Thursday, 16 August 2012

Curiosity saved my life

While my brain was rebooting after its flirtation with total mother board failure, NASA's rover Curiosity was completing its 563,270,400km journey from Cape Canaveral to the Gale Crater on Mars. We have become so accustomed to seeing images, from telescopes on earth and in orbit around it, of stellar objects unimaginably distant in time and space that we have become blase about distances within the solar system. If Ben Fogle, fresh from swimming the Atlantic, decided for some unfathomable reason to walk to Mars in Curiosity's footsteps, it would take him about 30,000 years to get there, at eight hours plodding per day. It's a long way.

When it was launched, Curiosity was not aimed at Mars but at where Mars would be 256 days later. In fact it was aimed at a specific window on the surface of the Martian atmosphere a couple of kilometres wide, which it needed to hit in order to land close to its target. In the event, it touched down 2.4km from the bullseye. This is equivalent to firing a rifle in London and putting the bullet through the middle of Sarah Palin's forehead in Alaska, give-or-take 2cm, which admittedly might not be accurate enough. Fortunately the Gale Crater is a more forgiving target than Ms Palin's ganglion and Curiosity is safely on the ground, and sending back spine-tingling images from another world.

My wife made an interesting observation the other day. She said that it is very difficult to be curious and depressed simultaneously. I like a challenge and this one seems as good as any. Wanting to know how things are going to turn out is certainly incompatible with wanting to be dead as soon as possible. Or at least, one has to make a choice which of these two desirable goals is the lesser evil.

I am curious about a lot of things. How my kids will change as they grow older, for example. They are already, aged six and seven, able to do things I've never mastered, like sight-reading music and speaking two languages. They will, I am sure, grow up into vastly more capable adults than I am and, other things being equal, I'd like to be around to see that. I'm curious to know whether Seth Shostak's prediction that SETI will detect a signal from another civilisation within the next 24 years (see here) comes true. If it goes to the wire, I'd be 66 when ET calls, an age that currently seems less plausible than the call. I am curious about the implications of the fact that different members of the same species of ape can decide to fly a car to Mars and an aeroplane into a skyscraper. I would like to know how the debate on whether we are hard-wired for religiosity (see, for example, this talk or this book or this interview with E.O. Wilson) turns out and therefore whether the Enlightenment dream of a world free from superstition is doomed. I'd like to see whether Martin Rees's prediction that we are living through our species' final century prior to extinction is more or less accurate than Ray Kurzweil's confident expectation that humanity is on the cusp of the 'singularity', a transition to an immortal, post-human utopia in which people are liberated by technology from care. Being a depressed realist, my money is on Rees and Jaron Lanier's observation that (to paraphrase) technology is crap, doesn't work and liberates us only momentarily, until we find a way to fill the void with yet more pointless work. More prosaically I am curious to know what the snowdrops and hellebores that I've planted as seeds collected over the last several years from wild populations around Europe look like when they start to flower in large numbers next year. I am sure that passionate gardeners live longer than other people, because there is always another spring to look forward to (gardeners in the tropics probably croak at the same age as everyone else).

The title of this post should really have been 'Curiosity deferred my death' but that more honest appraisal of my situation seemed both less euphonious and unlikely to draw anyone in. Unlike taxes and pace Kurzweil, death can neither be avoided nor evaded but it can be postponed. Usually, after a period of exceptionally low mood (and last week was as low as I've ever been), I experience a sort of relief rally, during which something akin to optimism clouds my otherwise impeccable judgement. This time, however, there hasn't even been a dead cat bounce. Curiosity, and a sense of deep obligation to the family members and friends who have rallied round me in a way that I simply don't deserve, have kept me going, despite a profound wish to curl up and die.


Jake May said...

Another thing to be curious about - not what's coming but what's gone before!:

Ron Tomlinson said...

I too want to be around if and when First Contact is made and to see my children grow up. I do hope we reach Actuarial Escape Velocity within my (healthy) lifetime.

And this post raises an issue for me which I haven't seen addressed by Aubrey de Grey, namely: can immortals maintain mental as well as physical health?

I too have negative thoughts but they don't seem to drag me down to the depths that depression apparently does in its victims. Perhaps they aren't aware that they're having them, or the awareness comes dangerously late?

When I catch myself having such a thought I try to acknowledge the unpleasant feeling it produces (simply by allowing myself to feel it, within the body, rather than resisting it). The thoughts themselves are getting easier to recognise and disidentify from, being mechanical and repetitive. Some people even recommend correction with imaginary counterexamples (visualisations of happy endings, or what *ought* to have happened, in the case of unpleasant memories).

I agree that they are very different from the creative thoughts that go with curiosity, or "Epistemic Hunger" as Dennett refers to it in *Consciousness Explained* (recently finished, btw, thanks for recommending).

If one experiences curiosity, then one is capable of learning. Being able to learn A implies the ability to learn B, or anything else, the only limiting factor being how curious one is about it. So if one is truly interested in learning a language or a musical instrument in middle age then this is entirely possible. There may be physical ways to help, too, like getting a certain amount of exercise, or even nutritional supplements (combining choline with uridine to promote neurogenesis is all the rage in certain circles).

Hopefully my 4th para isn't too vague. Perhaps one of the hazards of being an atheist is that one tends to reject statements about emotions despite the fact that salvation may lie in that direction (minus fatuous religious beliefs, ofc).

-- Tom