A month on Mars

The year is 2035, and the new space race is well underway.

Jeffrey Aussat straightened his back under the Martian sun. He stretched as he leaned onto the handle of his space-shovel, raising his hand to wipe the sweat from his tired brow. Of course this made him feel stupid, as it had every time since they landed. His clumsy hand, gloved up and looking for all the world just like the hand of Gozer the Destructor, stops short as it meets the clear glass of his visor. Jeff curses himself at the unavoidable fact that, despite nearly a (Mars) month since they arrived on the spaceship Clever Reference, he still couldn’t get used to the simplest things. Like the need to have this damn fish-bowl on every time he goes outside.

Jeff curses himself again as his shovel snaps in half. Losing focus during retrospection and self-pity, he somehow must have applied an off-axis load onto the carbon fiber handle. A few moments respite for his weary, microgravity-weakened bones, had turned into disaster. On Mars, the gravity may be slight but the days sure are long, but they don’t tell you that in the brochure.

Jeff now found himself up a recurring slope lineae without a planetary-protection cleared drill bit. Jeff and his partner had started out their ‘stead with 32 shovels, and in just a few weeks every single on had fallen prey to some combination of user error and catastrophic failure. Every building in their inflatable homestead creation kit was designed to be placed underground, damping temperature swings and blocking some of the deadly radiation pouring down on Mars surface. Specifically, the buildings needed to have a huge amount of ground piled on top of them to keep the humans alive, and without a working shovel they couldn’t move regolith quickly enough to make their new home habitable. Due to some shady logistics, they wouldn’t receive their “mule”- a heavy lifting robot- until the next colonization flotilla arrived, roughly two years on.

Jeff holds the transmit button on his radio as he slumps down in the shade of his space-wheelbarrow, half-piled high with regolith and also made from carbon fiber. “Becky, I think we have a problem,” he said.

After a short intermission of static, Becky replied with a sigh, “You’ve got a leak in your suit again, don’t you?” Getting used to the strange Martian gravity after playing zero-G ping pong for three months, Jeff had often ended up tumbling down to hands and knees during the first weeks of their stay, a stress the suits were well-designed to withstand. Repeated joint flexion of the suit fabric with embedded Martian dust, however, rapidly opened up a community of near-microscopic pinholes that were almost impossible to find and patch.

“No, not this time. It’s the shovel.”

“The last shovel?”

Jeff paused. “… Yeah.” This was bad. They would have to resort to much less efficient regolith maneuvering techniques, working only at night and sleeping under the raw materials in the shed to limit radiation exposure. After the recurring problem with clumsiness-induced suit leaks, Becky’s patience was sure to be running out on him. The trip over had already placed enough stress on their relationship. “Is the 3D printer working yet? Maybe we can print a new one, or print a repair splint for one of the frayed shovel shafts.”

Silence followed for nearly a minute. She was either checking the printer status or seriously considering filing flight plans to leave. “I’m afraid the printer’s still down. The print nozzle was damaged during the last maintenance test.”

“Oh.” Jeff replied. He didn’t finish converting the thought running through his head to speech: so we’re screwed then.

“No problem. I’ll order a fresh crate from Amazon.”

“What?” This was either a joke, a hoax, or lifesaving news.

“Check your email. They’ve opened up a new distribution center on Phobos. Bezos built it up and staffed it without telling anybody.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No joke. I need a few extra items to qualify for free shipping, do you need anything?”

“I’m sure we can think of something. I’ll return to the compound with the regolith I’ve collected and we can run an inventory.” Jeff tossed the broken shovel on top of the regolith in the enormous wheelbarrow. The designers had figured that, if everything on Mars would weigh so much less than on Earth, all the tools should be designed to be that much larger. The result was a suite of construction and farming tools that were cartoonishly two and a half times too large when fully assembled. As Jeff wheeled the barrow around to face the glint from the compound’s solar panels, he felt his mood pick up. They were going to be OK after all.

“There’s something else going on that’s a bit weird.” Becky said.

Jeff skipped a step, catching himself on the wheelbarrow handles to prevent impregnating the knees on his suit with more abrasive dust. “What is it?” he asked.

“You remember that huge rover from 2020?”

Jeff made a vague confirmatory noise “Uh . . . the Scrutiny, was it?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. It’s attacking the water scavenging plant.”

