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Soup of This Day #225: Together In Electric Dreams

August 6, 2012

Sunset on Mars
A sunset photo shoot on Mars, courtesy of the robotic Spirit rover. We’ve sent a number of craft to our near(ish) neighbour – Is it so hard to imagine that Usain Bolt came the other way? His lung capacity could have been refined in the thinner Martian atmosphere and his long effortless strides honed by the red planet’s lesser gravity – Photo: NASA, 2005. NASA is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I started this post in my head, a little after 5:00am this morning. I was in bed but awake, my mind racing along, powered by a surge of adrenaline.

The buzz had come about because I’d got out of bed and padded out quietly to the TV in the living room around 20 minutes previous. There, alone in the dark, I switched on in time to see the lead-up to the Olympic men’s 100m, the blue riband event for athletics, featuring the fastest self-propelled humans on the planet.

It was glorious theatre, with the combatants variously playing to the cameras and to the crowd. There were signature salutes and elaborate mimes but most of all there was an almost overwhelming sense of anticipation. This was arguably the greatest field of 100m runners ever assembled and they had all made it through the preliminaries in imperious form. Now on this stage, they were to be unleashed for slightly less than 10s of controlled power.

I had sacrificed sleep for this.

Partly because the 100m is sport you get up for regardless, but mostly because of what happened in Beijing 4 years ago. Then, my wife and I sat in that same living room and watched the men’s 100m final on that same TV. I remember that we were having lamb for dinner – Beijing occupies the same time zone as Perth, Western Australia, so there was no need to drag my dulled senses out of bed – and I remember that as that race unfolded a piece of lamb remained poised on my fork, frozen just above my plate. My mouth was open to receive that bite but it wasn’t getting there any time soon. Usain Bolt’s run quite simply dropped my jaw and then stunned me into immobility.

I wasn’t alone in that, although most wouldn’t have been eating lamb.

Particularly not vegetarians.

Usain Bolt’s time that night, 9.69s, was so far past the then World Record that it turned athletics on its head. What we had thought impossible was now done and the boundaries for what could be done seemed to stretch off beyond imagination. It was sport at its most sublimely ridiculous – The time set in Beijing was surpassed by Bolt the following year, lowered to 9.59, but somehow, while the time may have been quicker, that later occasion could not match the breath-taking theatre seen in China.

For the London 2012 Olympics the scenario was vastly different – This time around the expectations were stratospheric – We’d seen what Usain could do and he’d slowed up to showboat his way across the line in Beijing. We knew there was a faster time in his 6’5″ frame.

There were reasons to doubt though – Bolt had been beaten in the Olympic trials by training partner Yohan Blake, known as the ‘Beast’. In addition, there were 4 other serious contenders: Asafa Powell, the Jamaican veteran; Justin Gatlin, the Athens 2004 champ, recently returned from a 4 year drug ban; Tyson Gay, the US sprinter, the 2nd fastest man of all-time, who had often had injuries cruel his obvious promise at major events; and Ryan Bailey, another US sprinter making his mark in the world and who had clocked an impressive 9.88 in the 1st round of heats.

So 3 Jamaicans and 3 Americans. The only injury cloud was over Bolt – He had experienced hamstring tightness in the lead-up to London and you could sense a vulnerability in the reigning champ. Perhaps the circling pack could to – During the introduction of each contender there was certainly a lot of bravado and swagger on show, more so than I remembered from Beijing. Usain also was considered to be suspect at launch – He had false-started out of last year’s World Champs – and had admitted to not working as hard as his training partner Blake, nor being as focused.

It showed when the gun went.

Bolt was slow out of the blocks, well behind Gatlin, who was still edging the lead around the 40m mark. From there though Blake moved into the lead, holding it through to just under 60m of the race distance. At that point, the giant strides of Usain Bolt had drawn him level with the leading 3, gobbling up track as he pulled up to their shoulders.

And blew right on past.

Usain Bolt won by a good couple of metres, a substantial distance at that level. His time was 9.63, an Olympic record that was only 0.05s shy of the World Record. Blake edged home in 2nd with a personal best time of 9.75s, good enough to have won any Olympic final bar Beijing and this 1. Justin Gatlin took the bronze in 9.79s while everyone else in the race went sub-10s bar the unfortunate Asafa Powell, who pulled up lame with a suspected groin injury.

Curiously, even with that limitation, Powell’s time of 11.99 would have won gold at the 1st modern Olympic Games in 1896.

To put all of that into perspective, check out this fantastic interactive graphic put together by The New York Times – It shows the relative positions of each men’s 100m medallists as if they had been on 1 track together. The key is to look at the 5 Olympics prior to Beijing. Draw a line through that handful of gold medallists to get a sense of the modern progression of the event and then check out how far ahead of that line Bolt is.

It may seem like I’m stating something a little obvious but what this race showed was that The Fastest Man In the World is till the fastest man in the world. The latter won’t be forever – Bolt may have peaked – Perhaps not too, but he will 1 day. The former however will never change, not even when the record books have been re-written by genetically enhanced super athletes in 100 year’s time. That might not make much sense but neither does what Bolt has achieved.

All of this buzzed through my head this morning as I lay there, unable to sleep. In truth though, Usain Bolt wasn’t the only thing running in my brain. There is another event occurring today, that isn’t sport but will have some of the same tension and anticipation as the 100m final.

NASA is landing a rover on Mars.

That bald statement doesn’t begin to cover what the reality of the undertaking is. To just say that NASA will ‘land’ a rover is like saying that Usain Bolt simply ‘ran’ the 100m. Instead, it is better to say that NASA will put it’s Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars via a stupendously convoluted and fantastically brilliant contrivance.

Watch the following simulation and tell me I’m wrong:

Science and engineering at it’s best.

And when you’ve watched that, read this to get a sense of timing and control (And just how alone that lander will be!). Game time is expected to be 13:31, Australian Western Standard Time (AWST). That’s +8:00 for Liverpool in England and +12:00 for Boston in New England.

Even if this doesn’t work the folk behind this deserve the same plaudits as Bolt – They have truly sought to go far beyond the status quo – Any failure will be 1 of the most noble kind.

That might be cold comfort to those involved in this project and who are hoping for a real payoff – A rich collection of data for as much as the next 10 years. Who knows what they will find on Mars – Perhaps evidence of life or more clues as to how Mars came to be. There’s another possibility too…

Perhaps they will find Usain Bolt’s shoe prints up there too – There’s a very real possibility that he is not of this world and being from Mars seems this morning like as good an explanation as any.

Well done Usain, best of luck NASA.

Postscript: Curiosity touched down safely around 1:32 AWST. Images have been beamed back and the initial data seems to indicate that the rover is in good shape. Meanwhile here on Earth, Usain Bolt is preparing for the 200m in 3 days time. Stay tuned for both folks – There will be sights to see.

Together In Electric Dreams

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