The Martian by Andy Weir


Andy Weir’s first published novel is simply awesome. I can’t believe that he couldn’t find a publisher, resorting to posting the book for free consumption on his website before being noticed and published. And now there’s even a film in the works, scheduled for release later next year.

The plot centres around astronaut Mark Watney who has been stranded on Mars after a NASA mission. He has to use all his training, mechanical engineering and botany qualifications and sheer human ingenuity to survive, until he is rescued. However, in the beginning he didn’t know he would be rescued, so it was just the sheer will to live for as long as possible. Back on Earth, everyone thought he was long dead.

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Yes, that he was, until an observant NASA employee on earth noticed a few anomalies on some satellite surveillance photographs, and realised that he may just well have survived.

While NASA went about in earnest trying to attempt a rescue mission, Watney was left to fend for himself on a barren planet hell-bent on killing him at every turn. The science that Watney uses to survive (manufacturing air, water and growing potatoes in Martian soil) is all real. As Watney logs his daily struggles to survive with great wit in a journal, one can’t help rooting for the guy and cheering him on.

Being incommunicado did not help much, until he finds an abandoned Mars Rover whose equipment he modifies to set up a two-way communication link with NASA back on Earth. That was fun for a while, until he destroys the equipment in a freak accident. It was then back to writing Morse Code with rocks laid out on the ground, and our intrepid NASA employee photographing them with satellites. Slow, one way, but effective enough.

It takes on average about nine months to make the trip to Mars from Earth, and that is only if the two planets are lined up favourably in orbit around the sun in relation to each other. This favourable alignment occurs once every 26 months, so the lauch window is very tight. Therefore NASA can not just fire off a spaceship whenever they want to get to Mars. So if you’re stranded on Mars, it’s a long wait for help.

I’m not going to give away anything else; you’ll just have to read the book. Did I mention it’s awesome?

The Universe A Perfect Creation?

rock space

People are always telling me that the universe is a perfect creation. They go further and assert that it was created especially for us humans – not so much for everything else that winds up as food on our table, clothes on our backs, shelter over our heads, or comforts for our pleasure.


I’ve got news for you. The world is in fact positively hostile. Everything out there is trying to kill you. And a great many things right here on Earth are also not only trying to kill you, but have been doing so for ever; quite successfully too. It’s in fact much worse – the universe is not only hostile, but fucking indifferent too.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. – Stanley Kubrick

Think about it…

The only thing that is actively trying (unappreciated, I might add) in all the known universe to save your bacon, is your fellow human being (sometimes the odd dog or cat). And yet we behave in the most appalling manner towards the fellow members of our species. If I have to spell out the ways in which we do this, you are truly beyond redemption and the sooner you hurtle off this rock, the better for all of us.

Credulous at best your desire to believe in
Angels in the hearts of men
Pull your head on out your hippie haze and give a listen
Shouldn’t have to say it all again
The universe is hostile, so impersonal
Devour to survive… so it is, so it’s always been – Tool, Vicarious

Bright White Dot Spotting

Just got back inside after gazing earnestly into the night sky. Nada! Slightly overcast…

According to this timetable I should have seen a very bright white dot moving through the sky at approximately 7:36 PM… for about three minutes. Apparently it was supposed to look something like this:

So the question is why would I want to fritter away three (maybe ten in total if you factor in the logistics) minutes of my life looking at a bright white dot?

Well for starters, that bright white dot happens to be the International Space Station (ISS) which is the brightest white man-made dot in the sky. Secondly, I think that it would be kinda cool to watch something whizzing by at a speed of around 27 724 kilometers per hour. The fastest thing I’ve ever seen is a Top Fuel Dragster which didn’t even get to 400 kilometers per hour (although they do go much faster).


Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with all the details about the ISS and why it’s so awesome – it’s everywhere on the Internet, and in person in a patch of sky near you. Just wanted to let you know that this is my timetable for the next few days, and if I still don’t spot that dot, I understand that the ISS is expected to be rotating the Earth until 2020…

A story of love, risk, tragedy, ingenuity and… Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is an absolute legend. I’m truly fascinated about his life, his work, his books…. Cosmos.

