Posts Tagged ‘Cheltenham Festival of Science’

Giles Coren Racially Abuses Megan Markle

August 6, 2019

Just as the CST this weekend decided to smear 36 people as anti-Semites, largely because they supported Jeremy Corbyn, and hated the Tories, Rachel Riley, and Tom Watson, Times‘ columnist Giles Coren made his own racist comment about Prince Harry’s consort, Megan Markle. Harry had said that he intends to have only two children because of the the current environmental crisis. So Coren jumped in and declared that he really said it because Markle had ‘raised the drawbridge’ and it was really due to domestic squabbles between the royal couple. He then went on and declared that they had booked a meeting with a marriage guidance counselor, but had got Jane Goodall instead.

That’s Jane Goodall, the primatologist, who studied gorillas.

The good peeps on Twitter were not amused, and pointed out just how racist the tweet was. It’s the old sneer about Black people being subhuman monkeys. They also predicted that if Coren was taken to task for it, he’d immediately start trying to excuse it by saying he wasn’t being racist, honest, and then give out some remarks supporting him by his White friends, while issuing some kind of non-apology.

Zelo Street concluded his article on this nasty little piece of privileged racism

From Coren there has so far been silence. But he will have to say something, even if he attempts to cover his tracks by pretending he didn’t mean what he clearly did mean.
Attempts to normalise racism are worrying. Attempts to normalise racism coming from a supposedly quality paper are not just worrying – they are totally inexcusable.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/08/giles-coren-right-royal-racist.html

Coren is the Times’ restaurant critic, and like several other ‘slebs, he has quaffed deep of the well of mediocrity. It’s unlikely he would have got his job, and appeared on TV – he was one of the ‘Supersizers’ who every week looked back at the cuisine in different periods of the past with Sue Perkins – if he didn’t come from a privileged background.

He is also sadly not alone in his sneers and abuse at Markle. The I’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown commented on it in her column in this morning’s edition of the paper. She noted the ugly racism hiding behind these sneers. They’re based on outrage at an American woman of colour with genuinely feminist views marrying into the royal family. How dare she! Especially after she edited Vogue to list the leading, most influential and inspirational women.

I’ve no doubt that part of the sneer also comes from part of the Tory right’s bitter hatred of environmentalism. The Daily Heil published a whole slew of articles a few years ago declaring global warming to be fake, because the Russians apparently said so. And Trump’s government is doing its level, horrendous best to close down and silence the Environmental Protection Agency for the Republicans’ supporters and donors in the petrochemical industry, like the notorious Koch brothers. I’ve got a feeling the Times is one of the other newspapers, whose columnists have tried to discredit climate change. I seem to remember one of the producers of the BBC science documentary series, Horizon, remarking at a talk at the Cheltenham Festival of Science a few years ago how he had been forced to put right gently another very well established journo, who didn’t believe in it.

I believe a number of members of the royal family are also patrons of the World Wide Fund for Nature, what used to be the World Wildlife Fund, and so do have an interest in conservation. Which would suggest that Harry’s statement on why he was having no more than two sprogs is entirely genuinely. One of the problems is overpopulation, although in the West birthrates are actually falling to or below replacement level, so that there may well be a demographic crisis due to this. Quite apart from all the nutters, who believe that it’s all part of the ‘Great Replacement’ in which the Jews are secretly destroying the White race to replace them with non-White immigrants.

This isn’t the first Coren has expressed noxious, right-wing views either. A little while ago he took it upon himself to sneer at people from council estates. I have no idea why, except perhaps just sheer snobbery. Now he’s found a new target in Megan Markle. And it’s an example of the racism, snobbery and reactionary anti-environmentalism that now permeates and shames the Tory press. And it shows just how nasty the Times has become under Murdoch.

 

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Scientists Told to Halt Development of War Robots

February 15, 2019

This week’s been an interesting one for robot news. Yesterday, or a few days ago, there was a piece about the creation of a robot that could draw and paint thanks to facial recognition software. The robot’s art has been sold commercially. This follows an artistic group in France that has also developed an art robot. I’ll see if I can fish that story out, as it sounds like one of the conceits of 2000AD is becoming science fact. The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic told its readers that all its strips were the work of robots, so that the credits for the strips read ‘Script Robot X’, and ‘Art Robot Y’. Of course it was all created by humans, just as it really wasn’t edited by a green alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg. But it was part of the fun.

