Day 19: Birds and Rovers

Taking Anne Lamott’s invaluable advice, I’ve been taking it bird by bird today with some small success. I think I’m going to finish the section on family and may be able to start the one on property. Since I haven’t been able to write anything for almost a week, it feels like a huge success to have some little bit of writing going well. I’ve been at it almost break free since about 10 this morning. Which, all told, is pretty good. Forgive the self-back-patting (which actually isn’t very easy) but if I don’t pat my own back, I have to wait a few hours for Spousal Unit to come home and pat it for me. Which, while more fun and satisfying, is a delayed gratification and I want some praise right now.

It could help that the weather is beautiful, I’m staying at home, my back is (so far) pain free, and my toes are only slightly numb, which I can live with for now. Or maybe it is because I’ve just had to really let go of my expectations for the work I would get done each day and just accept what it is that I do actually get done.

Last week, Spousal Unit and I saw this great talk for the annual meeting of his Physics Related Job at Very Important University. It was given by one of the guys involved in the Mars Rover project, and it was so inspiring. There were some truly amazing photographs and spectacular stories (like the hematite “blueberries”, the dust-tornados with no pressure or umph behind them, and the amazing longevity of those little guys that were designed to run for 90 days and over a year later they’re still going. What I wanna know is how we can manage to make that work, but somehow can’t make cars that don’t run on gasoline. Go figure.)

Anyway, the story he told that touched me the most was about how one of the rovers, Opportunity, was rolling along one day on Mars and it just got stuck in this dune of ash or some other powdery substance. Because they don’t have real-time controls of the robots– it’s not like they’ve got a Mars joystick that drives the robots as they watch — the rovers are running on remote programming. It works like this: the scientists on Earth just tell the robot to go X distance on that day, the command gets beamed up, and 20 or so hours later (I think), the rover gets the instructions and does what it is told. So on this Very Bad Day, the Opportunity rover was obeying the scientists’ commands from 20 hours ago and drove itself into this dune thingey. It didn’t know that it was actually stuck, because its sensors were linked to the wheel movement, and its wheels didn’t stop moving, so it thought it was doing just fine. But actually it was digging itself deeper and deeper into this dune, and getting more and more stuck as it drove the whole huge distance it was told to go, only moving not at all.

I just love this image — that so often we think we’re doing ok, we’re going along ok, and our wheels are still moving, so we must be getting somewhere, right? But it isn’t until we look around that we actually realize we’re stuck and have spent a lot of energy to get absolutely nowhere. The inspiring part was that the scientist spent 40 days and 40 nights (I’m not very religious anymore, but those are some pretty potent symbolic numbers there) to get it unstuck. And they had to do it centimeter by centimeter. They couldn’t tell it to go very far, because then it would just spin, and spin, and spin. So, the scientists would say, ok, go a little tiny bit then stop. The next time they could transmit, they’d tell it the same thing. A little tiny bit, then stop. And finally, after this achingly long time, it freed itself from the dune. (The only thing I think that would make the story better is if it were Spirit that were stuck, because how often do our spirits sink themselves deep into some grey dusty dune?) But, the thing that really gets me is what happened next. So, now (as of a couple of weeks ago) it’s free, it’s gotten out of this horrible situation that had all of the scientist on edge for this agonizingly long time, and what do the scientists do? They turn the puppy around and send it back to that ash dune to check it out. They want to know what that stuff is that it was stuck in. It if were me, I’d run screaming in the other direction as fast as my little robot wheels could carry me back to solid ground. But, apparently they need to know what it is so that they can avoid it (and the stuck situation) in the future.

My point with this? I think last week I was stuck in an ashy dune, and that I’m working centimeter by centimeter to free myself. And maybe, when I’m out, I’ll really have to go back and check out the muck that held me so that hopefully I can avoid it in the future. Or maybe I’ll hoof it to some handy Martian rock and hang out there for a while, hoping to hitch a ride to somewhere that doesn’t have ashy dunes or remote scientists pulling my strings.

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5 responses to “Day 19: Birds and Rovers

  1. What a wonderful story! I am having an overdue good laugh (great writing by the way) and gaining wisdom (plus a little knowledge about those Mars thingies that I can casually drop at some party). Thanks!

  2. Yeah you!! Keep at those centimeters!

  3. Excellent Opportunity.

  4. The PhD Explosion

    That’s actually very inspiring. And, yes, wonderful writing.

  5. Thanks guys!

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