Well, what a week it's been. I know that the guys at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA must have been deliriously happy with the successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
Actually, as fate would have it, I went to the JPL last year to give a talk on radiation in the context of FPGAs. This was with regard to a potential mission to Jupiter, where the radiation levels are horrifyingly high. While I was at the JPL, I got to see the Curiosity Rover up close and personal (well, from behind a glass window … they didn’t let me loose in there with my trusty sonic screwdriver, you understand).
Curiosity is the about the same size as a compact car, so earlier techniques for landing in on Mars would almost certainly not have worked. Thus, one of the most amazing things about this mission was the way in which the landing was effected. The parachute was jettisoned a few hundred feet above the surface of the planet, and then the Sky Crane portion of the assembly hovered in the (very thin) air, decided on the optimal landing site, and then lowered the rover to the ground on cables before flying off into the sunset.
When I first saw the animations of this at the JPL I thought "They will be lucky to get that to work."
But work it did. And it wasn't luck that got them through (although I'm sure they had their fingers crossed), it was amazingly, incredibly, superb engineering – not the least that the time lag between here and Mars meant that the Sky Crane had to do a lot of thinking for itself.
Thus far, it seems that all systems are "Go", so now Curiosity is going to wander around exploring and – if we are lucky – reporting the discovery of the evidence that there once was (and perhaps still is) life on Mars.
But wait, there's more… I have a friend called Steve in England (by which I mean he's called "Steve" and he lives in "England", not that he's called "Steve in England", because that would be silly). By some strange quirk of fate, I was chatting to my 17-year old son just yesterday evening saying that Steve is Paul McCartney's number one fan. My son said "How you know?"
and I replied "Steve told me he was, and he wouldn't lie to me."
This just triggered a different story. Several years ago, when he was about 11, my son came to work with me on one of those "take your kid to work" days. At one stage he wanted to go to the rest room, but not if anyone was inside, so I said "Knock on the door and ask if anyone is in there."
He thought about this for a minute, and then said "But what do I do if someone says 'No'?"
And – as quick as a flash, but twice as good looking – I responded "Well, then you'll know they are lying, won't you?"
(I'm grinning thinking about it.)
Actually I have a picture in my office of Steve with Paul McCartney. Steve is on the left, Paul is in the middle, and Steve's son is on the right. This all came about because (a) Steve is a packrat who keeps mementos of everything he does and (b) he was listening to an announcer on the local radio talking about Paul coming to play a concert in our hometown of Sheffield. The last time Paul had played Sheffield was 30 years before. The announcer said that if anyone still had their original ticket stub from that last concert, they could go backstage and meet Paul … and Steve said to himself "I still have my ticket stub!"
But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about…
Out of all my friends, Steve is the one who has the least to do with modern technology. He prefers his 35mm film camera to a digital equivalent. He doesn’t own a computer. And, until recently, he didn’t even own a cell phone. But the place where Steve works recently gave him an iPhone. He was very distrustful at first, but then one of his workmates set him up with a Gmail email address, and another set him up with a Facebook account, and then he was introduced to YouTube … now there's no holding him back.
Every day when I come into work there are one or more images in my inbox … just things Steve has run across that tickled his fancy. It could be a picture of lightning, or a tree, or an old one of Paul and Linda McCartney, or … just about anything, really. This morning it was a Simpson's version of the famous Beatles' Abbey Road album cover.
This one certainly brought a smile to my face. I love Homer as John Lennon. Maybe I'll listen to some Beatles music tonight. But there are so many songs … which one should I grace my ears with first? What's your favorite Beatles tune?
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