Moving to Mars

I’m A Martian

I’m a Martian. This might surprise you, as I’m neither green, nor insectoid and have never dug a canal in my life, but I’m a Martian nevertheless – or at least NASA says so.

How To Become a Martian

Register your e-mail address on NASA's Mars Outreach website to be notified of new missions to Mars (see link at the end of the post). 

If you then decide to send your name to Mars, you become an honorary Martian, get your own boarding pass and start earning frequent flyer points. 

You'll be landing on Mars - at least in spirit. 🙂

Truth be told, I haven’t done much about being a Martian in the past three years, apart from watching The Martian (of course!), browsing NASA’s photo gallery and visiting the Planetarium in Greenwich on occasion. Instead of science, that’s mostly just science-fiction.

But today I added a new dimension to my existence as a Martian: I laid in a couch in the prototype of a Martian home. (It was quite difficult to get out of it afterwards but gravity is much lower on Mars, so that should be all right. On Mars, I mean.)

Today, I toyed with the idea of moving to Mars in the Design Museum in London.

Moving to Mars

Mars is there, waiting to be reached.

(Buzz Aldrin: Down to Earth)

A few years ago, NASA actually designed a space craft for just such a mission – straight out of Arthur C. Clarke, with a rotating ring to create artificial gravity – although Nautilus-X has never got off the drawing board and perhaps never will.

Nautilus-X (NASA) [public domain]
But the idea of a manned space flight to Mars in the foreseeable future fired the imagination of not just scientists and engineers but architects and interior designers too. Moving to Mars, the exhibition currently running in the Design Museum, brings together ideas that try to make life on Mars a reality.

There’s a reason why this exhibition is in the Design Museum and not the Science Museum: because it’s about design (which of course is influenced by science).

It’s an exploration of the practicalities of living on Mars – a not yet terraformed Mars. A pioneer existence, much like that of Mark Watney’s in The Martian. Growing your own food, making clothes of packaging materials… Remember: the Martians will have to take everything from Earth, unless they can produce it on Mars. That includes not just food, clothing and equipment but water and air. (Never mind home comforts. Young Friend of the Elephants – very keen to start living on Mars – is still trying to come to terms with the fact that if she was a Martian pioneer the toy elephant she grew up with would have to be left behind.)

The exhibition brings together as diverse items as:

  • a Babylonian clay tablet with astronomical observations and a book by Johannes Kepler,
  • film posters and the latest photos taken by NASA on the ground (by the rover Curiosity),
  • space suits and models of the rovers.

You learn a lot about the red planet on which you’re considering making your home. Did you know that the dust on Mars is as fine as icing sugar and dust storms can envelope almost the entire planet and last months? Or that the atmosphere mostly consists of carbon-dioxide? Did you know that for all that the surface looks like a hot desert, the average temperature is in fact around -60? And so on.

Curiosity’s view of a Martian dune after crossing it, 2014 [Courtesy of NASA]
The best bit, however, the bit that will surely fire your imagination, is the room that shows a potential prototype home on Mars. And not just little models of the various designs that could house such a home to protect it from the environment. You walk into the first Martian home, lie on the couch, look out of the window. You consider the food and how you’re growing it; the clothes and where you get them from. What about a Mars boot grown from human sweat and fungus? Or fashion a la Mars – clothes made out of discarded packaging materials? And by the way, how long does it take to drain a bathtub at a much lower gravity? Actually – given the scarcity of water – will there be a bathtub?

As this fascinating show makes clear, colonising the Red Planet will require technical genius – plus an eye for fashion and coffee you can drink upside-down.

The Guardian

Ready to Fly?

NASA Boarding Pass 2020 (template)

On your way out you come across the question posed by the exhibition organisers: Are you ready to travel to Mars…?

Am I ready?!

With a packed rucksack, clutching my boarding pass, and eyes firmly set on the future which I will not live to see… yes.

Links:NASA Mars Outreach (Send Your Name to Mars)NASA Photo GalleryPeter Harrison Planetarium (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)Nautilus-X Project, NASAMoving to Mars (Design Museum, London)War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (Gutenberg Project)

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Art, Word, War: Anglo-Saxon Codices

Orderly British queues, intellectuals discussing minute details of craftsmanship and content; teenage girls squealing in delight as if they just met a rock star – at the sight of the handwriting of an early 9th century bishop. (I wonder what school they go to.)

That was Art, Word, War, the current British Library exhibition about the Anglo-Saxons.

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Florence, City of the Renaissance

Renaissance – rebirth – is the Medieval realisation that the classical world, in particular Greece, has something to offer us. One of the places where you can observe Renaissance best ‘in action’ is the Italian city of Florence, in Tuscany, a northern region of Italy. For all that it’s a famous tourist destination, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you do enjoy immersing yourself in the Renaissance – because apart from that, there’s not a lot else to do.

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The Grammar of Ornament (The Beauty of Patterns II)

The Beauty of Mathematics

Back in July I almost managed to convince myself that mathematics was beautiful.

And certainly, the result of mathematics at least is often quite beautiful:

Chambered nautilus shell by Jitze Couperus via Flickr. [CC BY 2.0]
The bit of mathematics illustrated above is a favourite of nature, and goes by the name of the Fibonacci sequence. Today, however, we’re going to ignore nature to see instead what man can do with a bit of mathematics. Or rather, what one particular man did with a bit of mathematics.

