Kalay Maistry: I am Kalay Maistry, welcome to the latest episode of Engineering Reimagined.
Developments in science and technology are taking place at an unprecedented rate, and the expansion of our society beyond this planet is within reach. NASA plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. How will engineers contribute to the pursuit of space discovery?
Dr Adriana Marais is one of Africa’s foremost digital disruptors, physicists and space travel enthusiasts. She talks to us about why she wants to move to Mars, how to cultivate a culture of innovation, and why both children and adults should be excited about the future.
Today’s interview takes place between Dr Adriana Marias and Dr Gabi Wojtowitz. Dr Marais, is a physicist and innovator, who believes that we are living at a unique point in the history of life on Earth. As an aspiring extra-terrestrial, she has raised her hand to go and live on Mars. She is also the Head of Innovation at SAP Africa, has a background in physics and holds an MSc in quantum cryptography and a PhD in quantum biology. She has authored numerous academic and public articles and has received a range of awards.
Interviewing Adriana is Dr Gabi Wojtowitz, Associate and Geotechnical Engineer at Aurecon. In Gabi’s nearly 14 years in the industry, she has played a role in the foundation and ground engineering on many complex projects. Some of her career highlights include being part of the Deep Foundations Geotechnical Team that is supporting world-renowned architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava.
Let’s listen in as they chat about space travel, human settlement on other planets and even the possibility of mining the asteroid belt beyond Mars.
Gabi: Adriana, thank you for joining us.
Adriana: Thanks, Gabi. Pleasure to be here with you.
Gabi: I’m absolutely fascinated to be meeting you and chatting to you today. My work in the geo-technical field is very much earth based and earth-based materials. And as a civil engineer, we create infrastructure for man, I have never actually thought of creating infrastructure for man on another planet. And I am fascinated that you are going to be moving to Mars and wanting to live there. But first, I want to ask you a few questions about your experience, your career, and your aspirations.
Gabi: Why did you become a theoretical physicist?
Adriana: Well, for some reason or other, since I was about four, I imagined leaving the planet. So, I've always imagined and envisioned that my life would not be spent on one planet. So, options are limited in that sense. You can become an astronaut if you're a U.S. citizen, or a European citizen, or a Chinese citizen. So, as a South African, aeronautical engineering is not actually offered in South Africa, so I chose to study physics, and then got really, fascinated by quantum physics, which may seem like it was off the track of space. But actually, my interest in physics and quantum physics, led me back to the field of space somehow through quantum biology.
Adriana: So, eventually applying the physics of very small things to living systems we try to understand on a molecular level how photosynthesis works, then you naturally come up with a question like, "What is the simplest living system? What are the minimal requirements for life? What would that look like?" And then you realize that Earth is just a single data point. The simplest living systems that we have on Earth are not necessarily the general simplest living systems. So basically, to understand life from a physicist's perspective, you need to know the data point, which means you need to leave Earth. So, then I became interested in astrobiology and a field which may or may not exist by now. I think I might have coined the phrase at some point of quantum astrobiology, which looks at the molecular precursors of life in space, many of which have been detected.
Adriana: Then during my PhD, while I was looking into these questions, the Mars One project was announced. Luckily, I happened to read that article, because many fellow aspiring extra-terrestrials didn't happen to read that article. So around 200000 people applied. Anyway, over the years they narrowed us down to 100 astronaut candidate finalists, and that's where we are right at the moment. In the like semi-final round, basically, with a hundred finalists from all over the world.
Gabi: Since childhood, you have dreamed of living on another planet, what is the appeal?
Adriana: I don't know. I guess I just got born with a bigger view of what my place in the universe. No, I've never seen myself as being limited to this planet, and there's a lot of odd things that we do on this planet. My real hope is that we can upgrade the way we think here on Earth. Space exploration seems to be an extreme but effective way of really forcing people to think differently by achieving really improbable things.
Gabi: Does anything about it scare you?
