Monday, June 07, 2010


The other day, an epic scientific experiment was started. Its objective was to see how humans react to conditions that might be encountered on a manned (*) flight to Mars. Microgravity and enormous levels of radiation cannot be simulated, but isolation over a prolonged period of time – without daylight or fresh air – and the cramped working conditions of a space capsule can. To study this, a laboratory was set up in a suburb of Moscow and six volunteers, one of them an experienced space doctor, were locked up inside. The keys were tossed in the river, and new ones aren't expected to arrive before November 2011.

The crew will be boxed up for 520 days, and scientists will monitor them closely. As it happens so often with science, many of the insights will be more or less accidental. An MD studying the relationship between hypertension and salt uptake is taking advantage of the extremely controlled experimental setup, which permits the accurate monitoring of the amount of salt consumed. His team selected and composed every single meal the six make-belief astronauts will eat over a year and a half.

While this experiment is ongoing, findings have just been made public that no one had expected. Men have apparently a hormonal cycle much like women do (though without the physical manifestation). Aldosterone peaks every 28 days, for example. Testosterone and cortisol have similar cycles, though they might be shorter. This is early days, and it's not clear whether the results hold up or what they mean, but it's a neat demonstration of the power of hypothesis-free blue-sky research.

I was thinking of the male hormonal cycle the other day when I was suffering from a bit of London letdown. The great linguist and author Samuel Johnson once said that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." For the last three years, I agreed with Dr. Johnson. But recently, doubts have crept into my confidence.

What if I had more outdoor opportunities around me? I really got a kick out of mountain biking and kayaking last summer. What if my home town were a bit smaller, quieter and calmer? What if I actually knew people around me? With all these questions in my head, I was getting worried that I'd have to make a move. But maybe I was just having my days...

Today, as I came back from work, I was excited I could bolt across the street for a quick haircut, no matter it was already 9pm. Tomorrow I'm going to Jordan (direct flight, booked two days ago) for a friend's wedding, and I needed to get my hair in order before leaving. Tomorrow, I'll take the tube from work to the airport. With a city that does everything for me, do I really want to go anywhere else?

(*) I said manned flight to Mars not because I'm an inveterate sexist but because all participants in the experiments are male. An earlier, much shorter experiment, came very near a premature end when violence broke out between the sexes. The alternative solution, sending only women to Mars, has not been discussed much, but there has been a scientific study on it, published in the inaptly named Journal of Men's Health & Gender (This almost requires a second footnote: Men's Gender? Do you need a journal for that? And what is a Former Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine? This is how the author is referenced.)

Anyway, the paper claims that women, for a variety of reasons, are much better suited for space flights stretching over more than a year. The only caveat is apparently that one shouldn't undertake space walks when menstruating (great pub quiz knowledge). Still, I can't help but wonder what would happen to an all female crew out in space. Extraterrestrial cat fights, anyone? Lethal mood swings right before not going on a space walk? Did I mention I wasn't sexist?

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