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Space Fighter: Why we cared about Cassini.

15 September 2018 12:00AM scicomm

On this day, one year ago, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn's atmosphere. This was widely regarded as a good move, but made a lot of people very sad.

But why? It performed its function to specification, and once its operational lifetime was over, it was decommisioned. It's no different, really, from any other piece of scientific equipment. There's no logical reason for us to empathise with a spacecraft. And yet, from mission control to Youtube comments sections, that's exactly what we did.

This phenomenon is called anthropomorphism, and it's part of being human. As social animals, it's incredibly useful for us to be able to figure out what other humans are thinking. Our brains, over hundreds of thousands of years, have adapted to be really good at just that. Sometimes, they're a little too good. If something looks even a little bit human, it causes that ancient instinct to fire, even if it's not supposed to.

Curiosity takes a selfie

But Cassini was no Curiosity. It didn't have a stereo cameras that looked like eyes, or soil samplers that looked like hands. It was a car-sized oblong bristling with instruments and antennae. There was nothing recognisably human about it - except for the way it behaves.

When it comes to anthropomorphism, actions can be just as powerful as appearances. If something looks like it's behaving with purpose, we try to understand what that purpose might be. In a context that's not familiar, like, say, orbiting around a gas giant, the urge to fall back on that ancient, primitive part of our mind to help us understand is even stronger.

In short? We empathised with Cassini so much because above all else, it looked like it was trying.

Cassini fights to keep its antenna pointed

This moment, from NASA's Grand Finale announcement video, is the perfect example. Cassini has a goal, something that it wants to do, and it's struggling to keep doing it. Everything it's doing happens for a good scientific or engineering reason, but in this moment it's the human explanation that stands out to us.

Opinions are mixed on whether anthropomorphising science like this is a good idea. On one hand, many researchers consider it unscientific. It pushes us to rely on untestable gut instincts, rather than evidence or cause and effect. Perhaps rightly, they're concerned that treating things as human when they aren't is a bit of a misconception.

On the other hand, we have Cassini, where everyone from mission controllers to Youtube commenters got excited and connected on a very human level with something happening a billion kilometres away.

Nobody really believes Cassini is alive, but we act like it is, because it makes a better story. Everyone, not just NASA engineers, had a link with that little probe. And while we lost one connection that day, we gained one as well - with science, and perhaps with each other too.

Creative Commons License
Space Fighter by Rockwell McGellin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Patchwork Punch-clock

16 August 2018 10:02PM life

So I got another job.

The reasons for that are, as always, complex and multifaceted. At least part of it was a sense that I'd outgrown the job I was in, and I was looking for something a bit different, and a bit more challenging, and a bit new.

But I also thought it would bring me stability. The last few months had been a little bit... haphazard. I had my regular presenting shifts. I had my prac to finish. I had a research project into VR for my final bit of course credit. I was tutoring, and marking, two classes of first years, and giving a couple of guest lectures and tutes on top of that. I was freelancing. And I was - in theory, if not in practice - editing my thesis for publication as well.


Because of many of these things, and despite some of the others, I managed to graduate only one semester late.

Amongst all that stuff, it was nice to take a moment to appreciate the fact that hey - we made it.

This was a graduation for me, not for my parents. I got a nice haircut, so I wouldn't have hat hair like last time, and booked a photographer I actually knew. Because with all the blurred lines, a defined endpoint is nice. Doing one last thing together as a proper little cohort was nice too.

And afterwards, my mum told me to go and do something fun.

I went and found my supervisor.

And we dropped our robes in the same old office and went down to the pub. Not as a student and a supervisor, but as colleagues. And that was really nice.


I thought things might let up a bit after that. I was mistaken.

I was presenting most days again. I was freelancing again too. I was doing content management for a website redevelopment. I was still working on that same research project, and probably half a dozen more side projects as well.

It was quite the roller-coaster. I learned all kinds of new skills.

And despite many of these things - perhaps because of some of the others - I somehow found time to apply for that elusive, seductive, full time job.

I'm not going to lie, I struggled with that a bit. When I got the offer, I spent an anguished afternoon sitting at a park bench journalling it out. Was I making a mistake, leaving the cobbled-together casual-freelance life for "stability" and "job security"? Did I owe it to myself to try and make this thing I had work? Was I selling out my freedom to choose how I spend my time?

