Opportunity

Tyre tracks on Mars from the Opportunity Rover.

Last week, NASA announced that “One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet”.

Opportunity landed on Mars on 24 January 2004. It was designed to last 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres. It exceeded its life expectancy by 60 times and traveled 45 kilometres. Its resting place on Mars is, by delightful serendipity, Perseverance Valley.

Opportunity’s history is a great metaphor many endeavours. Last week on hearing about the end of NASA’s contact with the rover, I thought about all those who have charted the world of performance in sport. The image of Opportunity’s tracks on Mars provide a great reminder of the tracks each of us follow in our own journeys of discovery.

Our tracks in analysing performance come from some very basic technologies and, in the case of some of the foundational ideas about performance, remain as relevant today as they were when they were first recorded.

#coachlearninginsport: good vibrations

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On 12 February, David Blair, the Director of the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, wrote:

Our observation of the gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes simultaneously represents our first glimpse of the first stars in the universe, and a direct observation of the final end point of stellar evolution. We have seen the vibrations of the shimmering event horizon of a newly formed black hole, where time comes to an end.

He added:

It is hard to overstate the significance of this discovery. It is our first direct contact with our first stellar ancestors. It is our first direct view of a place in the universe where matter loses all its identity and time comes to an end. It is the first of many messages that will tell us how many black holes are out there and how much of the mass of the universe they can account for.

This is the sound of a “ripple in space-time took a thousand million years to reach us, hurtling through the void at 299,000 kilometres a second”. It is a chirp.

Liam Viney has suggested that this discovery is an opportunity “to ponder what kind of thinker Albert Einstein was”. He asked what kind of mind Einstein had to conceptualise gravitational waves …

Born two decades before the beginning of the 20th century, what kind of mind was his that could come up with ideas that would have to wait until the second decade of the 21st century to be proven correct?

Liam points to Einstein’s love of music as a way to bring “a uniquely aesthetic quality to his theories”.

He wanted his science to be unified, harmonious, expressed simply, and to convey a sense of beauty of form.

Liam added:

Music inspired and guided him; it stimulated parts of his brain that could not be accessed through sitting at his desk. It gave him a sense of patterns, feelings, hunches, intuitions – all manner of sensual information that could be described as ways of thinking that don’t involve words.

Stewart Riddle has extended the discussion of Einstein’s love of music. He suggests:

It would not be an understatement to claim that gravitational waves can provide us with a soundtrack to the universe. And, most amazingly, an amateur violinist got it right over a century ago!

All of which encouraged me to think about the ripple effect of coaching on a smaller, cosmic scale.

What learning experiences might coaches have to extend their impact on the long-term learning of athletes as well as their own learning?

I wonder whether we might learn to coach in a way that prompts coaches and athletes to make a Szbolcs Marka kind of observation:

Until this moment, we had our eyes on the sky and we couldn’t hear the music. The skies will never be the same.

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Photo Credits

Einstein’s apartment, Bern (NASA Blueshift, CC BY 2.0)

Einstein on a bike (Tony and Wayne, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Perytons and pigeons: learning about signal and noise

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I enjoyed reading Emily Petroff’s post in The Conversation (25 May 2015).

She raises some fascinating issues in her discussion of signal and noise at Australia’s Parkes radio telescope. Her discussion took me back to Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson’s work in the 1960s at the Bell Labs antenna in New Jersey.

Emily reports attempts at Parkes to identify the human-generated origin of pulses evident in data collected. She noted Sarah Burke Spolaor’s work published in 2011. In her paper, she notes:

The new detections cast doubt on the extragalactic interpretation of the original burst, and call for further sophistication in radio-pulse survey techniques to identify the origin of the anomalous terrestrial signals and definitively distinguish future extragalactic pulse detections from local signals.

Sarah called these anomalous terrestrial signals perytons.

Emily outlines work undertaken since 2011 to discover the source of the perytons. I do think her account is a great example of forensic attention to detail required when assertions are being made from data.

This is where I went back to the 1960s … and the search for cosmic background radiation.

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In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected radio signals at the Bells Labs antenna. They wanted to be sure that these signals were not coming from New York or nuclear tests in the Pacific.

They removed two pigeons from the antenna too.

Throughout their search for the source of anomalous signals, the original radio signals remained. This led Arno and Robert to conclude “it was not the machine and it was not random noise causing the radiation”.

Their work led to the award of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978 for their discoveries of cosmic background radiation … the signal they had detected in the noise of early data collection.

Photo Credits

The Dish (Luke Chapman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

1933-30 (ITU Pictures, CC BY 2.0)