“What? Why? I thought that thing was supposed to be retired by now, parked somewhere near Jezero delta?”

“Well it’s here, and it’s pushing the water plant over. The LEDs are putting out some sort of morse code, I’m still trying to figure it out.” Becky explained.

“How long until it damages the water plant?” Jeff inquired.

“At this rate, probably a couple of weeks. They didn’t move very fast back then.”

Jeff felt the spring return to his step. Two weeks was enough time to contact the mission controllers to get some help debugging the rovers strange behavior. As he realized the problem was tractable, the physical sensation of a weight lifted from his shoulders. Also, the motility assist systems on his suit had finally finished calibrating.

“Too bad they didn’t set up the distro center in time for Mars One.” Jeff joked

“Too soon, Jeff, that’s not funny.” Becky said coldly.

The Mars One mission had ended in a tragicomic maelstrom of cannibalism and incidental lyophilization. The cameras, intended to live-broadcast the travails of the crew around the clock, were among the last systems still running on the capsule. Although the sponsors had long disavowed any relationship to the mission, anyone with a standard transceiver and a darkly morbid curiosity could ping the ship and tune in to the dismal situation. A series of planned challenges/mission planning fiascos ultimately meant they never got onto the correct Mars rendezvous trajectory. In their current orbit, apoapsis would never quite reach Mars orbit, nor would periapsis ever bring them close enough for an earthly recapture. Ironically, what remained of the crew and craft would probably outlast them all. The perfectly preserved astronauts would remained unchanged for millennia in their wayward but stable orbit, like confused Pharaohs circling the portal to the netherworld.

A skeptic over coffee: sick of lab meetings

rhinovirus

This post brought to you by a dedicated community of human Rhinovirus ( pdb model 1AYM).

Imagine the following dialogue between researchers:

Wayne the Brain: “Third one this week ::Cough:: I am literally sick of lab meetings.”
Wankdorf: “Oh I feel ya. There are way too many lab meetings. It’s a real waste of time, but that’s the cost of pulling from so many different realms of expertise in interdisciplinary projects.”
Wayne the Brain: “No no no, I am literally sick of lab meetings. All the exposure is really taking a toll on my health. ”
Wankdorf: “Why didn’t you say so?! Stay away, you purveyor of vile pestilence! ::cough::”

I hope, dear reader, that you spotted the root cause of their misunderstanding. Wayne (the Brain) was hypothesizing a suspected transmission rate while simultaneously advertising his own condition as definitely infected and possibly contagious. Wankdorf (unsurprisingly) misinterprets the statement by applying a more colloquial definition of the term “literally.” It’s not clear whether infection of the second researcher could have been avoided and the spread of the disease slowed had they practised more effective communication, but that scenario is plausible given what we know.

Of course this is an extreme example, and the consequences may not always be so dire. The most frustrating part of the above exchange and subsequent misunderstanding is that neither participant was strictly wrong in the definition they assumed for “literally.” This word now literally can be used to say “in the truest sense of the words” and the exact opposite, and my brain literally imploded when I learned about the new definition.

If you don’t believe me, check out the definition in both the Cambridge and Merriam-Webster online dictionaries. I’ve screenshotted the definitions to preserve this embarrassment for posterity:

merriamwebsterliterally

cambridgeliterally

Language is dynamic, some (Wankdorf etc.,) would even say that it is dynamical. Hence it doesn’t make you appear smarter to bore your friends by talking about Romans every time they say “decimate.” Language is constantly changing in response to the selective pressures of popular usage, subject to many factors as people and cultures interact.

Similar to many other examples of evolution, humans affect the way a language changes by taking note of and modifying the selective pressures they individually exert. The consequences may be particularly important in science, where English is the common tongue but not in general the first language of most practitioners. I expect that modern English will evolve to encompass multiple forms based on usage. Native speakers sat on the British Isles, laying in North America, and so on will continue to retain and invent complexity and idiosyncrasy, while international English will come to resemble a utilitarian version of Up-Goer Five English, paring off superfluous complexities while retaining the most effective elements to become as simple as possible, but no simpler. It’s possible that international English will even retain sarcasm.

Pop quiz: what’s your favourite English speaker idiosyncrasies used in this article?