When I heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson was working on a project that will bring Sagan’s epic Cosmos television series back to life some time in 2014, I was over the moon. Just today I found this beautiful short film by video artist Penny Lane, which tells a simple story of risk, love, tragedy, man’s ingenuity and Carl Sagan off course.

It’s really humbling to imagine that two single gold discs which are due to exit our solar system, may possibly be the only record of our existence here on Earth that will be available to anyone or anything else out there in the infinity of space, should the sun eventually vaporise us, or we destroy ourselves first.

Quiz Night: Tidal Locking

A couple of months ago I went to my first quiz night at a popular bar. I performed reasonably well on the sports questions but was not so good when it came to general knowledge, although I always felt I was reasonably competent in this area.

Since then I’ve taken to reading random facts on a variety of subjects, and Wikipedia proved helpful with its Random Article functionality. [I do recommend cross-checking Wikipedia articles with other resources as they may not be entirely factual given that it is user-generated]

Today I came across this feature on Tidal Locking which was pretty interesting. You only ever see one side of the moon all the time because it is tidally locked with Earth. Look closely at the gif on the left and you’ll see this phenomena in operation. Notice how only one side of the moon is always presented to Earth while rotating around it, even though the moon is also rotating on its axis.


I suppose this is how the term “dark side of the moon” originated, since that side is not visible to Earthlings due to tidal locking. For a more in-depth explanation on the physics and mechanics of tidal locking, check out Wikipedia, the YouTube videos available online.

What would happen should the Earth become tidally locked with the sun? Well, in short, we’ll all be fooked as it will wreak havoc with our weather and just about everything else.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I found Ender’s Game listed in a Top 100 Books list somewhere, but can’t recall which one in particular. The decision to read it, I recall, was therefore made for me when I saw the other great books it was listed with. And I’m not really a fan of the science fiction genre, preferring science fact instead.

Off the bat, I found it quite disconcerting to read with the main protagonist, a boy of about six, speaking with the maturity normally associated with a fairly well-educated adult. Even if one was expected to accept that Ender Wiggin was a highly gifted child, it does stretch science fiction a bit far. However, I did find his sister Valentine, presented as of similar brilliance to Ender, to be more pragmatic in her premature maturity.

The Plot

In the future, Earth having survived two wars with the Formics, an alien species more colloquially referred to as The Buggers (even by the adults, which was also disconcerting), are preparing to fight a defining war with them. To this end, the earth under the leadership of The Polemarch, The Hegemon and Strategos create an International Fleet to fight the Buggers. They recruit young gifted children to undergo training initially in the Battle School which is in earth’s orbit, and later in Command School, where only the most talented strategists pass through.

Ender is groomed, conditioned, manipulated and dare I say, brainwashed under the tutelage of Commander Hyrum Graff, to become the only hope for the forces of Earth, in defeating the aliens.

His manipulation is made complete when he is tricked into eventually defeating the aliens while under the impression that the battle was the final simulation at Command School to effect his graduation.


While the novel is often violent, it is not overly so as some have described it in their criticism. The premise upon which the book is based is very interesting, but I did not find it appealing, nor particularly riveting. I also do enjoy a bit of humour and this book had little or none of that. I also have to admit that finding out Orson Scott Card was a Mormon, may have tainted my liking for his work, but I believe there was more reasons besides.

A film version of the book is currently in production, and I have no doubt it will be made much more violent than the book actually is. Still it may be worth watching just to see how faithful the makers stay to the book, what with Scott Card being involved in the production.

I am therefore going to give the sequels a miss unless someone can give me a very convincing reason to read any of them.

The end of the world is (not) nigh…

Harold-Camping-FailIt’s less than 4 hours to go before 22 October rolls around here where I’m writing this, and it’s already that in some parts of the world.

If you’ve looked around and can’t find anybody you know suddenly missing for any strange reason, it could mean one of three things:

  1. We’re all evil bastards who don’t deserve to be Raptured, and have been left here on Earth to rot forever by [insert your version of a mean-spirited, invisible father-figure here]
  2. We’ve all been Raptured and are now in Heaven, which inexplicably looks just like Earth. And the whole event went unnoticed; occurred not with a bang, but with barely a whimper, as Camping is recorded as re-predicting.
  3. Harold Camping is a lying scumsucker.

Need I tell you which one I pick?

