Hephaestus's Blog

Space and Sea Voyages: a Comparison
March 26, 2015, 16:09
Filed under: Space stuff

It has recently occurred to me that a long-term space voyage, such as to Mars, would have a lot in common with the sailing voyages, especially those undertaken by the oceanic explorers of the age of sail. I note that there are at least three distinct threads of similarity, and will go over each of them in turn. They are the duration of the voyage, the sources of financial backing, and the risks to the crew.


First, the duration. A Martian voyage, using a standard Hohmann transfer orbit, would take on the order of 400-500 Earth days. On the other hand, each of Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages lasted roughly three years, considerably longer than a Mars flight.

Of course, Captain Cook’s ship was probably never more than a few months between landfalls. However, a modern Mars mission, although the astronauts would be in considerably smaller quarters than eighteenth-century sailing ships, would only be confined to their ship during the interplanetary cruise of about 180-200 days. In addition, with modern methods of communication, they would have more often and more reliable correspondence than any sailor.


Second, financial backing. Cook’s voyages, as well as those of Magellan et al., were made with the funds and backing of national governments. In the case of Cook’s first voyage, the mission was to observe the transit of Venus and search for an undiscovered Terra Australis. This was supported by the Royal Society and King George III.

Similarly, the earliest explorations of outer space were funded by national space agencies. However, as time goes on, there may be more and more space voyages being undertaken using private capital. A seafaring parallel to this can be found in the whaling voyages of the nineteenth century, which often went all around the globe.


Third, the risks. Prior to the discovery that vitamin C prevents scurvy, many sailors died of this horrible ailment. Even after that, death was often caused by the various infectious diseases of the tropics, to say nothing of the risk of death by accident.

In space, while scurvy is unlikely and infectious disease impossible, the risk of illness of other kinds is by no means entirely banished. Radiation is a serious concern, and, of course, microgravity brings with it all kinds of potential problems, from osteoporosis to eye defects. Accidents, as any of us older than fourteen know well, are a very real presence in spaceflight, just as they were in the age of sail. Having a hard vacuum (or Martian “atmosphere”) just outside the walls of your spacecraft puts you in constant danger due to leaks, power failures and so on, and launch and atmospheric entry have killed many more than space exposure.


In closing, there are many parallels between a sailing voyage and a space one, even if there are many differences between their respective destinations. I suppose a trip is a trip, no matter where you’re going.

RIP Terry Pratchett
March 12, 2015, 17:13
Filed under: Uncategorized

I was very saddened to hear that Sir Terry Pratchett, author of over seventy (!) novels, died today. I have read seven and a half of his books, (not quite 10%) and enjoy his witty and concise style of prose. (That may be because it reminds me of how I think… or else has influenced me subconsciously.) According to the Telegraph, he died of a chest infection, with his family and cat beside him.

The first of his books I ever read was Good Omens, a collaboration with Neil Gaiman about the Apocalypse. The first of his solo works, and the first Discworld novel, I read was Men at Arms, the fifteenth in the series, about guns.
Most (four books) of the Pratchett novels I have “read” have been in the form of audiobooks, which, of course, gives convenience at the cost of the loss of much of the more subtle wordplay. This includes the first three Tiffany Aching novels, as well as Amazing Maurice.

Word of the Month: Aglet
March 2, 2015, 17:22
Filed under: Uncategorized, Words of the Months

Etymology: Old French aguillette, diminutive of aguille, needle.

Definition: The cover at the tip of a shoelace.

Aglets seem to have been around for some time (Merriam-Webster date it to the fifteenth century). However, they are so ubiquitous as to be almost entirely unknown. This is most evident when trying to write about them; most Google search results are someone a) selling them, b) teaching you how to make your own, c) dictionary sites, or d) something about “agile applets,” a computer term sometimes contracted as “aglet”.

Personally, I think that aglet is a word which deserves to be better known, even if, as aglets are a rather boring piece of equipment, it would be a rather boring word if it were less obscure.

As an aside, Google’s suggested search (at the bottom of a page of results) includes “aglets conspiracy theory”.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by posting a comment on this post.