments in the probe could be housed in a self-righting capsule to ensure optimum orientation after touchdown. The design of the probe that’s actually going to land in a few hours’ time doesn’t seem to have any system for realigning itself if it lands awkwardly.

Anyway, Philae is due to land soon, so I hope my misgivings prove to be unfounded. I’m sure the landing site that’s been chosen for the probe is the best possible site that’s available, so – fingers crossed!.

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Why Women’s Menstrual Cycles are Linked to the Moon

Are women’s menstrual cycles affected by the moon?
A menstrual cycle does after all span the same amount of time as a lunar cycle. The word menstrual actually means monthly, and a month is based on a lunar cycle (so it should maybe be called a moonth).
Discussion about the subject often revolves around the fact that the moon creates the tides in the oceans, so logic suggests that it probably creates tides in people too, affecting their bodies in interesting ways – and affecting their brains too, such as turning some of them into ‘lunatics’ or ‘lunar-tics’ at the full moon.
This theory falls down due to the fact that the moon’s gravitational pull on objects on the earth is extremely small. It only affects the oceans to the extent that it does because there’s a lot of ocean to affect – so you notice the effect at the edge as the water goes up and down the beech. You don’t notice the tide in a puddle on the pavement after a shower of rain (and the puddle definitely doesn’t travel several metres as a single entity across the ground following the pull of the moon, covering the same distance as is covered by the tide on a beech). In fact the gravitational pull of a tree outside your house is much greater than the pull of the moon, so the pull of the moon is effectively swamped by everyday objects here on earth.
If the moon does have an influence on menstrual cycles I think that the reason is probably quite prosaic – it’s to do with the brightness of moonlight.
Why would the brightness of the moon affect menstrual cycles?
Because it affects what people in the days before the invention of artificial light could do at night.
The full moon lights up the night sky quite significantly (and conversely, the new moon results in ink black nights on which you can’t see your hand in front of your face). When there was a full moon people could move around at night; when there was no moon they couldn’t (or at least could only do so with much more difficulty). In our modern world we can easily forget this fact, but in the world before artificial light it had a huge impact on after-dark activity.
There are probably numerous scenarios that can by posited in which moonlight and the resulting nght-time activity of humans could play a part in influencing menstrual cycles – here’s one that I’ve devised (as I’m sure have others).

Primitive humans used to live in small family groups, often in competition over territory with neighbouring groups.
Within any particular group it would be common for males and females to mate. Unfortunately, because the member of the group were almost definitely related to each other one of the consequences of mating within the group would be in-breeding, with the resulting degeneration of the genetic stock. Ideally it’s best to mate with someone who isn’t a particularly close relative in order to ensure robustness in offspring due to genetic variation.
It would be preferable for a female in a group to mate with a male from a neighbouring group (even though the members of the two groups would probably all be related to each other to some degree, but not as closely as within each individual group). Unfortunately mating with a neighbour would probably be difficult due to the fact that the groups were in competition for land and resources to the extent that when the groups met the result would be conflict.
The only way in which a female from one group could mate with a male from a different group would be if they were to meet away from the gaze of other group members, and that would probably never happen while the members of the groups were wandering around during daylight hours when it was easy for them to keep an eye on each other.
Meetings between males and females from neighbouring groups were much more likely at night, when it was harder for group members to see what other group members were doing. Not only that, but meetings were much more likely on moonlit nights, when nocturnal activity was at its height.
As a result, females would be much more likely to bear offspring from members of neighbouring groups
following meetings on those moonlit nights.
How would this make women’s menstrual cycles synchronise with the phases of the moon?

In order for a liaison to bare offspring the female has to be fertile at the time of mating. As a liaison between a female and a male from different groups is more likely at the time of the full moon it follows that for such a liaison to bare offspring the female would have to be fertile at the time of the full moon.
The offspring of liaisons between members of neighbouring groups would, on average, tend to be more robust that the offspring of liaisons between members of the same group, and would thus be more likely to grow to adulthood and breed themselves. Thus the characteristics of females who are fertile at the time of the full moon would be more likely to survive into future generations – with one of these characteristics would be the tendency to be fertile at the time of the full moon.

