Mars mission, terror and others

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A single disappointment must not keep the British off Mars

A single disappointment must not keep the British off Mars

Sir: Stephen Pollard's piece "A nation stuck in the mindset of the Beagle" (5 January) needs a rebuttal. The idea that large organisations in America necessarily function better than their British equivalents is risible.

I recall that Nasa, whose success on Mars we now congratulate, managed a few years ago to lose a spacecraft because one laboratory was working in inches and another in centimetres. I believe that more than half of the missions sent to Mars by every nation including the Americans have failed.

The lesson to be drawn from this apparent British failure is not about alleged differences in approach between nations - after all diversity of approach is a good thing - but rather that exploring space is difficult. Sending one mission in isolation is likely to result in failure. What is needed if Britain wants to explore Mars is a commitment to sending a series of spacecraft to explore different areas and aspects of Mars. This requires a substantial financial commitment by the Government. The inevitable individual failures would be less important. Moreover it would allow our scientists to learn from experience as their colleagues at Nasa have done, thus reducing the risk of failure with each successive mission.

I hope that the Beagle-2 is not lying in pieces on the Martian surface and that it will be successfully activated. But whether Beagle-2 succeeds or fails I hope that our government will commit itself to the exploration of space by making available the necessary funds.

ANDREW TAMPION
Hinckley, Leicestershire

Sir: As one who has never managed to grasp Newtonian physics, I was amused to hear the BBC's science correspondent describe the successful Nasa Mars landing as having gone like clockwork.

MIKE LLOYD
St Albans, Hertfordshire

Terrorists are not victims of the West

Sir: Surely Yasmin Alibhai-Brown doesn't seriously believe the hijackers of 9-11 or their masters are the wretched of the earth ("The West must get humble and honest - fast", 5 January).

I would have thought it obvious that they are probably well educated people with a penchant for religious extremism who, like others before them, think they have found the ultimate solution to the political and economic dominance of one group of nations by another.

For all its faults, and there are many, the western socio-political-economic system has invented and provides practically all the developments that most of the world now takes for granted - motor vehicles, radio, antibiotics, even bicycles. The list is endless.

Al-Qa'ida and its like would be far better employed using its resources to aid development , fairer distribution and political freedom in the third world.

ROY CARTER
Shrivenham, Wiltshire

Sir: The use of sky marshals on board high-flying passenger jets may play well in Peoria, but ultimately and worryingly is unlikely to succeed against the wiles of zealous terrorists. The much-cited success of El Al in outwitting such terrorists relies not only on the presence of marshals on their flights, but on more subtle techniques, such as passenger profiling, applied in advance of departure.

Some years ago I was the involuntary object of such profiling when, as one of the few non-Israeli solitary male passengers on an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, I was asked to step aside at check-in and was repeatedly interviewed regarding my identity and travel arrangements and why I had flown in to Tel Aviv on a return charter ticket.

The experience was very unpleasant, but I joined the flight with complete confidence in the airline's security arrangements and, unlike the passengers on recently disrupted BA flights to Washington, arrived not only safely but on schedule.

Thus far, to judge from the effects on trans-Atlantic air travel, it is the terrorists who are winning, while the travellers - and voters - of Middle America are being lulled into a false sense of security.

RON WHITE
Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Arabic shortage

Sir: As a recent, albeit mature, graduate in Arabic from a British university, I agree that it is indeed regrettable, as your education correspondent says in her article "Britain faces dearth of home-grown Arabists"(1 January), that there are so few graduates from this country in Arabic and other languages of the Middle East and the surrounding regions. However it is not just a lack of students but a severe shortage of adequate teachers which contributes to this situation.

Arabic is an extremely difficult language to teach, with many Arabs themselves not knowing their own grammar and the difficulty compounded by there being a spoken, colloquial language specific to each country alongside a "standard" form that is the province of the educated classes and the media.

Further, it is only very recently that there has been any choice of decent textbooks and grammars that teachers can utilise in their courses; especially important for non-native English speaking teachers.

However whenever competent teachers can be found, many Arabic university departments offer such poor remuneration that they are snapped up by universities abroad, especially in the US, and as a result many of the teachers that remain here are woefully under-qualified to teach the language. I suspect this also leads to an increase in drop-out rates for Arabic and other language courses.