Decorations from Pompeii, image plate in The Grammar of Ornament. Photo by Eric Gjerde via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Continue reading “The Grammar of Ornament (The Beauty of Patterns II)”

Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)

I went to see the Scythian exhibition in the British Museum on Friday night and I came face to face with a Scythian warrior from over 2000 years ago.

Was this what my great-grandfather 50 times removed looked like?

Continue reading “Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)”

The Beauty of Patterns (The Rabbit Problem)

Decorative tiling (azulejos) in the Plaza de España, Seville

Shells and galaxies curl in spirals, stripes run down on the sleek hide of tigers and zebras, waves and sand dunes rise in crescent shape. Some patterns – like the leaves of a palm tree – win you over with their strong, simple lines, others – like crystals and snowflakes – with their intricate geometry. And mankind copies nature: floral motifs proliferate in embroidery, decorative tiles combine into complex matrices, spiral staircases rise towards glass ceilings. The geometry of architecture, natural symmetry, repetition and variation…

The beauty of patterns seduces the eye and the mind.

Continue reading “The Beauty of Patterns (The Rabbit Problem)”

The Art of Zurbarán

In the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville you can see a number of paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having heard Zurbarán’s name when I was in school, although admittedly art history was no longer part of the grammar school curriculum by then.

The first time I took notice of Zurbarán was, in fact, in the Prado, seven years ago now – I must have seen him in the National Gallery in London before, but the National Gallery is so vast and so full of masterpieces of all styles that I passed him by. The Prado was different. Not that it’s short of masterpieces from all over the world, mind, but I went there specifically to look at Spanish paintings. I wanted to see Goya and El Greco and Velázquez… and while doing so, I came across Zurbarán.

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), National Gallery, London (NG230) [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]
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The View from the Ivory Tower

Should we admire or despair of those single-minded people who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a pet obsession? Who put what we’d consider a ‘normal’ life on hold to disappear into the wilderness spending years in research?

I’m talking about the likes of Milman Parry, who traipsed around the remote mountains of pre-WWII Yugoslavia for a decade, recording folk songs in an attempt to gain an insight into the oral tradition as surviving since the time of Homer… Or Walter Muir Whitehill, who, similarly obsessed, spent nine years in Spain at around the same time, discovering and cataloguing Romanesque churches in the most godforsaken locations. (Both Harvard academics, I notice.) I came across this second one, Muir, while reading Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom.

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Night at the Museum

Many of London’s museums and galleries stay open late into the evening once a week. You might think day or night makes no difference…

But it’s nice to break the daily routine once in a while. Instead of going home after work, I head for Bloomsbury.


The British Museum after six pm is a different place

The lights are dimmed. The crowds are gone; it’s quiet. I relax in the members’ room with my book and a glass of wine before going for a wander.

I can get up close to the most popular exhibits without an elbow fight. I can contemplate. I can read the labels in peace.

I can take pictures.

Till next Friday.

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Made by the Egyptians: A Bust of Amenhotep IIIThe Mausoleum at HalicarnassusThree Hours at the British Museum

Amun-Ra Sailing Under the Starry Sky

My second favourite profession I would have gone for if I had the choice when I was young? Marine archaeologist.

I just mention this because in the past half-year I was haunting the now closing Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition of the British Museum which told the story of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, two cities that sank into the Mediterranean Sea (in Aboukir Bay, previously only known to me as the place where Nelson defeated the French). The site is being excavated by the team of Franck Goddio – the marine archaeologist who seems to get to excavate all the best sunken things in the world. (This is envy speaking.)

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Venice According to Canaletto: The Doge’s Palace (Then & Now)

Venice, the ultimate tourist destination, was already popular as far back as the 16th and 17th century: it was one of the obligatory stops on the so-called Grand Tour, when wealthy young men – principally English – travelled for a few years in Europe to complete their education. The Grand Tour was, in a manner of speaking, a posher and lengthier forerunner of the modern gap year. Or – if we’re less charitable – of the package holiday. In any case, the Grand Tourists invariably wound up in Italy; and we owe them a number of varyingly entertaining travel accounts as well as far too many paintings of young Englishmen posing in togas in front of well-known Italian landmarks.

Continue reading “Venice According to Canaletto: The Doge’s Palace (Then & Now)”

Nelson, Naples…

There’s a new exhibition about to open in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, titled Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity. For the sake of those among you who ‘didn’t win first prize in the lottery of life’: Lady Hamilton is famous for being the lover of Admiral Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar and the saviour of England.

I first heard of Nelson when I was about seven and the Hungarian Television broadcasted the 1941 black-and-white tearjerker, That Hamilton Woman. Being too young to grasp that the handsome Royal Navy officer on screen was in fact Laurence Olivier, rather than Nelson himself, at the end of the film I was left with a life-long admiration for Nelson, a life-long dislike for Bonaparte and a complete unawareness of who Laurence Olivier was.

Moonlit Night in Naples by Sylvester Shchedrin via Wikipedia (Public domain).
Moonlit Night in Naples by Sylvester Shchedrin via Wikipedia (Public domain). This romantic scene evokes long forgotten memories of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in a location that – owing to the war – couldn’t possibly have been Naples…

Continue reading “Nelson, Naples…”