Not only is it advantageous for a female to be fertile at the time of the full moon, it’s equally important for the female to not be fertile at other times of the lunar cycle, when she’s much more likely to mate with members of her own, related group. So, for instance, it would be a disadvantage to be fertile twice during the lunar cycle (especially as, for one of the fertile periods to coincide with the full moon the second fertile period would probably coincide with the new moon, when the sky is at its darkest and mating between members of the same group would be most likely).

I have to impress that I’m not suggesting that the appearance of the full moon in the sky would make the members of different groups actively go out and seek members of other groups to mate with (but equally I’m not saying that that wouldn’t be the case). All I’m saying is that the time of the full moon would be the time when members of different groups mated and thus had offspring who were more robust than the more inbred offspring of mating within the same group. The process involved is simply evolution at work. No special lunar powers are evoked or involved. It’s all to do with the slight advantages of genetic robustness brought about by the production of offspring from the larger gene pool that is available at the time of the full moon.

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Are we alone in the galaxy? Brian Cox thinks so.

Is there anyone out there?
Are there other stars than the Sun in the galaxy that are orbited by planets that support intelligent life?
Brian Cox doesn’t think so.
In his BBC tv series on the human race’s place in the universe – Human Universe – he gives his reasons.
I’m not sure that I agree with him, but here’s his thinking.
In the 1940s Hungarian/American mathematician John von Neumann came up with the concept of self replicating machines (which he called universal constructors) – machines that could reproduce themselves. (Having just stated that von Neumann came up with the concept I’d like to qualify that statement with the observation that most concepts are thought up independently by several people, it’s just that only one of them usually gets the credit).
If such machines were to be launched into space they could land on asteroids, planets etc and mine the mineral resources there, using the minerals to construct replicants of themselves. By a process of asteroid/planet hopping they could thus multiply and spread out through the galaxy. It’s estimated that by such a process the whole galaxy could be colonised in ten million years.
If an intelligent alien race had at some point over ten million years ago (that is, for most of the history of the galaxy) decided to create such machines they’d have spread throughout the galaxy by now and we’d be able to see evidence of their existence.
But we can’t, so they didn’t.
This, according to Brian Cox, is the clincher when it comes to deciding whether advanced, space-going civilisations have existed before. He thinks that because the concept of self-replicating galaxy-colonising machines constructed by advanced alien civilisations is possible in principle we have to construct an argument for why we don’t see them – and he can’t think of any such argument.
He concludes that therefore it’s probable that there never have been advanced space-going civilisations in the galaxy up until now – until we came along.
Personally, I’m slightly uncomfortable with the reasoning here. The lack of evidence of self-replicating alien technology in our vicinity seems like a rather tenuous reason to dismiss the concept of intelligent alien life-forms.

In the tv programme Brian Cox stated that he couldn’t think of any reasons why where wouldn’t be evidence of alien self-replicating machinery, so I assume that he’s weighed up the arguments and has dismissed the ones that give reasons why advanced civilisation may exist and yet may not send out self-replicating machines. Unfortunately he didn’t give us any examples, which is a shame.
I can think of a few off the top of my head. They’re probably all flawed, but here are three of them.
Reason one: advanced alien intelligences have existed that are capable of making self-replicating galaxy-colonising machines, but they decided not to. They may have realised that a galaxy that was full of their machines, self-replicating endlessly – long after the civilisation itself had died out – was not a good idea. They’d probably have tried prototype self-replicating machines on their home planet first, with either inconvenient or dire consequences.
Reason two: the advanced alien lifeforms just weren’t interested in galactic colonisation, for either psychological or practical reasons.
Reason three: self-replicating machines have indeed spread throughout the galaxy, but the machines are hidden from our perception so that they don’t disturb us.

The whole television programme was about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe (and was actually subtitled “Are We Alone?”), culminating in a discussion about intelligent alien life, so to dismiss the possibility of alien intelligent life on the basis of ‘no self-replicating machines’ without giving his reasons seems a bit lax.
Maybe he thought that the audience for such a programme wouldn’t be interested in arguments that were made in order to be dismissed, or maybe he just ran out of time (Time that could have been found, may I suggest, by cutting the silly sequence in which school children lined up with coloured lanterns to depict, very badly, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram perhaps. Anyone who could make sense of that sequence probably already knew what the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram was).

