Mars rover testing in the Utah desert

This article was contributed by Dr Jennifer Harris from Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Over the last week of October and first week of November 2016 a group of UK-based scientists and engineers carried out the first (of hopefully many) mission simulations of the ExoMars rover.

The Utah desert and site of the MURFI field trail (image credit: Jennifer Harris)

The Utah desert and site of the MURFI field trail (image credit: Jennifer Harris)

The ExoMars Rover

The ExoMars rover is the second half of the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars programme to investigate the surface and atmospheric composition of Mars, looking for signs of life. The first half, the Trace Gas Orbiter, successfully reached Mars in November 2016 and is now preparing to begin its mission.  The second half, the rover, is due to be launched in 2020 and will be going to some of the oldest terrains on Mars. There it will drill up to two metres into the surface to look for any evidence of ancient life.

Before we send over €1 billion worth of technology all the way to Mars, trials using prototypes of the rover and its instruments are necessary to ensure useful and correct data will be returned, and that the scientists who will be involved in the mission operations know how to interpret these data and use them to guide the rover in its exploration. Numerous UK scientists, including myself and some of my colleagues in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, are involved in the ExoMars program and were subsequently thrilled to take part in MURFI, a UKSA-funded field simulation of the ExoMars rover mission.

MURFI – the Mars Utah Rover Field Investigation

MURFI was a collaboration between a number of institutions including RAL Space, UCL, Birkbeck, University of Leicester, University of Oxford, Open University, University of St Andrews, Aberystwyth University, Natural History Museum and Joanneum Research in Austria. With over 60 people involved two core groups were formed.  One group set up camp in the Utah desert near to the Mars Desert Research Station and the Canadian Space Agency team (who were conducting their own rover field trials at the same time). With them were the rover supplied by the robotics group at the University of Oxford and various prototypes of the instruments that are currently being built for the ExoMars rover.  It was this field team who would be operating the rover and instruments, collecting the data requested. A second group gathered in the Satellite Catapult Centre in Harwell where a Mission Operations Centre (MOC) was established. This MOC would command the rover, sending detailed daily instructions to the field team.

MURFI Mission Operations Centre in full swing (Image credit: Pete Grindrod)

MURFI Mission Operations Centre in full swing (Image credit: Pete Grindrod)

Mission Operations – a daily race

Each day the mission operations team downloaded the data (primarily images) collected by the field team the previous day, analysed these and made a decision as to what we wanted the rover to do next. This was a constant race against the clock as these commands had to be sent to Utah by 2pm UK time, 7am Utah time, to give them a full day to complete our requests. Our primary aim in these decisions each day was to identify a patch of ground to drill into that is (a) drillable with the equipment available and (b) likely to hold evidence of past life. This will also be one of the major goals of the ExoMars rover operations team. Identifying the type of geological environment you are in when all you have are a handful of images to look at is significantly harder than if you are able to walk around the area yourself. However, it is exactly this challenge that we face with robotic exploration and thus learning this skill through field trials such as MURFI is a vital part of mission preparation.

Trial outcomes

The final pieces of data are still being analysed and mission debriefing is still to come but it’s safe to say everyone involved learnt a lot about being part of a rover driving team, and in the case of some, being part of a rover! With approximately five years to go before the ExoMars rover begins its mission this was an important step towards ensuring the UK’s planetary science community are prepared for the heavy work of searching for life on Mars.

MURFI rover and instruments (image credit: Pete Grindrod/MURFI field team)

MURFI rover and instruments (image credit: Pete Grindrod/MURFI field team)

Further details

The BBC came to visit us at Harwell one day to film a section for the Sky at Night which can be found at the end of this episode.

More in depth details of the field trial rationale and daily activities can be found at the MURFI blog and via the #MURFI hashtag on twitter.

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Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance

This article was written by Neil Fitzgerald, winner of the inaugural Verso Prize for Cultural and Critical Studies. Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance is a selection from the winning dissertation and was originally published on the Verso Books blog.


Fig. 1. Cave art from Lascaux

In a lecture given on January 18, 1955 in Orléans, the French writer and anthropologist Georges Bataille suggested that the paintings discovered at the Lascaux caves in France in 1940 announce the presence of man on earth –  man ‘appeared on earth with art’. The paintings are figurative – ibex, bison, mammoth rhinos, often in the process of being hunted by arrows (Fig. 1) – and Bataille suggests they reveal a magic-oriented desire for ‘assuring miraculous hunts’. He acknowledges the irony of how this discovery of ‘our birth’ is being made at a time when ‘the notion of our death appears to us’ in the guise of atomic experiments in the atolls of the Pacific.