Did I really want to stick to one full-time job, just so I'd be too busy to worry about anything else?

In the end, of course, none of it mattered. The Norns in Human Resources stared at the threads of my life and cast their omens, and offered me two part-time jobs instead.

(Now I feel like now I can legitimately say hey - I didn't choose the gig life. The gig life chose me.)


So I'm still two days a week here, and one day a week there, and spend Tuesday afternoons somewhere else a-tutoring.

And I'm still not sure what comes next.

But that's okay.

I will keep piecing things together, because in the end that's all anyone's life is anyway. The sooner you own that the sooner you'll be able to take a little bit more of an active hand in guiding your fate.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

And when life pulls you in many directions, you make a patchwork.


 sliding down

The Planetarian's Tale

13 August 2018 02:36PM fictionscicommhighlight

"Have you ever seen a star, kid?"

The kid nods. Who hasn't?

"No, a real one. Outside."

Confused, the kid shakes their head. Stars live inside, everyone knows that.

"When I was a lad," the traveller begins, "you used to be able to see the stars at night."

The kid's eyes roll. They'd asked for a proper story. This was a fairy tale.

"Before the City crept its way out here, before the smoke and light came, you could see entire galaxies stretching out over our heads."

"But they built, and they built, and they built. Blocks became houses, which became offices, which became skyscrapers. And eventually, they scraped the stars right off the roof of the world."

"People complained, of course. We knew what we were losing, even then. 'The Dark Sky movement', they called themselves, and they told us we were losing the dark. But progress is progress, and progress marches forwards. People cared. Just not enough."

"Instead, we built a fake sky to sate them. We sold them tickets and told them stories of what used to be theirs by birthright. The sky became a luxury, a novelty, and we convinced them it was the same thing."

"It's not the same. Not even close."

"Stars aren't fuzzy blobs you can reach out and touch, that you can catch and hold in your hand. They're cold and bright, and sharp - so sharp it hurts.

"They do their best with software and lenses and xenon, but all they'll ever have is fuzzy wishy-washy things stuck inside a basement.

"A real star is a true point source. It's a pinprick tickling your retina, an impossibly razor-thin edge honed by billions of kilometres of dispersal and backed by the energy of an entire sun. The starlight that hits your eye is a single, uninterrupted beam that stretches from you out into the universe, splayed out thread by thread to the very limit of human perception."

"The night sky is the crispest, highest definition thing in the universe.

The traveller falls silent and stares into the distance. The kid lingers, awkwardly, realising they're intruding on what's fast becoming a private moment.

"At night, we used to see stars."

"And they say, kid," he says as he picks up his pack, "That if you get far enough away, you still can."

Life is a subway

05 August 2018 04:32PM lifegameshighlight

There's this recurring concept in video games called a 'cooldown'.

The idea is that you can only push something so far, repeat an action so many times, before you have to wait for it (sometimes literally) to cool down.

As a gameplay mechanic, it forces you to think strategically about time. You have to plan your current actions, taking into account how much you've already used, and how much you're likely to need in the immediate future. Depending on how the system is set up, that calculus can get pretty deep pretty quickly.

One of my favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in Mini Metro.

mini metro

In Mini Metro you're building a subway map, trying to link stations together to get passengers to where they want to go. If you have too many passengers waiting at any given station, that station is "overcrowded". If it stays overcrowded for too long, your subway closes down and the game is over.

The first thing I love about this is that it's cumulative. Once you clear the crowds at a station it doesn't reset immediately. It takes a while to cool down. Meanwhile, people are still stopping there - and if it overcrowds again, the timer picks up from where it left off. So if you've got a station that overcrowds once, it's not really a big deal - but if there's one that overcrowds regularly, your fuse gets shorter and shorter and shorter until you deal with whatever's causing it. Incidental overcrowding is fine, sometimes even a useful buffer. But chronic overcrowding will drive your subway into the ground.


The other thing I love about this is the way it lets you know that a station is overcrowded. Every stop has a little meter wrapped around the outside, which gives you a really good way to know how healthy your network is at a glance. But if ypu're zoomed right in, adjusting one particular part of the map, you're going to miss those telltales. So overcrowded stations also pulse, ever so gently, in a way that's visible and audible no matter how far you're zoomed in. It's subtle - so subtle you might not even notice you're noticing it - but it's enough to let you know something's wrong.

cooldown timer

One of my other favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in the way I've come to think about work.