Adriana: No, I mean what scares me is the kind of blindfolded way in which people on Earth live. Our population is exponentially increasing, in a lot of areas, at least. Guess what? Our resources are constant. We're living on the same rock that we've always been living on, and we carry on consuming at the same rate. This is scary. This is crazy. Wanting to go and establish an extremely resource-constrained settlement on another planet, this is great. This is the future. Demonstrating how we can live in resource scarce environments. I hope we don't find ourselves in the situation on Earth where we are forced to deal with such a situation. I hope, rather, that we can gradually just change the way we behave. But, unfortunately, we don't seem to be acting quick enough and, perhaps, demonstrating a community on the surface of Mars is the wakeup call that people on Earth need as to what's possible, using solar power, highly-efficient water management systems, and even air production from scratch. How do we engineer systems that can be manufactured from local resources without negatively impacting the environment, once we have these resources how can we keep them within the system and all the equipment and construction implications that come with that? Also based on what we're gonna be able to access on Mars. So, whatever we extract will be painfully extracted with a lot of power and resources used for that, so it would not make sense to not recycle even the sweat that comes off your forehead would in principle get sucked into the ventilator and purified. You know, the salts would be put on the table. Now you can tell I'm not an engineer, but in principle these things are possible. When you're looking on a molecular level at resources and living such a thin line between life and death, then you really realize how precious resources are and how much an easy ride we have here on Earth.
Gabi: What do your family and friends think about of you wanting to live on another planet?
Adriana: Totally supportive, think it's completely in character, yeah. Would be proud to know me if this happens. Of course, this hasn't happened yet, I'm not an astronaut yet, I haven't been to space. Being one of the first humans to live on Mars, this is a huge dream. But I'm into bigger ideas, I don't think I've got any time to waste in terms of investing in smaller, not there's such a thing as a small idea but I'm like, I'm on this planet once, let me try and leave it. So, yeah, friends and family can understand that that's who I am. My dad has written a book based on me, my mother does numerous interviews saying she would never stand in the way of a dream of a child of hers, 'cause a lot of other mothers ask her, "How could you let your daughter go?" and she's like, "Let? How could I prevent my child from living her dream?" So, I'm lucky to have a supportive friend and family base.
Gabi: Clearly the unknow appeals to you?
Adriana: I think that's part of our history as humans, is some people love being out of their comfort zone and I'm one of them. Some people hate it, but we all get pushed out of our comfort zone for some or other reason at some point. I think looking back we all have to admit we learn from those experiences, so whether you bring them on or whether you just find yourself in them periodically, these are the experiences by which we learn and grow. As humans, we've always been explorers. There was always some person amongst the group who would put on a backpack or whatever they had and walk over that horizon to see what was on the next mountain range. The next surface that we can explore is that of Mars, Venus being hundreds of degrees, not that practical to explore the surface. I think the real risk is to not continue to explore. The risk is to find ourselves as a couch potato if we stay on Earth the whole time. We breed, we populate the surface, we destroy the climate, or at least the equilibrium that supports it, and when we go extinct because guess what, it’s a swiftly changing environment, organisms either adapt or die. If we change the environment on an extremely fast scale which seems like we have been contributing to now, we might not have time to adapt so basically our own technology will then be our own ending. That's the negative sense, I don't believe that will happen, I believe that through the same technology that caused the problems we can prevail. But we have to think differently, and we have to be prepared to face challenges and get out of our comfort zone and think objectively about how we can solve it.
Gabi: The Mars One project has had financial problems; do you still believe the project will get you to Mars?
