When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

Out in space where the rules are different, scientists frequently find themselves on the very frontier of knowledge. We hear the thoughts of NASA astronaut, scientist and low-Earth orbit inventor Don Pettit on the excitement and future of researching in the unknown

Dr Don Pettit is one of NASA’s great science pioneers. A chemical engineer, he is the veteran of multiple missions, including two long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and a 6-week meteorite-hunting expedition to Antarctica.

Back in 2002 when he was science officer on Expedition 6, he hosted the now gloriously retro science series Saturday Morning Science, where he conducted an array of experiments in the ISS’ microgravity.

He is also known as an inventor, having built a barn door tracker out of ISS parts on the same mission. The device compensates for the ISS’ movement relative to Earth, allowing for the crisp images of the world below we now get from orbiting astronauts. Plus he invented the zero-g coffee cup, which allows astronauts to enjoy a caffeinated pick-me-up without the need for a straw.

Pettit is above all, however, a frontrunner to a horde of future researchers and scientists who will expand our knowledge of science in microgravity, which, as he pointed out when I spoke to him at the European Space Agency’s event Space for Inspiration, currently only scratches the surface of what’s possible.

You’ve spent a total of 370 days living and working onboard the International Space Station. What’s it like to be up there?

It’s an incredible experience. You’re going into a frontier environment that we have no innate intuition about, and so every day you’re learning new things. Not everything is wonderful, but the environment is wonderful.

What excites you most about the potential of research in space?

It’s not one specific factoid that we are learning, it’s the whole avenue of human beings expanding into a frontier where our normal intuition from life on Earth does not apply, and things that are just unimaginable happen.

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Images courtesy of NASA Johnson

You will make an observation and we will have insufficient knowledge to predict what was going to happen, but after we make the observation we can use our pre-existing knowledge to explain what happens. And sometimes our pre-existing knowledge is insufficient, and that means you’re truly working in a frontier situation.

That’s the exciting part of going into space. It’s not any single experiment; it’s not just looking at Earth; it’s not the feeling of weightlessness; it’s the idea that you are truly doing exploration, exploration that only about 550 people have ever done, have ever gone into space out of the 7 billion people on this planet.

That’s something that we need to change right there; we need to figure out how to do the engineering and make machines so that we can get more people going into space. That’s going to dramatically increase the rate of our knowledge, our discovery, and expansion into the solar system.

Do you anticipate a rapid expansion of knowledge as the private space industry expands?

Yeah. It’s bound to happen. Take the discovery of the laser. At first it was a large complicated piece of equipment you could only keep running in a laboratory, and it was highlighted as being a discovery waiting for an application. Because it was a real neat piece of physics, but nobody knew what to use it for.

It took literally 30 years before lasers started to become useful, and now you can hardly go anywhere without a laser being somewhere in your life. You’ve got a laser in your smartphone there; you’ve got lasers in the grocery store; lasers are all around us and lasers are a fundamental part of our life now.

Space is kind of like that: it’s slow to take off because of access, but just like lasers were slow to take off because they were large and bulky and complicated, it will be inevitable that human beings will expand into space both for continued exploration and for commercial ventures.

There’s also talk of the ISS being privatised – do you anticipate that creating more opportunities for new experiments?

Experimentation is what human beings are good at doing

Of course, and experimentation is what human beings are good at doing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a government-run programme or a commercially-run programme, they’re all good and we need both. The kinds of questions that a government research lab asks and does research on are typically different than the kind of questions that private industry would do, and they go hand-in-hand.

Are there any untapped research areas that you would like to see prioritised in future ISS experiments?

There are areas that are rich for potential discovery. Fluid mechanics is one; dealing with the flows involving gases and liquids along with free surface interfaces.

These are complex and difficult to deal with, and a classic example of this is a toilet: how do you make a toilet that works? We’ve got toilets on the space station but they’re always breaking down, and it’s in parts dealing with a mixture of air and liquids and bubbles and droplets and all these things moving together and how do you deal with that?

So that’s one field. Another field is anything dealing with the life sciences. If you look at life evolving on Earth – temperatures, pressures, chemical compositions – these things have swung all over, but the magnitude of gravity has remained constant for billions of years.

Ever since Earth became a planet its gravity has basically been constant; life has always known constant gravity and now we can take life organisms including ourselves into an environment where we change the magnitude of gravity by a factor of a million.

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That’s what microgravity is: you change it by a factor of a million. You change almost any other environmental factor by a million and see how long it’ll take your nematodes to curl up and die. The fact that we can change the magnitude of gravitational force by a factor of one million and life still continues on, that in itself is an amazing discovery.

But then we’re finding there are all kinds of subtle things that happened with living organisms when we take them into a microgravity environment and likewise tertiary effects on human physiology. And so this is another field that is ripe for discovery.

How do much do we currently know about humans’ response to microgravity situations?

We know a lot about how the human body responds, but we don’t know why.

I like the analogy of sailors getting scurvy when they go on transoceanic expeditions in the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries – thousands and thousands of sailors died from something that now grade school kids know the solution to. But the concepts of vitamins and diets hadn’t even been thought of [back then]; that there were small quantities of complex organic material that you needed by the milligram dose every day in order to maintain health, and without them you would die.

Around 1750, the Royal Navy figured out that if you suck on citrus you won’t get scurvy, and that was the empirical solution to the problem of scurvy, but they didn’t understand the fundamental basics as to what causes scurvy for another 150 years, when vitamins and their role in your diet and human health were discovered.

That’s where we are now with so many of the things we’re learning about human physiology.

Now you look at just one of the many things that happened to human beings in space environments: bone decalcification. We have an empirical remedy for that now, it’s called exercise, and we exercise for two and a half hours a day. In some respects a trip to the space station is like spending six months at health camp, because you come back stronger than you were before you launched.

This exercise preserves your bones, and the rate of bone density loss now is minuscule. So this is the equivalent of the Brits figuring out if you suck on citrus you won’t get scurvy. But we haven’t the foggiest as to what is going on with our bones in a weightless environment, what are the details of the biochemistry?

We’re working on that now, and just like vitamins and diet that allowed these nasty vitamin deficiencies to be solved for everybody on the continent that never went on a sea voyage, if we understand the fundamentals of bone density loss, everybody on the planet that doesn’t travel into space, they will benefit from this.

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So it’s the same story of scurvy but it’s being replayed in a different venue, in a different century, with a different human malady and this story is also being repeated for eye retinal issues; the cardiovascular issues we find; the immune system deficiencies that we’re finding.

We’re finding that as all of these disease-like symptoms that are being instigated in healthy people in the middle of life simply because you go into space, and it’s going to be an amazing venue to help decipher what’s going on with these diseases for everybody on the planet.

It’s really exciting; I could talk about this stuff for hours.

For those who are keen to become future researchers in microgravity, what advice would you give on becoming an astronaut?

The secret to becoming an astronaut is: you put in an application. A limousine is not going to pull up in front of your house and men in black come out and give you a secret handshake and now you’re in the astronaut program.

The only way you will become an astronaut is to put an application in for the program and if the first time you put your application in it doesn’t work out, you can’t take no for an answer and you just keep trying, and trying and trying.

I was rejected three times. I interviewed [to become an] astronaut four times over a 13-year period and three of those times I got the ‘thank you very much’ letter, and the fourth time I got the ‘welcome to the astronaut program’ letter. You just don’t take no for an answer if it’s something you really, really want to do.