Killer robots aren’t, however. Despite the fact that they’ve been in Science Fiction for a very long time, autonomous military machines really are a very ominous threat to humanity. In today’s I for 15th February 2019 there was a report by Tom Bawden on page 11 about human rights campaigners telling the scientists at an American symposium on the technology that these machines should be preemptively banned. The article, ‘Scientists warned over ‘killer robots’ in future wars’, runs

Killer robots pose a threat to humanity and should be pre-emptively banned under an international treaty, the world’s biggest gathering of scientists was told yesterday.

Lethal, autonomous weapons – military robots that can engage and kill targets without human control – do not yet exist.

But rapid advances in autonomy and artificial intelligence mean they are well on their way to becoming a reality, delegates attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s symposium on the technology were told in Washington DC.

A poll conducted in 26 countries found that 54 per cent of Briton’s – and 61 per cent of respondents overall – opposed the development of killer robots that would select and attack targets without human intervention.

“Killer robots should be banned in a similar way to anti-personnel landmines,” said Mary Wareham, of the arms division at the campaign group Human Rights Watch, who also co-ordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“The security of the world and future of humanity hinges on achieving a ban on killer robots,” she added. “Public sentiment is hardening against the prospect of fully autonomous weapons. Bold, political leadership is needed for a new treaty to pre-emptively ban these weapons systems”.

The article was accompanied by a picture of one of the robots from the film Terminator Genisys, with a caption stating that it was perhaps unsurprising that most Britons oppose the development of such robots, but they wouldn’t look quite like those in the film.

I’ve put up several pieces before about military robots and the threat they pose to humanity, including a piece from the popular science magazine, Focus, published sometime in the 1990s, if I recall. Around about that time one state or company announced that it intended to develop such machines, and was immediately met with condemnation by scientists and campaigners. Their concern is that such machines don’t have the human quality of compassion. Once released, they could go on to kill indiscriminately, killing both civilians and soldiers. The scientists were also concerned that if truly intelligent killing machines are developed, then they could have the potential to turn on us and begin wiping us out or enslaving us. This was one of the threats to humanity’s future in the book Our Final Minute by the British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. When I saw him speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science about his book a few years ago, one of the audience said that perhaps it would be a good thing if humanity was overthrown by the robots, because they could be better for the environment. Well, they could, I suppose, but it’s still not something I’d like to see happen.

Kevin Warwick, the robotics professor at the University of Reading, is also very worried about the development of such machines. In his 1990’s book, March of the Machines, he describes how, as far back as the 1950s, the Americans developed an autonomous military vehicle, consisting of a jeep adapted with a machine gun. He also discussed how one of the robots currently at the university could also be turned into a lethal killing machine. This is firefighting robot. It has a fire extinguisher, and instruments to detect fire. When it sees one, it rushes towards it and puts it out using the extinguisher. Warwick states, however, that if you replaced the extinguisher with a gun, gave it a neural net and then trained the machine to shoot people with blue eyes, say, then the machine would do just that until it ran out of power.

This comes at the end of the book. But it’s introduction is also chilling. It foresees a future, around 2050, when the machines really will have taken over. Those humans that have not been exterminated by the robots are kept as slaves, to work in those parts of the world that are still inaccessible or inhospitable to the robots, and to hunt down and kill the very few surviving humans that remain free. Pretty much like the far future envisioned by the SF writer Gregory Benford in his ‘Galactic Centre’ series novels.

Warwick was, however, very serious about the threat posed by these robots. I can remember seeing him also speak in Cheltenham, and one of the audience asked whether he still believed that this was a real threat that could occur about that time. He said he did, but that the he’d lowered the time at which it could become a real possibility.

Warwick has also said that one reason why he began to explore cyborgisation – the cybernetic enhancement of humans with robotic technology – was because he was so depressed with the threat robots cast over our future. Augmenting ourselves with high technology was a way we could compete with them, something Benford also explores in his novels through an alien race that has pursued just such a course. This, however, poses its own risks of loss of humanity, as depicted in Star Trek’s Borg and Dr. Who’s Cybermen.

This article sounds like something from Science Fiction, and I don’t think that at the moment robots are anywhere near as sophisticated to pose an existential threat to humanity right now. But killer robots are being developed, and very serious robotic scientists and engineers are very worried about them. Mary Wareham, Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are right. This technology needs to be halted now. Before it becomes a reality.

