Music of the Spheres

Alex James on the importance of rock on Mars

Tuesday, April 13, 2004
The Guardian

 Although Professor Colin Pillinger and his homies fell short of discovering any life on Mars, a lot of lessons in marketing science have been learned from the Beagle space probe. The power of celebrity and pop culture to turn shit into shish kebabs is a universal constant which holds true in all circumstances, yet had been omitted from all scientific equations until the late 20th century.

I'm sure Beagle's chief scientist always believed that once he had people's ears he could capture their imaginations. So the Beagle gradually became about more than the fact that Blur were composing a call sign or that Damien was calibrating the cameras with a spot painting. Presented in the right way, the search for life elsewhere in the universe is, let's face it, a good story.

So was the small matter of competition. Nasa versus Esa. America against Europe. It's deliciously subtle, though, a kind of gentlemanly custard-pie fight. Nasa are trying very hard to get a photo of Beagle "for Esa". On the one hand, Esa would love to see what happened, but Nasa are the last people they really need to hear it from.

Recently - a l'anglaise - Nasa have begun using rock songs to keep up with their space hardware. To keep their engineers in time with the activities of the two Mars rovers they are playing a tune to mark the beginning of each Martian day (known as a sol).

I have no desire to have a pop at Nasa scientists. But do we really need Van Halen beamed into the cosmos (Unchained was played to commemorate the cutting of cables on sol 10)? What is it with America's obsession with the Rolling Stones (sol 23: Start Me Up)? It seems to be some kind of coming of age thing, like a bar mitzvah, where everyone gets a record for their 14th birthday.

On a positive note, there's Elvis's Stuck on You (sol 36), which is fantastic, and my favourite, Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi (sol 43 - according to the official list "Many sols start with our fingers crossed"). Never let a smarmy git get in the way of a good tune, that's what I say.

Science has realised it needs to make people interested in what it does. Nasa has huge departments filled with bureaucrats in order to make it popular. We, meanwhile, have Colin Pillinger, our Maradona, who can win a match from anywhere. He's bigger than any rock star in the charts.

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