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Scott “marsroverdriver” Maxwell
Works at Google
Attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lives in Pasadena, CA
46,467 followers|3,604,517 views


+Marian Call covers Bowie's "Space Oddity" using only the ten hundred most common used words (David Bowie meets Up-Goer Five). It's sad that "brilliant" isn't one of those words.
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I just thought of the best one:  Hot wet air.
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If you know any girls who think they can't be computer programmers or other kinds of engineers, tell them about Margaret Hamilton. She's an even better role model for female engineers than Ada Lovelace, IMHO.

She's one badass lady, and no mistake.
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Martian Methane
Or, science journalism offers us all a teachable moment.

So, the MSL methane story has taken a few twists and turns: ESA's Mars Express (MEX) orbiter detected methane in the Martian atmosphere, but then MSL found none on the surface shortly after landing. But later, as the MSL team announced late last year, methane seemingly appeared, hung around for a couple of months, then disappeared again.

This suggests a geological or (less likely) biological process. And it would have to be a geologically recent one, as the radiation at Mars would quickly (in, again, a geological sense) convert methane to CO₂. (Before you get too excited: the methane could have been generated in the distant past and stored somehow -- below the surface, or in now-melting ice -- and some process is simply releasing it now. Even if we favor a biological explanation, methane itself is not evidence of current life.)

But now a NASA scientist -- not on the MSL mission -- comes along with another hypothesis. "Oh, my god," he says, "the methane is coming FROM INSIDE THE ROVER!" (I might be over-dramatizing a bit.)

Now, a priori, this isn't ridiculous. It's worth considering: leaking gas was a proposed cause of the once-mysterious tiny acceleration known as the Pioneer Anomaly, for instance (though it turned out not to be that). And MSL does have a small amount of methane aboard, used to calibrate the rover's nose, the SAM instrument.

The thing is, there isn't a plausible way for that methane to cause this reading. If some Martian gremlin came along and wired up a tube from the methane reserve directly to the sensor that's hooked to the nose, maybe. But then the SAM team would notice a pressure drop in the chamber that holds the methane, and they don't see any such thing.

So on the one hand, we might have a previously unknown mechanism intermittently generating atmospheric methane.

But on the other hand, to buy this new hypothesis, we have to postulate both an unknown mechanism to get the methane from the reserve chamber into the rover's nose and some kind of faulty pressure sensor -- and some way for the methane to show up in MEX's orbital measurements, too.

Is all that strictly impossible? Nope. Here, as happens too often in life, we might just have to live without the kind of absolute certainty we'd like. Instead, we have to weigh probabilities and apply handy mental tools such as Occam's Razor.

And when you apply Occam's Razor to this evidence, I think you have to slice away Curiosity himself as the methane source. To anyone with a different opinion -- including the scientist whose views instigated this article -- I'm cheerfully taking bets.
A scientist has raised questions about the latest detection of methane on Mars, suggesting that NASA’s rover could be responsible for the mysterious burp. Highly unlikely, but not impossible, says the Curiosity team.
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+Franc Schiphorst Correct, not nearly enough -- and anyway, MEX saw that methane before MSL even launched!
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In just about half an hour (18:37 PST), it will be the start of Sol 1000 for Curiosity. Prepare to celebrate!

I suggested that +Kimberly Lichtenberg​ bake 1000 cupcakes to honor the occasion, but alas, she made only a few dozen. Still: nom nom nom!
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+Pam Adger Thanks for pointing me to that! I haven't had time to write up my I/O 2015 experiences yet, but it was a real doozy. :-)
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I love it that the process of Mars exploration is messy, that it has twists and turns and strategic retreats mixed in with the successes. You can sit back and wait for the Martian water story to show up in textbooks if you want to, or you can follow along in near-real-time with the images on the Web site and news stories like this one. (Which is reminding me so much of climbing Husband Hill with Spirit.)

