Wanted: One couple, extremely confident in their love for each other, to go to Mars

Dennis Tito wants to give you the trip of a lifetime.

How much do you love your partner? Enough to move in with them? To a house with just under 17 cubic meters of space? And then not leave that house for just over 500 days straight? While drinking your own recycled urine?

If you do, you're odd. But, you may be able to find gainful employment on a spacecraft to Mars. The New Scientist reports:

This week the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a newly formed non-profit organisation, announced plans for a mission to Mars launching on 5 January 2018 and arriving at the planet in August of that year. Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, heads the foundation. The trip will be funded primarily by philanthropic donations – but Tito has committed to personally covering the first two years of mission development, no matter how much it costs.

"This is not a commercial mission," Tito said at a press conference on 27 February in Washington DC. "Let me guarantee you, I will come out to be a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out to be a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them."

Orbital trajectories shared on Twitter by team member Michael Loucks show plans for a spacecraft to leave Earth, fly past Mars and then come home – all within 501 days. The craft will pass over Mars at a distance of about 160 kilometres carrying a two-person crew, probably a married man and woman who will be paid to make the trip.

I'm hoping the specificity of "married man and woman" is an overreach on the part of the New Scientist, because that would be excluding all the wannabe astronauts who are unmarried or in same sex relationships. Hell, you could probably make the case that there should be a requirement that the explorers be a couple of the same sex. Because 501 days is considerably longer than nine months, and the one thing you don't want any chance of is space babies.

(Kidding, space babies would be awesome, but re-entry would be pretty tricky. An infertile couple could also work, of course.)

The full New Scientist piece makes clear that the trip is no easy task. Even ignoring the psychological troubles of being cooped up with someone you love(d) for almost 18 months, there's radiation, piloting, and then a ten-day orbital deceleration to deal with. And if you pull all of that off, you still don't get to actually go to Mars—just circle it from space. It's like that time a friend of mine was refused entry into the USA because they didn't have the right visa, only, I'd imagine, considerably more annoying.

The lucky couple's above for 501 days. Photograph: Inspiration Mars

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”