I could happily sit here and draw parallels for days, but the point I want to make is actually pretty simple.

There will be parts of life where you have to run yourself down a bit - deadlines, due dates, disasters. It's okay, even useful, to let things get a bit overcrowded, but you have to let them cool down afterwards

An important part of that is learning to feel when your stations are overloading before it happens. There's no dial winding upwards or increasingly urgent pulses in your peripheral vision to remind you. It's complicated by the fact that when you're busy, the last thing you have time to do is stop and think about how you're feeling.

It's not something you can do quantitatively either - say, setting yourself a three-project-limit - because the resources at your disposal and how they're structured and how good you are at using them are changing and growing constantly.

growing and changing

It's something that you have to do purely by feel. By learning to read those telltales. It's something I'm still working on, and it's hard, because by the time you start to feel tired or burnt out, it's already game over.

game over

Tea & sound & tools & shades

25 July 2018 12:00AM introspectionscicommtea

Every one of the strategies described in these chapters has worked for some writer somewhere; at least some of them are bound to work for you.

I recently finished reading Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword*. It's a book about academic writing, where the author asks a bunch of successful academic writers about their writing habits. It's part research project, part show and tell and part self-help book, which might sound like an odd combination but it's a surprisingly successful one.

It doesn't insist on beating you over the head with mantras about waking up at dawn and sculling black coffee and pounding out a thousand words before breakfast. Instead it's descriptive, and makes suggestions, and encourages you to think about what might work for you.

So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my writing habits sound a lot like my thesis year. Partly that's selection bias - it's by far the most work I've ever done in my life. As examples go, that's definitely my big one.

But it's not just that. I had a lot of work which had to get done. The things I did while I did that work, even if they weren't directly a part of it, wore a groove in my brain. It didn't just reflect the way I work, it changed the way I work.

I'm going to try and break that experience down into its component parts. Partly for my own reference, and partly because maybe it'll work for someone else out there too.


While I'm certainly a fan of drinking the stuff, the real value for me is in the process of brewing it. It's something to do with my hands and my mind that's not typing. It gets me out of my chair, even if it is just to the kitchen. It forces me to stop and stand and wait for things to boil and brew.

One of the nice things about switching to loose leaf tea (aside from the fact that it tastes better) is that it draws that process out. It makes everything a little less mechanical and a little more thoughtful.

But I'm sure the caffeine doesn't hurt either.


There's a lot of research that shows sharing an office with other people - especially if they're not working on the same projects as you - really puts a dent in your ability to focus.

Headphones aren't a perfect solution, but they do at least let me choose my background noise. Perhaps more importantly, they've grown to serve as a social cue to the people around us that you're trying to focus and that they shouldn't interrupt you.

But really, I think this one is purely Pavlovian. I just spent a lot of time blocking out a noisy office last year. As a result I've conditioned myself to work best in the sonic and mental environment of the imaginary medieval library that lives in my headphones.


I have a handful of red Pilot G2s. They cost about four dollars each. I carefully open each one up, and replace the .7mm red ink with a .5mm black one. The red barrel makes them easy to identify, and fills exam invigilators with horror. The thinner refill makes them so much of a joy to write with that I will gleefully cover my notebooks in doodles.

I have replaced laptops because the keyboard was too spongy or flexed in the middle. Doesn't have to be mechanical, but it does need to feel solid. There needs to be little bursts of satisfying tactile feedback to make you want to keep hitting the keys.

Every keypress, every scratch, should be satisfying. The bare minimum is that your tools don't make your experience worse, but the ideal should be tools that make you itch to use them.


(Excuse me while I pivot wildly from poetic to practical...)

I wanted the last heading to rhyme with 'space', hence 'shades', but what I'm actually talking about here is regular old glasses. And the reason is pretty simple:

Splitting headaches really put a dent in your productivity.

This feels like it's been a little self-indulgent. I think asking you to post your own version is probably doubly so. I absolutely wrote this for myself and I'm sharing it just because I can, but that's not really the point.

I love hearing about how other people work, but even if you don't share, I'd encourage you to at least think about what your habits might be. Speaking from personal experience, once you understand what it is that helps you to work well, you can start to do it a little more deliberately.

* Can we just take a second to appreciate what an amazing last name this is?

< People aren't dumb.