And it's not as icky as literally watching sausages being made, so that's good.
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Xkcd's writer, Randall Monroe, will make a book where he explains lots of things using only the ten hundred most common words. This is one of those things.
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Amazing - looking forward to visiting with you on Wednesday!
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Are we working toward a cure?
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+Vishnu Vardhan Spirit was the best one! She was, indeed, my first Mars rover -- my first drive was the drive from the rock named Adirondack to the rock named White Boat.

If you have enormous amounts of free time and/or need a soporific ;-), you can read the saga of my first drive here:
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So Google asked me to jet up to SF for a day to help show off Google Expeditions, a way to take students on a virtual field trip for essentially no cost using their nifty Cardboard VR headset. They'd set up a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, and one to some coral reefs -- and one through the life of the very best Mars rover ever, Spirit.

I couldn't say no.

So this is what that was like for me. It's a bit of a whirlwind tour, but that's appropriate, since it was a whirlwind for me, too.

As it turns out, I spent a few hours taking enthusiastic audiences through a criminally abbreviated tour of Spirit's life. All of the hard work had already been done by +Emily Lakdawalla, so I just needed to show up and run my mouth.

I've said for years that the thing I liked best about working on Mars rovers wasn't just joy-riding around other planets. Don't get me wrong, that was great. But the best part is, since the missions share all their images promptly on the Web, anybody who wants to can ride along on the mission with me -- they can be a backseat rover driver, as I say.

This took that to a whole new level. Instead of listening to me ramble about static images, trying to convey in words what I find to be so magic about this experience, the audience could stand there on Mars with me while I told them about it.

Discovering with me, with Spirit, that the rocks we'd come 500 million kilometers to see were, geologically, the wrong kind -- a bust. Finding hope on the horizon, but too far away. Struggling there anyway, against all odds. Climbing a mountain the height of the Statue of Liberty, and then pressing on to its other side. And, last of all, fouling in a cruel Martian tar-pit trap, sinking and gasping for sunlight and then going gently, and finally, to that long sleep.


I hope they had a damn good time. Because I know I did.

If you're a teacher -- or curious -- you can learn more about Expeditions here:
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Holy crap. I just discovered that you can Google for, e.g., "set a timer for 10 minutes" -- and it does.
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+Jeff Bailey can you imagine how often the manual would have to be updated? Too many Google features have a life shorter than a shooting star...
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Bill Nye "The Science Guy" explains how we now totally know the universe is a force for speaking to young white women.
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My annual "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" contribution. It stretches the limit of my artistic talents, but I've done my best here. And it's worth reflecting that there are, seriously, people who'd cheerfully kill me for drawing it.

Obviously, the drawing is a touch snarky, but the point is serious: if we're willing to give up the principle of defending free speech, even over silly cartoons, then it isn't a principle at all. And then we don't have the principle to support us when we want to defend something more serious.
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+Scott Maxwell yup 
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Have him in circles
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Site Reliability Engineer
  • Google
    Site Reliability Engineer, 2013 - present
  • JPL
    Mars Rover Driver Team Lead, 2013
Map of the places this user has livedMap of the places this user has livedMap of the places this user has lived
Pasadena, CA
Rocky Mount, NC - Seminole, FL - Greenville, NC - Champaign, IL
I'm a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory.
On a small red light in the night sky lives four hundred pounds of thinking metal sent from Earth.  Once upon a time, I told that metal what to do.

(Disclaimer: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.  Duh. :-)
Bragging rights
I fought cancer and won. I had a robot on another planet, and I drove it around and made it do stuff. I was a trending topic on Twitter. I wrote a book. I took a privacy case all the way to the Supreme Court. Now I keep Google up and running. But I'm just this guy, you know?
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Computer Science
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@marsroverdriver on Twitter
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I love this place. The staff makes me feel like part of the family, and in a part of the world crowded with Thai restaurants, Min's stands out among the best.
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3 reviews
Great food; great drinks; terrific wait staff. This is one of my girlfriend's and my favorite places.
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