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Driverless cars – and how they may affect society

Travelling into the Future with No-one at the Wheel

Self-driving cars.
They’ll be fantastic.
It’ll be like everyone having their very own personal chauffeur, but one who doesn’t take up a whole seat and who doesn’t need to be chatted to or otherwise recognised as a human being who is inconveniently sharing the same intimate space as oneself.
The Jeremiahs amongst us may argue that such cars will keep crashing, that they’ll squash migrating frogs (which are already threatened with decimation by fungus) or that they’ll be used as suicide-driverless bombs, however the optimists among us know that technology will be able to take care of all of those things, so there’s no need to fret.
With driverless cars no one will need to pass a driving test anymore and everyone will be able to travel regardless of age or ability; children will be able to do the school run without having to take their fractious parents along with them; grown-ups will be able to go to the pub without having to draw lots to choose a designated driver; old people will be able to remain mobile well beyond the age where they would otherwise have to hang up their car keys. Everyone will be able to go wherever they want, whenever they want, simply by speaking a destination into the vehicle’s navigation system.
It’ll be a new utopian age of travel. Even better than the last one.
However, you know what utopias can be like.
Don’t imagine for a moment that the switch over to driverless cars will mean that everything stays the same other than the small fact that no one needs to actually do any of the driving anymore.
We may find our self-driving vehicles propelling us into a future that isn’t quite the one that we had in mind.
We need to navigate with caution.

self-driving car cartoon

The first, and possibly most predictable, change that driverless cars may usher in (other than the need for no driver of course) could be a sudden leap in commuting distances. People would be able to eat their breakfast on the journey to work and to catch up on their all-important social media interactions on the way home, all from the cosy bubble of personal space that is their self-driven vehicle.
The resulting extended commuting distances may entail more than a simple expanding of the commuter belts around our urban centres though – it may involve a mass migration of the population from the cities to the countryside. The ensuing rural building blight may be hideous to behold as houses sprout on former farmland (I say former farmland because we’ll probably be getting most of our food from Peru and Kenya by then, no doubt delivered to our shores and stores by self-navigating cargo ship and self-driving lorry). The concomitant blight on the cities due to the abandoned urban housing stock may ensure that, Detroit style, everyone but the most deprived of citizens feels compelled to up sticks and move countryward, whether they want to or not. If the value of city properties drops at the same time that those in the countryside rise, people may rationalise that they have little choice but to decamp to the country while they can still afford to.

The paradigm shifts brought about by driverless cars won’t only come in the form of major population shifts though, there’ll be massive cultural shifts too.
For instance, people may stop socialising locally and instead may socialise nationally (or even internationally).
This may be the antidote to the current epidemic of screen-only socialising, so in some ways it may be welcomed.
People may happily jump into an autonomous vehicle and travel huge distances of an evening in order to visit their friends or family. As long as people don’t spend more time in the car than they normally spend staring at digital devices they’ll still be in credit time-wise. As if that’d matter anyway.
In my youth (the 1970s) fun-loving people such as myself would be prepared to drive maybe a hundred miles or so to go to a friend’s party. But it’d be a major expedition – usually involving a mechanical breakdown while attempting to cross the Pennines in an overloaded Mini (version 1.1) – so we’d have to make a weekend of it. With driverless cars it’ll be possible to travel to parties at the other end of the country, and then to sleep off the hangover on the journey home before repeating the activity the following night. Hey! – why not just continue the party in the car?