What Bataille repeatedly stresses in this lecture is the relation of these prehistoric artworks to a form of ‘wealth’. One problematic he addresses is the inability of the contemporary visitor to discover these primitive artworks without the ‘present-day world’ following the viewer into the ancient cave. He highlights the parallels between the cave entrance at Lascaux and a Paris subway station, complete with admission tickets, bookstore and postcards. Bataille retraces the moment three 15-year-old boys re-discovered the cave network and art in September 1940.  He quotes one of the boys describing their discovery in terms of discovering treasure – ‘a casket of diamonds or a cascade of precious gems’; they thought that their fortune had been made. Bataille continues: ‘If we suddenly enter this world, the oldest one that man has created, we are seized by a feeling of fabulous wealth’. Their translation of this stupefying event into this language, Bataille argues, is because the feeling of personal wealth is the strongest feeling a human can have: ‘Lascaux is…rich to the point of dazzling us.’ In contrast to such riches is the poverty of his contemporaneous world, wherein everything is submitted to the control of profitability with one exception: ‘the engineering and materials of destruction, works that today threaten to exterminate the species.’ Bataille suggests that if we see ourselves in the beings who created the cave art, it is because they offer us this feeling of wealth, a feeling undermined by the poverty of the present-day which accompanies the latter-day visitor. Linking the marvellous with material wealth, Bataille posits the connection between art and economics lies in the fact that a work of art requires labour to be produced: ‘the work of art is wealth expended without utility.’ ‘The feeling of richness’ and the fact of ‘being dazzled’ are symbiotically entangled.

Since Bataille’s lecture, the interrelationship between art and ‘feelings of wealth’ has taken on a substantively different meaning. In 2012, global sales of art were estimated at more than £40 billion. The richness of this symbiosis is usefully demonstrated by the rise of the Freeport (Fig. 2), secure warehouse complexes which are said to house millions of works of art, although the confidentiality afforded by these locations means precise numbers and their value are impossible to come by.


Fig. 2. Le Freeport, Luxembourg

Freeports have garnered a reputation as ‘fortresses of art’ and ‘bunkers of the super-rich’ which operate as speculative safe-houses and galleries for the wealthy to shop in. It is noticeable how a martial figurative language is used to describe them as protection against potential attack. The website of Le FREEPORT in Luxembourg suggests clients choose their warehouse complex ‘to best preserve goods from theft, depredations, and climatic aggressions’. It is telling, however, that the locations of these warehouse complexes – Geneva, Luxembourg – are all in financial tax havens, suggesting that what they really offer protection against is an attack by the taxman. The key here is that the goods are technically in transit, and as such, are exempt from a raft of customs duties. The ‘port’ location ensures confidentiality, ‘not much scrutiny, the ability to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages’, ultimately transfiguring these zones of transit into ‘permanent homes of accumulated wealth’. Tony Reynard, the chairman of a freeport in Singapore, believes the 2008 financial crash triggered a demand for physical assets such as art. These ‘physical assets’, however, are invisible assets, artworks carefully concealed from the view of thieves and taxation in high-security environments such as Le FREEPORT. Like death and extinction, these artworks are not part of human experience. Hidden from view, entirely withdrawn as phenomena, they move into the philosophical category of ‘non-existent objects’ – something that does not exist in reality, like unicorns or Sherlock Holmes, and yet can still be spoken about. Yet they still function as tradable commodities in a shadow market whose opaque transactions are legally sanctioned. The notion of ‘cave art’ has been inverted in freeports: these highly-secure climate-controlled structures now function as ‘art caves’, as places of un-seeing.

Within the Freeport art cave, artworks become objects of financial speculation – a tax-free safety-deposit box for off-shore assets. The ‘art object’ is wholly withdrawn, its historical ‘truth’ concealed in the logics of finance. Its existence becomes purely nominal, whatever value its title and artist can create on the market. The ‘feeling of richness’ or ‘wealth’ that Bataille spoke of in relation to the Lascaux cave art here becomes an economic investment – a feeling at once buried behind bureaucratic layers of confidentiality and secrecy deep inside the art cave’s security complex, and at the same time exterior to it – abstracted as an asset, a ‘feeling of richness’ revealing itself as a row of numbers on a balance sheet in another country. As Heidegger asked at the beginning of his essay The Origin of the Work of Art (1950-60), how does a painting go from a thing to a work? As a thing it can hang on a wall or be transported like coal. It becomes a work by doing the work of alēthia, disclosing a truth for a historical people. But today works are concealed behind concrete walls in art caves so that the concealing Freeport itself does this unconcealing, revealing the thingliness of works as speculative commodities, reified by an elite as mere financial resource.

