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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How the Night Tube could give London’s mice that Friday feeling

London Underground’s smaller inhabitants might be affected by the off-squeak service – and learn when the weekend’s coming up.

What will the mice who live in the Tube network make of the new all-night service? Half a million of them are thought to have made the London Underground their home – and will be in for a surprise when the Victoria and Central lines keep running this weekend.

The Londonist is concerned the mice “are unlikely to get any sleep” with the new Night Tube, and may move to the District line instead. Yet a number of scientists point out to the New Statesman that mice are nocturnal creatures, most likely to sleep while the lights are on and the trains are running.

So will they get on board with the change – or make a run for different platforms on other lines?

The bad news:

“When the Tube’s away, the mice will play,” is how the rhyme (almost) goes. 

Many have come to know  and even love  the mischiefs of the mice who stream off the tracks and out of the tunnels as the stations close at night, in search of discarded morsels of Maccy D. And until now, they’ve had a good few hours to conduct such galavanting in peace. But the new system means they will have to re-structure their sleep and foraging cycles, or “circadian rhythms”. 

“The presence of night trains should upset several of these entrainment factors (or zeitgebers = time givers) leading to disturbances in their behaviours,” explains Professor Patrick Nolan, from MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics. 

“When you fly across the Atlantic, for example, it takes a few days to adapt, you feel a bit groggy, don't perform as well as you usually do, don't eat well, etc. You soon adapt to the change. But if there are constant disruptions like this, the effect may be more severe and long-lasting. And this is how the schedule changes in the Underground might affect the resident mice.” 

So it's the constant switching between the week and weekend schedules that could leave the mice  and Tube drivers  most cheesed off. Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are two possible effects of the resulting anxiety, and their mating patterns and liver functions are also likely to be disturbed.

The good news:

Yet it is unlikely mice will be leaving the Night Tubes for good. 

The more time we humans have to drop our dinners, the larger the menu becomes for the mice (researchers tell me that strawberry milk and Wheetos are particularly favoured fare).

“Mice are active most of the time – so more trains at night hours will not make such a difference to them,” say the RSPCA’s wildlife officers. “In fact, it may help as it may provide more foraging opportunities.”

They’ve also faced worse before. The London Transport Museum reminds us that, during the Second World War, cats were employed to counter vermin on the network (spot the cat in the 1940s TfL workers' canteen below).


Credit: London Transport Museum

For Dr Samuel Solomon at UCL, there is plenty to suggest the mice will successfully adapt. His study of mouse reflexes shows how they respond to various visual stimuli – and can start running within one-tenth of a second. “There might be cues they pick up – if people clean the station differently on Fridays, for instance.”

The tracks’ electric current may no longer be entirely switched off (if it ever was), but their whiskers’ sensitivity to vibrations could help them juggle their escapades to fit around the Night Tube’s less frequent service.

What Dr Soloman can’t yet predict is whether the mice will start to anticipate that Friday feeling: “It will be interesting to see whether they can learn that Friday is Friday”.

All in all, the Tube mice seem well set for the Night Tube’s new challenge. Who knows, they may soon gain the confidence of their 24/7 brothers in New York – and start ordering take-out...

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.