This may not be too bad a thing if people just go round to other people’s houses for their personal interactions, but I can’t imagine that it’d stop there.
“Let’s meet at Stonehenge.”
Can you imagine it? Practically no tourist attraction will be spared the tsunami of visitors who will descend on it for birthday parties, hen parties, tea parties. Fortunately, parking the driverless vehicles once the passengers have been decanted won’t be a problem – despite the crowds – as the vehicles will either be hired in a similar way to taxis now, and will thus simply speed off on another journey, or they’ll be privately owned and will be capable of taking themselves off, passengerless, to any convenient parking space within striking distance, where they’ll wait patiently for the phone signal that summons them back to their owners. (When I say ‘phone’ here I’m referring to phones of the future, where the individual components of the phone are probably implanted biotechnically into the appropriate parts of the human body, thus obviating the considerable inconvenience of having to have the phone surgically grafted onto the palm of the hand as I think is the case now.)
The location of a destination will become irrelevant as the investment in effort involved in getting anywhere drops, with the decision about whether to visit a place becoming the result of a whim rather than of a complex analysis of investments, costs and benefits. The result will be that once distance is no impediment to visiting a place, the crowds who are visiting will probably become the impediment. This raises the spectre that because everywhere can be visited, nowhere will be worth visiting.
It wouldn’t be so bad if all of the visitors to a place actually harboured an interest in being there, but unfortunately quite a few of them will be there solely because being there is what people do. In many a historic stately home across the land the paintings lining the walls of the grand hall will be obscured by the hoards of glassy eyed zombies staggering along like an army of the undead in search of the teashop.

There’s an outside chance that island locations may partly escape the constant flow of visitors, as the journeys to them would involve a change of transport systems in order to reach them (at least during the infancy of driverless transport). Stonehenge may be deluged with visitors but the Ring of Brodgar may be spared, for a while at least.
Houses on islands may become extremely desirable places to live due to their isolation from the unceasing flow of whim-driven travellers on the mainland, making island living affordable only to the super rich.

The self-driving vehicle of the future probably won’t be like the car as we know it today of course, with two front seats, three back seats and a boot. It won’t simply be a car with no steering wheel. Not for long anyway.
It’ll conceivably evolve into something more akin to a spacious living capsule, complete with tables and chairs and probably beds. It’ll be like a sort of futuristic motor home, but one that doesn’t leave scratch marks on other vehicles because it’s misjudged its width.
But hang on – once you’ve got a futuristic motor home in which you can endlessly navigate the highways and byways of the world, why not do so? Why not navigate endlessly? Why not sell the house (that you’ve just bought in the country) and buy the luxury self-propelled living pod? Maybe the one with the built-in self-heating hot tub.
Give me one good reason why you wouldn’t want to do that?
Once you’ve got it, it’ll be first stop Stonehenge.

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Would you be eternally grateful if you lived for ever?

I’ve just read a review of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’ve also read a short extract from the book in a newspaper and I’ve listened to a few articles about the book on the radio. I haven’t got time to read the actual book itself though, as life is short and I’m a slow reader (This is relevant to the point of this post, so keep reading).
According to the review of the book (in the Guardian, by Galen Strawson), Harari claims that ‘the leading project of the scientific revolution’ is the Gilgamesh Project: ‘to give humankind eternal life’ or ‘amortality’. I’ve never heard of the Gilgamesh Project myself, however I do know that Gilgamesh was a heroic character from a Mesopotamian epic poem who sought to destroy death (although an internet search for Gilgamesh would have you believe that the name is chiefly associated with a fancy restaurant in Camden, London).
Amortality, if you were wondering, is a sort of immortality-lite. Its definition is that you keep living until you die as the result of extreme violence, catastrophic accident or such-like. This is unlike full-blown immortality with which you get to live for ever no matter what.
Harari apparently isn’t certain of the merits of amortality, and doubts that it would bring much satisfaction to people were they to achieve it.

I think he’s probably correct.
Amortality has a certain superficial appeal – for instance it would give me enough time to actually read Harari’s book rather than simply dipping into reviews and articles about it – however here are a few points that need to be considered before judging it to be desirable.

I won’t spend any time here going into the potentially dire problems associated with actual immortality itself. Suffice to say that if you were burdened with eternal life you wouldn’t be eternally grateful for it. (For more on the down-side of eternal life click here.)