However, let’s for the hell of it, imagine if the first or second scenario played out. If we’re all evil bastards who have been left behind, it is highly likely that the mother of all floods is headed our way soon. In which case, I hope you have your Ark schematics approved.

If we’ve all been Raptured and are now in a Heaven, which looks and feels just like Earth, it probably signifies that we’ve all been had by the cosmic father-figure of our choice that we’ve trusted for so long. It therefore sucks being us.

I’m therefore quite justified in declaring that you can’t possibly win by believing in, and trusting invisible, all-powerful father-figures.

All that’s left is to wait for Camping to explain this monumental failure of prophesy, which I’m sure will be as hilarious as his previous attempts.

I get goosebumps…

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from a distance, at the request of cosmologist Carl Sagan.

Subsequently, Sagan was inspired to write a book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future In Space and utter some of the most profound words in sciencedom [from Wikipedia below].

I hope you’ll enjoy this video with an amazing animation sequence, that keeps the voice and memory of Carl Sagan alive; it gives me goosebumps just listening.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Did divine intervention gun down Liverpool?

Fifty minutes into the EPL (English Premier League) match between Liverpool and Arsenal yesterday, right-back Glen Johnson must have been a pretty happy chappy with his side leading 1-0. Then came that fateful moment when he scored an own goal while trying to clear a cross from Arsenal into the goal area.

His expression immediately afterwards as he looked questioningly towards the sky, was almost exactly what I have witnessed countless number of times on players faces (religiously inclined, at any rate) when they are the cause of things going wrong in sports contests. One could translate that skyward search into many phrases, but the simplest would be “why me, what did I do to deserve this?” It could also be used as an attempt by the player to seek absolution; a gesture to the crowd as if to say “hey it’s not my fault, the big guy up there does not like us today for some reason.”

Why do even, professional sportsmen and women in the modern world, still believe that their performance is either guided or influenced by a supernatural or divine entity? Bewilderingly, common superstition also seems to have a hand in sportspeople’s on and off-field behaviour. It’s kind of hard to not notice some of the antics of the players as they get onto the field, or on the field itself. Most popular seems to be to cross oneself (signum Crucis). Picking up and throwing some grass into the air is also popular, but so is fingering some charm worn around the neck, usually cross-shaped. How about just touching the grass on the field of play? Gathering in a circle and praying openly is always charming, especially when both teams are doing it at the same time. The cynical are left wondering if they came to witness some sports action or which team can impress the big guy the most with some spectacular grovelling in a circle.

Superstitious sports persons tend to favor a certain piece of sporting equipment. It provides great fodder for the commentators who revel in telling us how lovingly that piece of equipment has been looked after. The strapping and worn-off tape keeping it together is always quite evident. These guys and gals also seem to favor items of clothing and stinky shoes which they believe brings them luck or that added edge. Or how about standing on one leg when the score gets to a certain unlucky figure? Is all of this sport? Or a comedy festival?

Has it ever occurred to sportspeople that if a divine presence were actually in existence somewhere, he or she would be too busy drumming up a tsunami somewhere else in the world, or causing a volcano to erupt violently, or derailing a train somewhere or even creating that fog that leads to a 50-car pile-up?  Do these guys think that the Divine Demolisher would have time to indulge in some insignificant sporting activity while he or she has his or her hands full trying to keep Mercury, Venus and the Earth from crashing into the sun, while at the same time hanging onto Pluto so that it doesn’t drift off into space? Where would this entity find the time to intervene in a sports match while it is busy ensuring that the vines catch the sunlight and the bees eat pollen rather than moss? Really, the arrogance of these sports types!!!

Perhaps it’s all just an elaborate ruse to get us to think that someone else is at fault when teams perform badly; someone the manager can’t readily sack from the team. Maybe they just want to draw attention away from their own piss-poor performance by making us think that the result of a game of sport is really determined by some supernatural guy-in-the-sky who has great fun making a team invincible one week and crappy another.  And that’s why the praying-in-a-circle comes in handy after a loss. Makes one want to join in with some flailing rather than wailing.

You know, as a fan of Arsenal, I’m really glad that they eventually went on to win 2-1. But I’ll be dammed if I’m told that it was because of a hand-out from the guy-in-the-sky, because the truth is they won through putting in a good peformance. The only way for a team to lose is either through a bad performance by themselves or the referee or both.