Mars? I think I'd rather eat cake

September 15, 2006

Kevin Fong wonders if the price of progress is crazy academics who drive theircolleagues even crazier

I heard recently that the Russians are going to investigate the resilience of the human psyche when engaged in deep space exploration in preparation for a return to the Moon and missions to Mars. It all sounds very sexy, but what it involves is locking up a handful of people in a tin can the size of a couple of caravans on the ground somewhere for 500 days or so with a tonne of Pot Noodle and toothpaste for sustenance.

You'd think they would have learnt. The last time they did this, the experimental crew fell out after less than eight months and started kicking the hell out of each other. One near-hospitalisation and a lawsuit later, they decided in retrospect that introducing alcohol might have been a bad idea. Not that any of this has deterred either the researchers or the 80 or so applicant guinea pigs.

The results from this work might be very valuable but, if you ask me, volunteering to get locked up sounds like the worst idea in the history of extremely bad ideas. Five hundred days is a significant fraction of the rest of my life and if I'm going to endure close confinement and objectionable people, then when I open the door on the other side I'll want to see the surface of Mars for the first time in the history of my species (or at least get a video of my best bits and an interview with Davina McCall).

Jean-Paul Sartre was keen to point out that hell is not a place, hell is other people. This is important when deciding who to cast your lot in with in the world of academia. Wherever you read the words "centre of excellence", there should be a warning on the packet that says "higher than average prevalence of psychotic, type-A behaviour may occur".

It's true that progress is not made by reasonable people, but if you're in a progressive, frontier-pushing environment doesn't that mean you're also likely to be in a world of psychological hurt?

History is full of cataclysmic rivalries between people acknowledged as having made significant contributions to their art. Take a look at 16th-century astronomy by way of example. Johannes Kepler's theories supported by Tycho Brahe's painstaking astronomical observations changed the way we look at the universe. But their relationship was one consumed by "constant boiling anger" and at least one author has suggested that Kepler may have eventually murdered Brahe. The jury is still out. But murder or no, you'd be willing to bet that the thought had crossed both their constantly boiling, angry minds at some stage.

There are dozens of other examples of similarly unreasonable behaviour throughout history. They are often painted over as the idiosyncrasy of character that goes with greatness of mind, but you can never help thinking that you're really glad they weren't your PhD supervisors.

I once worked in a lab where the head honcho was given to pulling telephones out of their wall sockets and throwing them around when he got a bit bent out of shape. But those guys did really amazing work and continue to win incredible grants.

And there's the difficult question: whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous personalities or retire to the coast and set up a little cake shop instead? Who knows?

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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