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Claims NASA Operating Child Slave Labour Base on Mars

July 1, 2017

More madness from the very warped mind of Alex Jones. Jones is the head honcho behind the internet conspiracy theory show, Infowars, and its companion website, Prison Planet. Jones believes, or affects to believe, that the American government, the UN, the ‘globalists’, the elite and liberals, Socialists and feminists are engaged in dire and foul conspiracies against the world and its people, and particularly those in America.

Over the years he has claimed that the richest 1 per cent of American society and industry, or at least their menfolk, sacrifice children in Satanic rituals at their annual secret meetings in Bohemian Grove in California. The Twin Towers collapsed because of a conspiracy by the American government, and not because Saudi-backed terrorists hijacked and flew two planes into them. President Obama was going to use to the legislation permitting the establishment of refugee camps to house disaster victims to seize power and herd people into what were really concentration camps. Humanity and the world were under attack by evil extradimensional entities, who might be demons or simply alien intelligences. And Barack Obama was fully under their control. He was truly the Devil’s emissary, because, apparently, he looked demonic, smelt bad and flies were always hovering around him.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. She was also under Satanic influence. She was part of a vast, paedophile conspiracy supplying children to leading politicians from a pizza parlour in Boston. She was also some kind of robot or cyborg, because something metal fell out of her trouser leg when she had a fainting fit during her campaigning. When she momentarily had some kind of problem swallowing a glass of water, Jones seized on this as evidence that she was either demonically possessed, or carrying some kind of alien spawn, which was about to come bursting out of her like the xenomorphs in the Alien movies. She was herself also a participant, with Bill, in black magic ‘spirit eating’ orgies put on by a performance artist.

The UN, Socialists and feminists are all engaged in some weird plot to take over the world and enslave everybody in it, particularly White men. Gay and transgender rights activists are a ‘transhumanist UFO cult’ to create a new, genderless, form of humanity.

How much of this Jones actually believes is a moot point. His ex-wife was suing him for custody of their children, on the grounds that he was utterly made and it was damaging their kids to see their Dad ranting and raving in the TV studio he has at his home. Jones’ lawyers responded by stating that Jones didn’t believe any of it, and it was all ‘performance art’.

Recently Jones has also been forced to issue apologies to people he has libelled on his programme. Someone took his comments about the pizza parlour in Boston very seriously indeed, and walked into it waving a gun around in order to free the child captives in the basement. There weren’t any children kept prisoner there, in the basement or anywhere else. Fortunately, no-one was shot or hurt in this incident.

Then he was threatened with legal action from the Turkish owner of a Yoghurt factory, who had a deliberately policy of employing immigrants. Many of these were Middle Eastern. Jones claimed that this, entirely respectable businessman, who was another paedophile, and that his employees had been responsible for a series of rapes. The businessman wasn’t, and his employees were also innocent. After being threatened with a writ, Jones ended up making a statement that he was entirely mistaken about it all on air.

Now he’s done the same to NASA. On Thursday, Jones had on his programme Robert David Steele, a former Reform Party presidential candidate, who claims to have been a case officer with the CIA. Steele spun a yarn that NASA had been kidnapping children to send them on a 20 year journey to be used as slave labour on Mars. Oh yes, and they were also been frightened and then killed, so that their blood and bone marrow could be harvested for use by the elites. The children had to be terrified when they died as this would enrich it with adrenaline.

NASA responded by denying everything, and pointing out that they didn’t have any kind of child labour camp on the Red Planet.

See: http://www.news18.com/news/buzz/we-do-not-have-a-child-slave-colony-on-mars-nasa-1447965.html

This story is, of course, absolute nonsense. For a start, 20 years is far too long for a journey to Mars. Spacecraft have to go at a certain speed – escape velocity – to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull if they are to go anywhere else in the Solar system, whether it’s the Moon or the other planets. I think current plans for a Mars mission estimate that it would take about 2-3 years or so to get there. A long time, certainly, but not as long as 20.

Then there’s the logistics and engineering problems of getting people to Mars. You need rockets of a certain size and power. Furthermore, any colonists for Mars, whether free or not, would have to carry all their food, water and air with them. The spaceships will also have to be shielded against cosmic radiation and solar flares. These weren’t much of a problem when going to the Moon, because of the relatively short length of the journey – about a week. Even so, if a coronal mass ejection – a type of massive flare known as a sun storm – had occurred, it would have fried the Apollo astronauts. These are a real threat for those intrepid souls going on the lengthy journey to the Red Planet.

