The Cheat Sheet

In space, no one can hear you laugh…

Venky Vembu | Updated on March 13, 2019

Don’t you mean: ‘no one can hear you scream’?

That’s, of course, the tag line of Alien, the iconic science fiction horror film from 1979. But on the first human mission to Mars, scheduled for 2033, astronauts are more likely to be laughing than screaming.

Why would they be laughing?

Because there might just be a clown on board the spacecraft.

Surely you jest...

Not at all. Anthropologists and behavioural scientists collaborating with NASA to study group dynamics among space crew — who will be cooped up with one another in a tiny spacecraft for close to three years — reckon that having a clown (or a comedian) on the mission may be “critical” to its success.

Why is that?

For a start, a human mission to the Red Planet, which is (on average) 225 million km away, would be extremely gruelling. Just getting there would take nearly nine months; the space crew would also be subjected to intense radiation, among other hazards.

How does having a clown around help?

Jeffrey C Johnson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, told a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “When you’re living with others in a confined space for a long period of time, such as on a mission to Mars, tensions are likely to fray.” Having someone who can help everyone get along would be “mission-critical”, he said.

And that someone would be a clown?

Not necessarily a clown — although having a jester (or any other ‘positive deviant’, as anthropologists term them) helps improve group dynamics. In a 2003 research paper titled ‘The Evolution of Networks in Extreme and Isolated Environments’, Johnson (then with the North Carolina University) and his peers James S Boster (at the University of Connecticut) and Lawrence A Palinkas (at the University of California San Diego) reported on their findings of a 3.5-year-long study of multi-cultural, muti-ethnic, multi-national crew members at the South Pole, who typically spent their winters — which spread for 8.5 months of the year — in complete isolation.

What did their study establish?

Among other things, that the group was more “cohesive” if it had more “positive deviant roles” present. Such “deviants” could be a “lower status individual” (a cook or a civilian contractor employee) “who will perform pranks and exaggerate his or her behaviour sufficiently to be outside the mainstream of behaviour on the station...” Such individuals, they noted, “also provide an important communication function in that they are frequently allowed to express frustrations or dissatisfaction with disruptive individuals or undesirable conditions in a socially acceptable manner without causing additional stress or conflict.”

Sounds loopy to me.

You’d be surprised. When Roald Amundsen undertook his Norwegian polar expedition, he brought with him a cook, Adolf Lindstrom. In his book Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth, biographer Roland Huntford writes that “as chef, baker, pastry-cook, (Lindstrom) provided surrogate domesticity. He was also instrument maker, taxidermist, housepainter… and clown.” Amundsen recorded in his diary that Lindstrom had “rendered... more valuable services” to the expedition “than any other man.”

So clowns are team-builders.

They are, simply by being stress-busters. In fact, their role in improving workplace productivity is gradually being acknowledged by HR functionaries. Likewise, in healthcare settings, psychologists have recorded an improvement in patients subjected to the therapeutic effects of “medical clowning”. Clowns make workplaces fun and are good for your health!

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on March 13, 2019

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