Heidegger would perhaps see this as the culmination of the objectification of the aesthetic experience, of the art-object as mere resource. The ‘work’ of the art work is now done by money on the art market and by the artist’s name. A different version of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes (1887) was sold at auction for $8.9 million in 2006 and now resides in a private collection. Heidegger’s pure notion of art also abstracts it from the logics of capitalism which the artist himself worked within. In 1888, Van Gogh writes about making his pictures have some ‘market value’; in 1883, he writes about not paying his taxes, demonstrating his poverty to the ‘assessors’ in his ‘four kitchen chairs’ and lack of ‘rugs, pianos, antiques’. In this conspicuous poverty, his house-cum-studio might be said to serve as a form of tax haven.

What brings the cave art and the art cave together are their susceptibility to the elements, including human observers. Both caves – prehistoric and contemporary – require a constant ambient temperature for the art to endure. Despite the vast temporal differences, the brute materiality of the art and its precariousness remain constant. Heidegger suggests that the art work creates a historical people who preserve the work and the truth it discloses in time, until it is displaced by a new disclosure. But now we find that later historical people are preserving earlier artworks. For example, the Chauvet cave art has been reconstructed using concrete-resin walls to preserve the originals from being damaged through human body temperatures disturbing the cave’s micro-climate. The simulacrum uses 3D scans, sculptures, and photos projected onto the rocks. Even the cool subterranean temperature of the original is replicated, as these atmospheric factors – darkness, humidity – are seen as integral to the ‘feeling of emotion’ generated by the original art.  The website boasts that visitors entering the replica cavern ‘will discover the world as it appeared to men and women 36 000 years ago’. Thus, in spite of Heidegger’s critique of the aesthetic experience of artworks, it is this very quality which engenders the preserving of the cave art. How such simulacra, be it the replica cave, Werner Herzog’s documentary film, or photographs, transfigure the original work of art, is an important question. The German Critical Theorist Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ or Jean Baudrillard’s work on simulacra could provide intriguing frameworks for answering such questions.

In Heidegger’s essay, the earth is seen as the ontological horizon of all human being, which is now being threatened by the worlding of Late Capitalism, a system which benefits from concealing the truth of its destruction of its foundational earth. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested humanity’s ‘collective ideology’ is ‘mobilising mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception’ rather than facing up to the climate catastrophe at hand and the necessary economic shift needed to counter it.[1] Are these freeports, then, one such mechanism of dissimulation and self-deception, seeking to conceal rather than unconceal the increasingly uneven strife between earth and world?


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011), p. 327.

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Just Enough for the City!

Dr William Ackah is a lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies at Birkbeck. He is a co-convenor of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and a Fulbright All Disciplines award holder based at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the academic year 2016-17.

Growing up as young man in East London the words and music of Stevie Wonder had a profound influence on me. I would play the powerful and evocative songs emanating from albums like Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfilling his First Finale and Talking Book for hours and hours. I would think about what kind of society could exist where “love was in need of love today”? Or who indeed was Mr Know it all? One song that affected me then and still does today is the chilling but epic tale of youth migration from rural to urban America;  Living Just Enough for the City. Even as I write this piece the harsh sounds and those cutting words ‘back in the cell’ still send chills down my spine. Stevie’s profound lyrics come to mind as I sit here in my room in Pittsburgh one of the key stopping points on the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the twentieth century. Pittsburgh historically has had a great reputation as a centre for Jazz and was the home of the one of the great American playwrights August Wilson. Most of his impressive body of work – some of which I have had the pleasure to see in London – are set in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was all these reasons and more that have drawn me to the city.

Hill District, Pittsburgh is undergoing regeneration

Hill District, Pittsburgh

I have the privilege of being in Pittsburgh this academic year as a Fulbright Scholar, based at the Metro Urban Institute of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I am here to conduct research on the impact of regeneration and gentrification on African American church congregations in two neighbourhoods: Larimer and the Hill District. I will be exploring the role that the Black Church plays when neighbourhoods experience economic and social change as a result of urban redevelopment. I have seen in London over the past twenty years areas of the city with large Black and Minority Ethnic populations which were considered undesirable and  plagued by crime, poor schools and lack of amenities, get investment and rapidly become very desirable places to live. With desirability comes rising house prices that then make those areas unaffordable for those same Black and Minority Ethnic populations that had lived through and endured the difficult times in those neighbourhoods.