There are also other medical problems caused by the lack of gravity in space. As the astronauts’ bodies don’t have to fight against the pull of the Earth’s gravity, muscles shrink. They also go to the toilet more than they would on Earth, and so start to lose calcium, weakening their bones. Hence their health is monitored, and those crews staying in space for a long time, such as during the Skylab programme from 1973-5, have to devote a certain amount of time each day to doing their exercise.

As there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in zero gravity, and the fluid in your inner ear that tells you which is which also starts to float along with the rest of you, some astronauts suffer from ‘space sickness’, similar to the sea sickness some people feel travelling by ship.

There are also psychological hazards that may endanger the lives of the space travellers. I heard Dr Kevin Fong, who’s a specialist in space medicine, talking about them one year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Fong pointed out that the strange environment of space can also affect astronauts’ mental health. Several of them have reported hearing sounds, such as dogs barking and babies crying, while in orbit. They can also find themselves doing strange, irrational things, which can potentially kill them, before being snapped out of it. One astronaut aboard Mir described how he was asleep one night, before being suddenly awoken by a noise. He then found one of his fellow astronauts suited up, ready to take a spacewalk. But the poor fellow hadn’t connected the air hoses. It takes about seven hours or so to put on and inflate a spacesuit, so that it protects its wearer from the hard vacuum outside their craft. None of this had been done, and if the astronaut had walked through the airlock, he would have been killed. Fortunately, the other astronaut was able to wake his friends and colleagues, who woke up and managed to stop him.

These are the hazards facing the extremely healthy men and women, who manage to pass the rigorous testing and gruelling grueling training programmes. Hopefully, one day we’ll have learned enough to make space travel sufficiently safe so that families with children can venture into the Deep Black. But we very definitely aren’t anyway near that level now.

This is sheer bullsh*t, and it’s not hard to see where it’s ultimately coming from. Somewhere in there is the influence of Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day joke, broadcast by ITV in 1975. It was a bogus edition of a fake science programme, ‘Science Report’, which claimed that the Earth was dying, and so the Americans and Russians had secretly shelved their differences in order to colonise Mars secretly. Leading scientists were disappearing as they took up their new lives on the Red Planet. Ordinary people, meanwhile, were also disappearing. They were being kidnapped, lobotomised and ‘de-sexed’ to turn them into slaves as ‘batch consignments’, serving their elite masters.

The programme was a hoax, but unfortunately many people were genuinely taken in and didn’t realise that it was a joke. There was also a tie-in novelisation, which until recently was unavailable in the US. This led to rumours that it was all true, and had been deliberately suppressed by Them.

The result has been that a number of other conspiracy theories about secret government space projects have grown up around it, or been inspired by it. This latest nonsense appears to be one of them.

I don’t know how many people actually believe Steele’s story. Possibly very few, the kind of people, who bought into the lurid revelations of Commander X and his tales about secret collaboration with aliens. Or the late Bill English and his rubbish about meeting the Zeta Reticulan ambassador, Omnipotent Highness Krill, at a military base.

I doubt very many people actually believe the story, but that hasn’t stopped Jones having an effect. During the American presidential elections, he gave very vocal support to Donald Trump, who was a guest on his programme several times. He has libelled various blameless individuals, such as the Turkish yoghourt manufacturer. It’s a mercy that his stories about paedophile gangs didn’t result in someone being shot at that pizza place. He also notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was all staged, and that the children and others, who were killed and injured were ‘crisis actors’. This has led to people approaching and accusing the kids’ grieving parents with these claims.

And anti-racist activists are worried about the links Jones and his show have with the racist Alt-Right. This includes his fellow presenter, Paul Joseph Watson, who has inveighed against the threat Islam and Muslim immigration supposedly poses to western civilisation.

Jones is a clown, and his ranting can be hilarious, but there’s a very serious, very dark side to his show. It’s almost the very definition of ‘fake news’, and it is having a pernicious effect on politics in the US, as more citizens are encouraged to fear the terrible, but entirely imaginary Others that mean to harm and enslave them. While, of course, supporting right-wing Libertarian policies, which will deny them proper, decent medicine, welfare support, housing, clean water and education.

Florence on Terraforming Mars Using Existing Microbes

January 2, 2017

One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote

There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtmlhttp://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtml

Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702

The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.

As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.

Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.

Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.

It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.