As far as the issue of the intelligence services facing a recruitment crisis is concerned, I suspect that most students of Middle-Eastern languages would not be rushing to sign up to work for the British government, given its current policies and alliance with the US over Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.

PAUL HUGHES-SMITH
London W4

Help for Georgia

Sir: Mikhail Saakashvili's apparent overwhelming electoral success seems to have been greeted by a deafening silence from government ministers in this country. Maybe this is due to Georgia being thought by some to be a "small country far away", but Tbilisi is, marginally, nearer to London than is Baghdad.

There are both strategic and humanitarian considerations for helping Georgia, which will lie on the route of the BP pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Georgia is on the hinge of the Caucasus between Europe and Asia, and will need help in dealing with its relationship with Russia as well as with its considerable internal problems.

The Georgians have suffered nearly as much through bad governance during the past 10 years as have the Iraqis, albeit more as the result of endemic corruption, impoverishment and the lack of a benign and efficient central authority than through outright state-organised terror and international sanctions. Yet the Georgians are every bit as much in need of recognition and support as the Iraqis. Not that anyone should wish on Georgia the kind of help that Mr Blair has, with George W Bush, foisted upon Iraq.

The millions of euros that the US and the EU provided to support the electoral process in Georgia will be wasted unless they are followed by well-directed reconstruction assistance. Georgia has already been provided with considerable aid, but the poverty of many Georgians is witness to the many questions as to where such aid has gone. A mini Marshall Plan is required, with proper accountability and transparency. Georgia needs and deserves the positive support of the British government.

JOHN CLUTTERBUCK
Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Doctor on the plane

Sir: Your story of the heart attack victim who found herself on a plane with 15 cardiologists (1 January) reminded me of a transatlantic flight I took some years ago.

As often happens, there was a call of "Is there a doctor on board?" I went down to the back of the plane to find two men in suits treating a man who had collapsed. I said I was a doctor and offered to help.

"What sort of doctor are you?" they asked. I said I was a general practitioner. "Thank God," one of them said. "We're only cardiologists." And with that they returned to their seats.

I've often wondered if they had recognised which speciality is usually first on the scene in such cases, or were simply waiting for a referral letter. Incidentally, the patient was fine.

Professor DAVID HASLAM
Chairman, Royal College of GPs
London SW7

Community gap

Sir: There are two extraordinary omissions in Michael Howard's list of what he believes in. Nowhere does he mention the words co-operation or community.

Most would probably agree that the most valuable institutions in the country are the hospitals, schools, universities and colleges, the police and the armed services. All are based on co-operation and their main purpose is to serve and protect the community.

His beliefs are mainly about the interests of individuals. Most of us also regard ourselves as members of the community and wish to take part in work or in our spare time activity to contribute something of value to the community. Does not Michael Howard think this is valuable too?

Professor JOHN PEMBERTON
Hathersage, Derbyshire

Wedding day  

Sir: The account of Britney Spears's wedding ceremony at 5.30am confirms the rumour that Americans like to get hitched very early in the morning so that, if the marriage doesn't work out, the whole of the day isn't wasted.

TED EVANS
Worthing, West Sussex

Abuse all round

Sir: So "Midwives are most abused staff in the health service" (report, 5 January ). Why do they take it so personally? While giving birth to my first daughter, I also roundly abused my husband, my unborn child, the NHS, those blinkered fools who write pregnancy and birth guides and the Lord Jesus Christ.

KAY SCHLICH
East Preston, West Sussex

Sterner stuff

Sir: I was very sorry to see Guy Keleny make the sort of generalisation that politicians make: "These days we spend half our lives in cars" (Mea Culpa, 3 January). What nonsense. In this part of the world we try to spend as little time as possible in cars. Some even use the bus. Londoners may be different.

HARRY SALES
Penzance, Cornwall

No pain, no gain

Sir: Delighted to read that "sex, vigorous" burns off 121 calories per hour (Health, 5 January). Please stand forward all those who can manage the full hour!

J PROCTER
Stalybridge, Greater Manchester

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