With amortality it’s possible to live more or less for ever as long as you avoid anything that’s going to kill you. This sounds great, as it implies that you could live for several hundreds of years or even thousands of years and then choose to die once you’d become bored with existence. The trouble is that I don’t think it would work quite like that in practice.
It’s hard to tell, because we’re not in the state of amortality ourselves, and if we were I’m sure that our outlooks on the subject would shift somewhat, but I think that in an amortal state, in which death is not necessarily inevitable, the status of death would change radically.
Look at it this way – we mere mortals know of the inevitability of death, so for us it’s mostly a matter of when it comes rather than if it comes. We have to confront the subject of death with a degree of grudging acceptance. If however we were amortal and could in theory avoid death simply by being extremely careful, then death would possibly become a totally different problem – it may even become a worse spectre than it is to we mortals. Death for amortals would cut off their access to immortality. True, people probably wouldn’t opt for true immortality if they really thought about it, but once you’ve got the option it’s probably a hard thing to throw away despite its manifold drawbacks. If you were an amortal, death could be a problem because you’d have so much to lose – all those years stretching into the infinite future. On top of this, the fact that death wouldn’t be inevitable would mean that people may not develop a sense of acceptance about it, so it would be a real threat in a different way than it is for us for whom it’s the natural end point of a finite span.

I’m assuming that if people managed to become amortal it would be due to a mixture of medical and technological innovations. Disease would be conquered and injury and wear-and-tear would be remedied by the use of replacement parts or by some form of bio-technical intervention.
If amortality didn’t include the fixing of injuries (other than truly fatal ones of course, such as those caused by falling into a mincing machine) life would eventually become unbearable due to accumulated handicaps, either large or small. Imagine if you lost an arm in an accident one day, then a hundred years later you lost an eye, then some time after that a leg. Then the other eye, the other arm, the other leg. Everyone would be queueing up next to the mincing machine. In such a case the state of amortality would only exist in theory rather than in practice – lifespan would be self-limiting due to assisted suicide.
It’s easy to imagine that people who lived in such a state would be so pathologically risk averse that there lives would be unbearable.

A world in which all injuries are repairable would be preferable, but that inevitably brings its own problems unfortunately, although perhaps less onerous ones. One of these is the downgrading of non-fatal risk. If all risk of injury (other than fatal injury) becomes nonexistent due to the ease of neutralising the consequences then people’s feelings about risk and aggression would possibly change. There’d be no thrill in minor acts of risk such as driving a car too fast or skiing. Obviously. in our world skiing and driving too fast bring with them the possibility of death, however in the world of the amortals I suspect that great efforts would be made to protect the individual from this fate while conducting those activities, such as by the introduction of bizarre headgear that is guaranteed to protect the brain from terminal crushing.
Any high risk activity in which there was the slightest chance of death despite any interventions or safeguards (such as bizarre headgear) would not be indulged in at all.

If we were to acquire an amortal lifestyle the chances are that we’d need our brains to be rewired somewhat in order for us to cope with the consequences of having a potentially very long lifespan – but then with a rewired brain we probably wouldn’t appreciate the fact that we’d acquired such a lengthy existence. So there’d possibly be little point in the whole exercise in the first place.
We only want an extended lifespan because of the brains that we’ve got now, not because of the brains that we’d have then.

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Pastiche, Parody and Piracy exhibition

Here’s an image of mine that features in an exhibition at the Cob Gallery in Camden, London.
The exhibition, called Pastiche, Parody and Piracy, is about the use of images that allude to images created by other people. It’s on until 5th July 2014.
The exhibition includes the work of some of Britain’s top cartoonists (and me). There’s also art of a non-cartoon nature in the exhibition, so it’s a good mix of the silly and the serious.

This cartoon is about copyright. It’s a stylised version of Mickey Mouse (note the ears), with the nose in the form of a copyright symbol. Walt Disney was famous for stringently enforcing copyright when it came to his cartoon characters. Copyright enforcement is very important, as it’d make life impossible for the creators of images if anyone could simply appropriate them at will, however a total banning of reference to images would make life equally impossible for people who want to make comments to which the images are important (such as in my use of Mickey Mouse here to symbolise copyright enforcement)

a660-copyright-cartoon

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Environment cartoon

environment cartoon

Today brings yet another warning from scientists about the melting polar ice caps due to global warming.
I suspect that people will only start acting to prevent it when coastal cities start being flooded.

To see more of my cartoons about the environment click the cartoon.

By the way, I know that penguins and polar bears live at opposite poles and are never seen together except in cartoons (and maybe zoos). They are together in this cartoon partly for humorous effect and partly to symbolise the global nature of the problem of climate change (and the global nature of its solution).

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