Adriana: The Mars One project has never had any money, so for us and Mars One, nothing changes. Guess what? We don't have a billionaire funder, unlucky us. So, funding has always been a challenge and it continues to be. The Mars One project has been hugely successful. Sheldon Cooper has volunteered for Mars One on the Big Bang Theory, Lisa Simpson's volunteered for the Mars One project on The Simpsons, Cartmans' girlfriend has volunteered for the Mars One project on South Park and yeah, this is amusing, but also important because this has been the contribution that's entered into conversation. Even when it's bad press, it's press about getting to Mars which is what we didn't have before. We've got the National Geographic series on Mars, we've got the Martian with Matt Damon, we've got all of this popular culture conversation happening around the project, so in my mind the Mars One project has already been a success, it's brought together a hundred people who are dedicated and prepared to give up their life on Earth to make this possible, and the opportunity to count myself amongst these other ninety nine has really been a privilege. So, there's absolutely nothing that's gone wrong with the Mars One project, maybe they've bitten off more than they can chew, but that remains to be seen. I mean personally, I don't think any of the ninety-nine others or myself have ever invested all of our hope with Mars One. It's a start-up, you know? A start-up having financial problems, it's not really uncommon. Personally, I've been endeavouring on all fronts to support the Mars One project and do parallel activities. The Foundation for Space Development South Africa is initiating a project for the winter of 2020, where we will take a dozen or so people to Antarctica for an over winter expedition. It's an off-world settlement simulation experiment, so the conditions in Antarctica, especially during winter, are most closely analogous with what it would be like to live off Earth. It's completely isolated, no ships can come and go, no helicopters can come and go, there's no visibility, no light for some days. So, these conditions are close to the kind of cold you will experience on Mars, the kind of isolation. And for the testing of hardware this provides a fantastic opportunity to test the lifetime of lithium batteries under these conditions. Can we support the diesel generators with some hydrogen fuel cells? Can we develop a wind power generation system? How will we grow food indoors? So, this is very analogous to what we would do on Mars. Water is easily accessible in Antarctica, you just have to shovel it, so that'll be part of our activities. On Mars, it's a bit more complicated where only two percent of the sand is ice. Importantly besides the technology and the research aspects of it, and the community and the interaction between the people will really be crucial in terms of the success or failure of the projects that each person brings to the mission. So, we'll be opening up applications to the public. We haven't announced it yet, we're still finalizing discussions with partners from government agencies to tech companies to aerospace companies.
Adriana: We'll need a lot of advisors just like any extreme environment experiment, and so I think it's an interesting thought experiment. Whether or not you see yourself going to Mars, whether or not you actually see yourself going to Antarctica during winter, it's a very interesting thought experiment like, how am I contributing towards the critical infrastructure that's required for the survival of my species.
Gabi: How realistic would it be for us to one day be mining or carrying out exploration within the asteroid belt?
Adriana: When people hear about mining asteroids or colonizing planets, they might naturally get their back up about those things with respect to consideration about the impact of mining on Earth on the environment and colonization have an extremely bad historical legacy, which we are currently living in, in South Africa. So, I would never use the word colonization for Mars, it's the settlement. We're not gonna be copy pasting the legal framework of any particular country and that's the beauty of Mars One. So, I like the idea of a private company doing it, even better a collaboration of many private companies which looks to be how it will turn out.
Adriana: The mining of asteroids, for me is far more ethical than the mining of Earth or the mining of the moons. These are bodies that are protected by the planets through protection treaty, especially on Earth, it's the life really, it's the biosphere that we're protecting by thinking of mining in a negative light. Yes, we need the resources. Asteroid mining really provides the answer to this. We don't really wanna be exterminating many systems and the delicate ecosystems on the surface of Earth.
Adriana: I think for asteroids I see no ethical objection to extracting resources from pieces of rocks. First of all, we would look for evidence of life on these rocks, which would be the most important discovery I think, besides finding platinum or something would be to find evidence of some living system that we hadn't seen before. But once this is done, the resources on asteroids ranges from water to minerals to platinum, metals, you name it. Whatever element you're looking for, there's probably an asteroid with your name on it. Finding an asteroid that's in vacuum and just encapsulating it and extracting the resources that you need through some advanced system which we are only in the process of imagining now, this is great, I think. We've landed on a comet. And the Rosetta asteroid was investigated and the Hayabusa 2 will be landing and extracting material which it'll bring back to Earth. So, a sample return mission from an asteroid and this is gonna be hugely important for both understanding what kind of resources we might find there, understanding whether there's evidence of life or organics there.
Gabi: What should engineers, like myself be doing to help support humans and infrastructure on other planets?
Adriana: It's difficult to say because there's so much to do. So, I try not to imagine what other people’s roles might be, because that really just restricts it, I think. But basically, I think as engineers, you know space is probably some of the most inspiring, challenging things to think about it because the environments are so difficult. The systems that may work on Earth, maybe we've been doing it for years on Earth, but now think about doing it in a vacuum or in very low temperatures and I think for people who enjoy challenges such as engineers, this is really an ideal scenario in which to think about things even if you're not building them.
Gabi: The SKA telescope, is constructed to look at the cosmic dawn and the birth of the first stars. How important is this research?
Adriana: So, the story I always tell in this context is, the previous largest science experiment on planet Earth was the particle collider, CERN in Europe. The amount of data that they envisaged being able to generate by smashing these subatomic particles into each other was beyond anyone's capabilities. So basically, locally analysing the data would not have been possible with the current hardware. They actually envisaged the internet. The first imagining or proposals for such a thing as the internet, came out of the research teams at CERN. They said, "We have to distribute this data. We have to analyse it remotely, and we need this network capability," basically. So as a result, obviously, the commercialization of the internet happened next with the input of many.
