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Comet-Landing Boffins Turn to the UMBRELLA PROBLEM

18/11/2014 15:01 GMT | Updated 18/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Having achieved the astonishing feat of landing a small probe on a fast-moving comet, the boffins at the European Space Agency announced today that they are turning their intellectual might to the age-old problem of how to make an umbrella that doesn't break when it gets a little bit windy.

Ahhh, if only. This is the story I want to see. I fantasised about this possibility as I contemplated (with my much smaller brain than those boffins over at ESA) two things over the weekend:

One. How totally amazing it is that they landed a small bit of machinery on a rock that was travelling 40,000 mph through space... that they had to travel 4 billion miles through space (over 10 years) to do it. I marvel at a cowboy who can lasso a cow at 30 feet, so this... wow. The huge gap between the earth and this bit of scientific experimentation is matched by the huge gap between the scientists' brains and our own. This was rubbed in when the probe was described as the size of a 'dishwasher' or maybe a 'fridge', and that comet 67P was described as looking like a 'rubber duck'. As if the slippered masses can only understand anything in relation to domestic objects. Maybe it's true. We (the masses) didn't help things by obsessing over the boffin's shirt ("I don't understand what he's saying, but, shucks, look what he's wearing"). Actually, that dude was wearing a shirt with scantily-clad women on whilst on international TV is a beautiful demonstration of the fact that cleverness isn't evenly distributed across your brain. The science clever bit of his brain clearly takes up so much room that the 'what shirt would be appropriate today?' bit has shrunk, as has the "I must remember where I've parked my car" bit (he apparently often forgets where he's parked his car).

Two. How bloody useless umbrellas are. And always have been. We had a day out and it rained a bit. It wasn't a downpour, but it was raining enough to want to keep the water from soaking your head and clothes. So out came the umbrellas from our rucksack (we think ahead, we're clever like that... we also, by the way, easily remembered where our car was parked). So it rained a little bit and, as is often the case, it was a little bit breezy at the same time. It's true isn't it... often, when it rains, it's a little bit breezy, and sometimes downright gusty, and sometimes blow-you-off-your-feet stormy. But let's stick with the 'breezy' bit. Umbrellas can't take a breeze. They can't. And I've tried many different types of umbrellas over the years. Cheap and nasty ones bought in haste in souvenir shops in London (they last about half-an-hour, just long enough for it not to be worth you returning to the shop to ask for your £5 back). And expensive, heavier ones - that last longer, but still break. How many times have you struggled to correct the umbrella that's turned inside out (you know what I mean) in a gust. Do you just attempt to pull it back? Or do you point it into the wind and let the wind correct the trouble it caused in the first place?

Oh, how much fun we had with our two knackered umbrellas. No, not much. I'm usually left wondering why someone can't work out how to make an umbrella that actually works. But on this weekend in particular, enjoying my awe at the unimaginable intelligence it takes to land a dishwasher on a large rubber duck in space, it seems equally unimaginable that no one has worked out how to make an umbrella that lasts longer than a couple of outings in the rain. Go on, man with the sexist shirt, park your car in a place where you'll remember, and run through a sudden downpour to your boffin office, get your sexist shirt sodden, and come up with a boffin idea for an umbrella that doesn't break. Then we'll really thank you.

Now, forget science. If I need the answer to something at the moment (like, 'should I take the umbrella out with me today?'), I ask our new book 'F**k It is the Answer'. Yes, I ask the book. And it usually gives me a pretty good answer. I asked about the Philae probe just now - 'What should they do with the probe now that it's gone to sleep?' (yes, even my question is simplistic and I've rather oddly anthropomorphized the bit of machinery)... And the answer in the book was... wait for it... 'Look at your dreams for guidance'. So that's my advice to the ESA team, get a bit of shut-eye, and the answer to the problems of your sleeping probe will come to you in your dreams.

John's latest book is 'F**k It is the Answer'.

Visit: www.thefuckitlife.com

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