Heavens above: the achievement of Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope

Long may our exploration of the heavens continue.

If it’s celestial wisdom you’re looking for at this time of year, you could do worse than take a moment to consider Nasa’s achievements. Up there, out there, are objects that give cause to reflect on things bigger than any one of us. Maggie Aderin- Pocock writes about Voyager here, but let’s look at the other two parts of the trinity: Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope.

On 12 December, Nasa scientists unveiled Hubble pictures that show the oldest galaxies in the universe. It has taken 13.4 billion years for their light to reach us from a time when the universe was just 500 million years old. The images promise to help us gather knowledge on one of the most opaque periods of cosmic history.

The Curiosity probe is roving around on the surface of Mars, sending back not only pictures, but the results of chemistry experiments that could tell us our true place in the cosmos. The recent (still tentative) discovery of carbon in the Red Planet’s soil could mark the moment we began to accept that the building blocks of life are scattered throughout the universe; that earth is special only to us, its inhabitants.

Despite our awe, it is not the heavens that are most impressive. In fact, wonder at the beauty and scale of the sights in the universe is almost an inappropriate reaction. Did we expect it to be small and dreary? What really is wonderful is that a carbon-based life form, having evolved in one unremarkable corner of the cosmos, has developed the temerity and skill to probe and explore it. We tame the universe and have begun to understand its origins and mysteries.

We’ve had our failures – this Christmas, it is nine years since the Beagle 2 mission, for instance – but we keep pushing ourselves into the heavens nonetheless. Long may it continue.

A self portrait by Nasa's Curiosity probe on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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Three’s adblocking trial is terrible news for journalism

Against a backdrop of editorial redundancies, it's hard to feel celebratory about the rise of adblocking. 

In a decision which will delight phone users but strike fear into media companies' hearts, the mobile provider Three is running an adblocking trial across its network from mid-June.

The company says it's considering adblocking as a way to improve its customers' privacy and reduce data costs, which makes sense, up to a point. Ads, especially video ads, can eat up mobile users' data and battery life, and can render already-clunky mobile websites practically unusable.

However, the move comes in a week where both new and old news organisations, the Telegraph and Vice, have laid off staff in a bid to make cost savings. These organisations rely (to differing extents) on ad revenue. If readers aren't seeing ads, then whoever published and paid for that writing isn't making money, and probably won't be able to pay for that writing for much longer. 

The trial mirrors Apple's launch in September 2015 of an operating system which supported adblocker apps (which unsurprisingly shot up the Apple Store charts). At the time, I wrote about what this could mean for journalism:

Apple's move is just another which puts journalism at the mercy of giant tech companies. The consumption of media is already dictated by the whims of Google's algorithm, with publications forced to redesign sites and tweak content to ensure they rank highly and are indexed by the search engine.

Apple, notorious in the industry for its fanged response to attacks in the press, will now select its own news for readers via its news app. And media producers may now be forced to turn to social media sites like Facebook, where adblockers have less power, to market or even publish their content. 

Without ads, media companies will need to find other revenue streams, which could include subscription or paywall models - great if they work - or more sponsored posts by companies. 

Ads certainly need to become more user-friendly, and Three makes a good point when it argues that advertisers should pay for the data costs of their ads. But if you were saddened by the editorial redundancies across the media this week, take pause before you celebrate the rise of adblocking. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.