Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What’s worse – 105 Days in a Windowless Capsule or 3 Days in Canberra?

With my shoulder still recovering slowly, I’ve decided to do a bit of running again. Here’s a shot from a run across Sydney’s Anzac Bridge – one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world. I’m hoping to run the 14km City to Surf run in a few weeks time.

CAUTION: I must warn readers who are sensitive to sarcasm and sardonic wit… …as this update follows a recent trip to Canberra, a city deservedly famous in Australia as a national centre of dullness.

I’ve been to Canberra three times now, twice at gunpoint. Not literally at gunpoint of course, but being work trips I didn't have any influence over the choice of destination. This time I had a three day stay in Canberra for a microfinance course. This constituted my longest stay in the city yet, by two days, and about three-days longer than anyone needs to stay in the ACT, as Australia’s Capital Territory is known.

But before I really let rip on Australia’s capital city, something far more interesting caught my eye in the news in the last week. With all the focus on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the surface of the moon, a rather less stunning milestone in the history of manned-space travel has been reached.

Six volunteers have just emerged from 105 days locked in a windowless capsule intended to simulate the cramped and inhospitable conditions that astronauts would have to endure on a manned flight to Mars. As incomparable a moment as Armstrong’s first step on the moon was, I have doubts about whether manned space flight is still relevant in these days when all the spectacular science is being done by unmanned telescopes like the Hubble (admittedly serviced by humans), and the newly launched - and criminally under-celebrated - Herschel telescopes.

But even supposing for a moment that manned space flight does have a future, would you really volunteer to sacrifice 105 days of your life to such an experiment? Sure, these men could also say they were contributing to the scientific advance of mankind. But wouldn’t it grind you down to know that you were locked inside a glorified tin-can pretending to be an astronaut. In fact, mightn't there be something fundamentally abnormal – geeky, unimaginative, passionless (isn’t it telling that all of the volunteers were men) – about these people?

Surely it’s only reasonable to ask: what on earth (a rather appropriate construct I’m sure you’ll agree) leads people to volunteer to be shut in a fake space-capsule for 3 months? Even more unfathomable is that this 'adventure' will now be followed up by a repeat experiment, identical in every respect except that it will last 520 days…

Well one thing’s for sure – at least the experiment is far less dangerous than an actual manned voyage to Mars, where at any point in the two year journey, a rogue chunk of rock could careen into your space capsule, spilling you out into the atmosphere-less expanse of space.

Space isn’t the only place completely lacking in atmosphere. During my work trip I took an early evening constitutional around the streets of central Canberra. Though I hadn’t expected it to be like the last day of the Rio Carneval, or the banks of the Seine in mid-summer, I was still shocked at how much Canberra’s streets lack any joie de vivre.

It was like Edinburgh’s Princes Street at 10am on the 1st of January (though without the smell of rancid beer). Worn down by the soporific feel, I retreated to my hotel room, where at least Aussie Tv might provide some distraction.

Passing reception, I picked up a rather thin publication called “This Week in Canberra” on the off-chance that the town’s streets were so empty because people were having a rip-roaring time at any number of exciting Canberra events. And yes, it is possible that people were cramming themselves into ‘An A to Z of Animals in War’, an exhibition promising “stories of horses, donkeys, camels, dogs and other creatures used by military forces from the First World War to the present day”.

Or maybe there was a run on the unself-consciously named ‘Cockington Green Gardens’ with its “fascinating display of meticulously crafted miniature buildings”. Regulars at Cock Green - as it may or may not be known - must be reassured to learn that 30 years of the Gardens have not subdued the spirit of innovation there, where you can now find a “newly constructed Syrian arch, complementing the original English village”. Not sure those are traditionally considered to be complementary architectural styles, but clearly, as in Canberra, anything can happen at Cockington Green Gardens

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