Monday, August 06, 2012

Bolt vs Curiosity: it's no match

More than a few news sites this morning selected Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, as their lead story. Bolt broke an Olympic record and ran the second fastest 100m ever recorded to win gold in London, recording a top speed of something like 45km/h.

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck on Mars.

Every little boy (and plenty of little girls, I'm sure) dreams of running fast. And Bolt's 9.63s sprint was probably about two, three or four times as fast as most young children can run. I remember the first time I ran 100m against the clock, I came in at roughly 20s. I won't say how old I was...

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck, weighing almost a ton, on Mars.

Bolt raced in front of a crowd of 80,000 at the stadium and hundreds of millions around the world. He is an international celebrity whose endorsement is worth millions to any brand and whose face is recognised by countless fans everywhere.

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck, capable of finding evidence of extra-terrestrial life, on the ruddy surface of another planet.

Bolt's top speed was about 45km/h, the fastest any human has ever run. Curiosity's top speed was about 21,200 km/h. Bolt's speed was roughly double that of my boyhood efforts. Compared to my boyhood efforts at launching myself into space, Curiosity surpassed my - let's be generous and say 50cm - jump by a factor of 1.12 billion, travelling roughly 560 million kilometres from the surface of Earth to that of Mars. Bolt has trained for years in order to get every last detail correct: working on his running style, his start, his finish, his crowd-pleasing theatrics. Humans have been trying to work out whether there is or has been life on Mars for centuries and this mission has been in planning for eight years and en route for eight months, with scores of highly trained rocket scientists planning every last detail of a mission out of the Earth's gravity well, through the irradiated void of space and which culminated in seven minutes of terror, a hugely complex multi-stage precision landing procedure that had to be entirely automated, given the fact that signals from Mars to Earth take fourteen minutes and the entry only took seven. Imagine getting an almost one tonne truck to slow from over 21,000 km/h to zero in seven minutes while falling through a thin atmosphere with relatively strong gravity and landing on a precise spot on the far side of a planet without kicking up any dust or breaking billions of dollars worth of delicate scientific equipment. Wow.

So well done Mr Bolt. But what kind of planet do we live on where many of the major news organisations think that a man doing what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years (just very marginally better than anyone else) is bigger news than landing a space laboratory capable of reconstructing the deep history of another planet and searching for evidence of extra-terrestrial life on the surface of a planet 560 million kilometres away? Well done NASA. You deserve all the gold medals today, for an achievement that leaves every olympian, no matter how awesomely superhuman, in the shade.

Knowledge is superior to strength, skill to speed, carefully planned and executed cooperation to isolated brilliance. Yet better even than knowledge is wisdom. Though don't hold your breath for the day that the pursuit of wisdom makes a news headline ahead of a photogenic man running quickly at a corporate-sponsored event. Nonetheless, if Curiosity finds what it is looking for, we'll need plenty of wisdom to grasp it.
She [Wisdom] is more precious than jewels,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her. [...]
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
    those who hold her fast are called happy.

- Proverbs 3.15, 18 (NRSV).


byron smith said...

Ethos: Beware the gods of Olympus.

byron smith said...

Conversation: Curiosity is now on Mars - what next?

I almost forgot to mention that the rover is powered by plutonium, and there was a very slight, but real possibility that had the launch proved unsuccessful (as has been the case on a few occasions in NASA history), the mission might simply have succeeded in scattering plutonium around a band of the globe containing more than a few major urban centres. Fun and games. Another reason we're happy that the mission has been successful...

Hugh O'Brien said...

I made a similar argument and was quickly snapped at by Olympics supporters. I've been trying to work out the underlying motivators for the different reactions people have.

I think perhaps because it's harder to appreciate something that isn't right in front of you and easily understandable. Takes a bit of imagination and knowledge. Perhaps also the same reason why teams are never as lauded as individuals. If you see a successful individual, you can imagine that if you had done what they did to get there, you too would be successful. You can't easily work that mentality into teams, because you as an individual could almost never achieve as they have, and no one wants to hear they couldn't do something.

As a side note, it's interesting to contrast the two events as embodiments of 'competition' and 'collaboration'.

Feel free to drop me a mail if you're interested in puzzling some of this out.


byron smith said...

Hi Hugh,

Good thoughts there. I suspect there may also be an element of: huge muscle-bound man in a leotard vs the offspring of a 4x4 and Number Five.

Plus, only one is sponsored by McDonalds. The other is a nasty, wasteful, anti-capitalist, send-us-back-to-the-stone-age government programme. OK, maybe I'm getting a little facetious... :-)

You do make some good points. If I were on Google +, I'd friend you or whatever it is that happens on Google +.

byron smith said...

PS I realise that perhaps little tirades like this would be more impressive if Australia weren't tanking so badly and traditional rivals NZ and UK doing so well. It easily comes off as sour grapes. But in my defence, I had pretty much the same attitude during the 2000 Sydney games as well. I didn't particularly notice either the 2004 or 2008 games, apart from a few glances at their opening ceremonies (which I find to be mainly interesting from a cultural projection perspective).

byron smith said...

Daily Mash: Bookish Australia indifferent to Olympics Success. (H/t Emma)

Thor said...

Just curious:

The article mentions a top speed of 21000 km/h.
The distance traveled was 567 million km.
It accomplished this in 255 days.

This, I believe, gives us an average speed of 567,000,000 / 255 / 24 = 92,647 km/h.

How is the maximum speed lower than the average speed?

gr, Thor

Thor said...


Speed is relative.

I guess the 21,000 is the speed of the object relative to mars.

The distance travelled will have been calculated relative to earth.

The ultimate speeds are therefor not directly opposable in an equation.

byron smith said...

Thor - Yes, the speeds are complex. I should have made it clearer that the c.21,000 km/h was the initial speed relative to Mars upon entry, presenting the initial point of the landing challenge (from 21,000km/h to 0 in 7 minutes). To confuse things, I then shifted frame of reference a couple of lines later to talk about the total distance travelled on the mission.

byron smith said...

SMBC: Why we go to space.