Monday, 29 July 2013

Why I am travelling into space on Virgin Galactic

Recently I took the decision to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic's spaceship. At some point in the next few years, all being well, I am going to travel in space.

At this point, if you are like my wife you will be speechless. Literally. No words will come out of your mouth. You will walk away slowly shaking your head. If you are like my son you will say "cool, can I go instead of you?". If you are like my brother, who I tried to impress by saying I was going to tell him something completely unexpected, you will say, with a shrug "yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I'd expect you to do." If you were like the chap in the bank who asked what the reason for the large funds transfer was you will have turn red, burst out laughing, stood up and shook my hand. If you are like my daughter, you will listen carefully to my reasons and then, understanding what drives me, thoughtfully give me permission to go.

For those who don't know, Virgin Galactic is Sir Richard Branson's venture to introduce space travel to folk like you and me. The spacecraft is carried high into the atmosphere by a mothership, and then when the mothership reaches maximum height it will release the small spaceship capable of carrying six passengers. The spaceship then blasts its rockets carrying it 100 km above sea level, which is the Karman Line, the commonly accepted definition of where space begins.

Did I mention that I am scared of heights? Really.

So why on earth (pun intended) have I decided to jump aboard and experience this journey?

Gosh, that's a hard question. But I think the answer lies in the word journey.

I am on a journey. From where, to where, I don't really know. But what I do know is that I can't seem to stop. I can't relax. Whatever I have done is just not good enough. I must do more. I must prove that I am "good enough". I don't know what happens if I stop and am judged to be not good enough, but hey, why take the risk? Better keep moving.

I've done quite a lot of things I suppose over the years. Built schools. Created companies. Run charities. Travelled from Hong Kong to Hawaii, Mumbai to Mauritius, London to Lagos, Albuquerque to Afuze and all sorts of places in between. I have had champagne breakfast at dawn in the wild Maasai Mara surrounded by wildebeest and I have had lunch in the Palace of Westminster surrounded by Royalty. I have presented alongside Bill Gates to a thousand strong audience and I have sat on the floor with young orphans in Kenya chatting about life. Yes, I've done a few things.

But it's not good enough. I must keep moving. Because if I stop, then what will happen? I don't know, but I'm not going to take the risk of stopping and finding out.

So, as I turned 50 this year, and after a very challenging year when I lost my Big Brother and my father within months of each other, I started to ponder. What next? What do I work towards? What can I do that I will find exciting and truly daunting for years to come? Something that will keep me driving forwards, even when the sadness of my losses tries to drag me down. Something that will really stretch me in all sorts of directions. Something that perhaps when I've done it, I will be able to sit down in my rocking chair, in the autumn, smile to myself and say "okay, that's enough. That's good enough. You tried, Tom. You can rest."

I'm a scientist. Not a very good one. But I did study Physics to degree level and I do know what quantum entanglement is (I think!). If someone said "all the writers go over there, economists over there, artists there and scientists there" I would go and stand with the scientists. I love science. The analytical scientific process. The vast body of scientific knowledge. The totally counterintuitive findings. The fact that, as Richard Feynman, my favourite physicist (and who has a favourite physicist?) explains you can't prove anything to be abosolutely true. Whatever you think is true just hasn't been proven wrong yet! So stop being so damn certain about everything and have a bit of intellectual humility.

As a scientist, I want to inspire others to engage with the great subjects too. Everyone needs a BIG project. What's your BIG project? My BIG project is education in Africa. I am interested in science education and particularly in seeking out the brightest young minds from across the Continent and engaging them in deeply challenging discussions and debates on the nature of the world we live in, the universe around us and the laws that govern it. My African Gifted Foundation is all about that and the iconic permanent Academy that we will go on to build on the continent will be a hot bed of scientific intellectual creativity for years to come.

So, this step into space is part of my personal scientific journey of exploration and discovery. In the future I am looking forward to visiting every single country in Africa and inspiring young people with the story of my own scientific journey. From a troublesome teenage scientist who battled with his teacher and was thrown out of class any number of times for being disruptive, to touching the edge of space and seeing the earth itself from the outside.

I hope what I do helps inspire young scientists to push their boundaries too. My father grew up as a farmer's son in Afuze, a tiny village in West Africa, in a level of poverty that you can barely imagine. I am going into space. What a wonderful world we live in, that such a thing is possible in one generation.

If I can do that, imagine what you can do! What are you going to do when you grow up? And what stories will you tell?

When I grow up, I am going to travel in space and when I've done it, I'm going to tell the story.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Facebook is our Hotel California

It was my father's birthday a couple of days ago. Facebook helpfully reminded me, as his smiling face popped up inviting me to wish him a "Happy Birthday" and telling me that he is 72. Actually he's not 72. He died in January this year.

My dad appears from time to time these days as I am browsing Facebook. As does my brother, Jim. When I organised a party recently, using Facebook, Jim appeared so many times with the suggestion that I should invite him that I started to feel guilty for not inviting him. Then I thought I might as well. But I felt sad in the knowledge that he wouldn't accept. Or, what if he did !

It must be my age, but I seem to have more and more of the digitally departed keeping in touch with me on Facebook these days. Old friends who passed away over the last few years but are still with me online. Some of them seem more active on Facebook now that when they were alive.

Facebook has got an interesting challenge here. Sure, there is a process to close down the dearly departed, but its not that easy. And it's quite an emotional thing to do. To finally erase a loved ones digital presence isn't an easy step to take. You get used to them sort of still being part of your online life.

With over a billion users, there must be millions of these free spirits floating around inside the Facebook machine, inviting themselves to parties, telling friends about their birthdays, asking to be tagged. They are with us still.

This is the Brave New Digital World that we live in.

Welcome to the Hotel California. You can log out any time you like. But you can never leave. (with thanks to @RobWhitelock)