Adriana: SKA will be the world's largest science collaboration, like CERN was the previous one. And the data generator at the SKA would be more than 10 times the data generated by CERN. So, this is basically like, on a scale of 150 terabytes per second. So, once again, we hit this huge kind of bottleneck, where this amount of data is not going to be able to be analysed locally. I'm not going to say we're going to reinvent the internet but rather, we can't even imagine what kind of data processing, distribution, or more capabilities emerge. So, this is not only a theoretical scientific opportunity for South Africa, but a real practical one in terms of developing data structures from the skills required all the way through to the hardware. Yeah, we're really lucky and excited to see what kind of things come out of this on all levels, from the educational side all the way through to hardware that may be invented during the process.
Gabi: Do you think the SKA will drive innovation and uplift science and STEM in South Africa?
Adriana: I think this is true for the SKA, whether it's the schools that are being built in the Northern Cape to the university scholarships that are being provided. In terms of stirring the imaginations of a whole generation, yeah, we have a lot of hope in the power of this project on all levels.
Gabi: Can technology and digital transformation improve the lives for all Africans.
Adriana: I don't know, are those statistics that we get are already a post selection, because there are 1.1 billion people in the world who don't have any official means of identifying themselves. So, first of all this category of people then presumably is not forming part of any of the statistical analysis. We hear a lot of people, normally wealthy white men saying that on average the human existence is improving. Fine, maybe in their data sets that's being revealed through I don't know, vaccinations, better nutrition, better access to health care, whatever. I think our African population is pretty resilient as a result of not having had access to resources in the way that people living in Europe or the U.S. have. So, by nature we've got used to being creative in terms of resolving issues around power, water, food. We have that opportunity that we already have that way of thinking, of scarcity. I think access to data is something we need to work on, but more importantly nutritious food, clean water, clean air, back to basics.
Adriana: I think massively high rates of urbanization in Africa are something we have to think about. How are we gonna feed these people? How are we gonna upgrade our city infrastructure? And probably it's not gonna be a copy, paste from how Prague developed over the last 600 years, no. It's gonna be completely different. So that's really been in the hands, I think at the end of the day legislation is an important part of development in any country, so we really need government on board.
Gabi: When astronomers can understand the formation and evolution of the first stars, what will they do with this information that can help us today?
Adriana: How stars and how the galaxy form, this contributes to our understanding of our place in the universe. For me, as a researcher, that's you know fundamental. If we don't have curiosity about our place in the universe then we have really not come that far. But the practical applications of an experiment like the SKA, I think I've explained, which is like it has impact on society at large through the kind of capabilities that have to be developed to do those very fundamental science and that has impact on all sorts of areas, from developing skills and technicians and engineers and managers of these operational aspects of these things, data distribution centres, data warehouses, all of this infrastructure. So, the impact of doing cutting edge science is really far greater than the scientific outcome itself.
Gabi: Your mission is to inspire children and adults about the future. Give us your sales pitch, why should we be excited about the future?
Adriana: Our time on this Earth is limited and that's a fact. Some people ask if I'm afraid of dying on Mars and I think a far more tedious outcome would be to die on Earth, because guess what? We all die at some point. The point is not worrying about death but how we fill our time while we're alive. For me, after having thought about it, I think our unique contribution to reality as humans is our capability to create knowledge.
Adriana: As a human I want to maximize or optimize my knowledge creation and to be in a new environment. But to be on a new planet, just the scale of knowledge creation is just like exponentially more than anything you could do on Earth no matter how much funding you got and no matter how big your research group was. Just living in that environment will mean every breath you take, every piece of food you eat is part of a research study, basically. Every living moment is part of some novel research program, so for me that's really the motivation.
Adriana: And what more exciting period in history has there ever been than this one? I think no other.
Gabi: Adriana, thank you very for sharing your inspirational story and thought-provoking views with us.
Adriana: It's been a pleasure, thanks Gabi. I think we all have a role to play, let's respect life and make the most of our time, whatever planet we're on.
Kalay Maistry: We hope you enjoyed this podcast. Please leave us a review to let us know your feedback on our podcast series.
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