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

What is happening in parts of London is not unique; these same processes of urban redevelopment have and are impacting African American communities in a number of US cities including Pittsburgh. What should be the role of the Church when these things are happening? The Black Church historically has been the key social institution in the African American community and is still a major institutional force throughout Africa and the African Diaspora.  In the US context it was the incubator of credit unions and schools, it birthed the doctors, lawyers, intellects, workers and leaders that enabled Black communities to endure the horrors and indignities of racism and to win important rights and freedoms. The church was also an incubator for black creativity and although its relationship to some creative forms has been tense at times, the spiritual energy of the Church has birthed some of the most amazing musical and artistic forms the world has known. In the post-civil-rights era, however, the importance of the Black Church to the wider community has increasingly been called into question. As poor urban areas have suffered from the blight of drugs, under-employment mass incarceration and police brutality it has been said of the Church that it has become so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good! That it has not been pro-active in protecting it’s communities from these injustices. Is this however really a fair assessment? It can be argued that the Black Church has never been a monolithic entity and that over the years it has had many strands of engagement with urban communities ranging from social and political activism to non-engagement.

The past however is the past. What can the Church do in the 21st century?  Can it be an incubator for social housing, enabling poorer residents to stay in their communities? Can it be a champion for youth development, rupturing the school to prison pipeline? Can the church be an example for sustainable urban living, promoting positive ways for diverse communities to flourish together in changing contexts?

I do not think it is the role of the Church to do everything in a neighbourhood, as it virtually did in the past but as a key social institution it can create and nurture spaces that enable marginalized and excluded communities not just to live but be able to flourish in the city. I hope to discover some evidence of this during my Fulbright year in Pittsburgh.

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Training attentional control improves cognitive and motor task performance

This post was contributed by Emmanuel Ducrocq, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. It is about a paper based on research he and his supervisor (Professor Naz Derakhshan) did in collaboration with Dr Mark Wilson and Dr Samuel Vine, and which is published today in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Emmanuel tweets at @manuduc and Professor Derakhshan at @ProfNDerakshan

tennis-player-676310Successful performance in sports is usually evaluated in terms of technical, tactical or physical abilities. However a crucial index of performance is the ability to perform under stress and high pressured situations. This is especially relevant sports demanding a high level of attention, such as tennis, golf, archery or shooting.

Recent research in sports psychology has shown that a key factor responsible for poor performance in sports under pressure is the inability to focus on what needs to be done and reduce distraction. This is often referred to as attentional control: the ability to resist distraction and attend to task goals efficiently. If athletes can’t exercise attentional control efficiently then they cannot plan and execute a skilled movement flexibly. The pressure to perform well, increases anxiety and so maintaining attention focus on task goals becomes exceptionally challenging giving way to worries, and doubts about performance  as well.

Attentional control has usually been targeted in sports by trying to promote specific gaze behaviours which has proven to show benefits to motor performance in sporting tasks such as golf or basketball. Crucially though, while this method is useful, it hasn’t been able to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for sports improvement.

In a series of three exciting studies we wanted to improve motor task performance and we specifically focussed on tennis, which requires good attentional control to flexibly resist distraction. To this end, we trained inhibitory control using a computer-based training task to see how it could improve performance in a tennis task.

In the first experiment, participants were allocated to a training or control group and underwent six days of training on a visual search task that included task-irrelevant distractors requiring inhibition (training) or contained no distractors (control). Performance was measured pre- and post-intervention using an antisaccade task measuring distractibility. We found that training elicited a near-transfer effect; as performance on the antisaccade task was improved in the training group, and not in the control group. This was important to establish, as it showed that training on the visual search task could improve inhibition on another unrelated task.

In the second experiment training on the same paradigm showed transfer benefits on an attentional control index that we validated for tennis performance. Tennis players were assessed on a return of serves task and we found an initial far-transfer effect of training. Participants in the training group displayed an enhanced ability to focus on the ball around the time of contact with the ball.

The third experiment pushed the boundaries of this work further by assessing the potential effect of the training task on an objective gaze measures of inhibitory control during performance of a tennis task. Participants’ pre and post intervention performance was assessed on a volleying task performed under pressure while their gaze behaviour was recorded. We found a substantial effect of training on tennis performance when levels of pressure were elevated. Transfer effects of training were also observed on a specific gaze behaviour index of ‘inhibition’ in the field, confirming the mechanism by which training protected participants against the negative impact of anxiety.

Taken together, we have shown that a simple computer-based training task that reduces distraction and improves attentional control can have direct transfer benefits to tennis performance under pressure. This can obviously have great implications for improving motor performance in any competitive sport that needs to be performed under pressure.

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