F*ck yes! Curiosity lands on Mars!

It was spectacularly ambitious and terrifying complicated, but at 10:31pm Pacific time, the MSL rover, Curiosity, touched down softly on the surface of Mars, and sent back its first thumbnail image of the horizon through a fisheye lens.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars.  Courtesy of NASA.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars. Courtesy of NASA.

I watched the rover’s launch in November from my bedroom and shed a private tear of pride and hope. Tonight I was at NASA Ames in California, sharing many tears of happiness and relief.  Nearly ten thousand people packed out the parade ground inside Ames, watching the two huge screens as mission control checked off each automated stage from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena.  Ripples of applause at the switching of antennae and data feeds turned to hearty cheers and then whoops and shouts of delight as entry began, the parachute was deployed, the retro-boosters set in, and finally, MSL touched down on Mars.  It’s hard to believe any image has caused such universal joy as that first 64×64 thumbnail of the Martian surface.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

Over the last few weeks I had become increasingly tired of watching NASA’s cinematic ’7 minutes of terror’ trailer, and explaining the to best of my knowledge the intricacies of the upcoming landing.  But the event tonight, experienced not only by the scientists involved, and the thousands packed into NASA centres across America, but by the whole world through unrivalled live streaming, is something that can not be easily explained or forgotten.  Watching the landing, I had chills that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night, and seeing its success, there is a warmth and elation that is nothing to do with the celebratory swigs of fizz.

We have landed toys on Mars before, small rovers the size of remote control cars, and barely better equipped.  In comparison, the behemoth we have just lowered out of the sky from a freaking jet pack, is a fully equipped geochemical and geological laboratory.  It’s the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, and we’ve just airlifted it from 500,000 miles away.  It’s going to tell us more about the geological and habitable history than we’ve ever known before, and I get to work with that data to look for traces of past life. It’s going to be an unbelievably exciting couple of years.

But first, I’m just going to bask in scientific glory and pride.  Today we touched Mars with curiosity, and Curiosity survives to tell the tale.  What a fucking awesome time to be here.

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme...

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme…

Camels in the Cambrian? A Geology Mnemonic

Sitting camel

Sitting camel. Indian ink on paper. Copyright Leila Battison 2012

How did you learn the geological timescale?

Geology is not a standard subject in the UK Curriculum, so those few students who arrive at university having done it at GCSE or A-Level, have usually been taught it by non-tradtitional means.  They are more exposed to the whim and wit of their teacher than they would be in any other subject.

In fact, it was partly the charisma and enthusiasm of my A-Level Geology teacher that prompted me to apply to Geology at university, and…well, the rest is history.  Initially planning to take science subjects and apply for biochemistry, I chose Geology at A-Level on a bit of a whim – having always enjoyed physical geography.  Imperceptibly, as the weeks passed, all thoughts of biochemistry slipped away, and I realised I’d been a geologist all along.  Starting it at university was a bit of a shock to the system, and it was only then I realised my love affair was not entirely with the subject, but also with the teaching (not the teacher, I know how that sounds), and I was suddenly deprived of it.

Amongst the physical memories: Shap granite on the front desk, the poster about petroleum play (tee hee) and the river delta tank – some lessons still remain.  By far the most useful was a handy mnemonic for remembering the order of the geological time periods.  I was surprised to find later that not everyone learnt this, and I admit I have rather come to depend on it, reciting it inside my head whenever I need to pluck a series of periods out of the air.  It goes like this:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak – reciting upwards from the base of the Phanerozoic goes through Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  In fact, this only really covers the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, but they are always the trickiest ones to remember. Nevertheless, my choice to research the Palaeozoic and Precambrian is in part due to the fact that I have no idea of the order of the things in the Tertiary.  Perhaps it is possible to become too reliant on a mnemonic…

Let me tell you one of my favourite things about this little phrase.  It is clever when it come to C’s.  You have three periods beginning with C – the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Cretaceous.  Now if you didn’t know and you were given an acrostic-style mnemonic that dealt only with the first letter, you would be left in the dark while you were guessing whether the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous came first.  But this is great in that the C’s are padded out – CAMels for the CAMbrian; CARefully for the CARboniferous, and CREak for the CREtaceous.  Neat, huh?

So no, it won’t help with your Vendians or Ripheans, or with your Palaeogene or Pleistocene, but it is a super little phrase which played a big part in shaping my career.

I’d love to hear any other suggestions, especially something that can help ease my distrust of the Cenozoic…?