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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Mars One's Bas Landsdorp is a fascinating example of a 'reality distortion field'

First identified by an engineer working with tech legend Steve Jobs of Apple, the reality distortion field is characterised by a mix of tenacity, positive thinking and the ability to make even the craziest thing seem possible

Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One. Pawan Singh / The National
Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One. Pawan Singh / The National

These are stressful times for tech entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. Unless he can get a big cash injection in the next few weeks, he will have to abandon his dream of sending people to live – and die – on Mars.

As the founder of Mars One, the Dutch entrepreneur made global headlines in 2012 with his plans to send the first humans to the red planet.

In itself, it wasn’t especially newsworthy – even some US presidents have mentioned the idea to pep up otherwise dull speeches. What made Mars One different was that Mr Lansdorp was clear about two things. First, the US$6 billion (Dh22bn) project would be privately funded by investors, and second, there would be no return ticket.

Mr Lansdorp put out a global call for volunteers to make history by zooming off to become the first to live on another planet. The response, he says, was stunning. More than 200,000 people stepped up to become one of the 24 colonists – including some from the UAE.

But alas, it seems their dreams will never become a reality – a court in Switzerland has declared Mars One bankrupt, its supposed worth of $100 million blown to smithereens.

Mr Lansdorp now claims to be in negotiations with a mystery backer whose identity will be revealed on March 6. But his pronouncements have a habit of crashing to Earth, like a plan to send unmanned probes to orbit Mars in 2016. Or to send the first manned trip to the Red Planet in 2022, which became 2025, then 2031. Or his aspiration of being cash-positive by now.

What Mr Lansdorp seems to have is a power often possessed by visionaries – something called a reality distortion field. First identified by an engineer working with tech legend Steve Jobs of Apple, it’s characterised by a mix of tenacity, positive thinking and the ability to make even the craziest thing seem possible.

It’s what allowed the likes of Thomas Edison to bring a host of inventions to a grateful world. It led Jobs to put the miraculous smartphone in to the hands of one in three people on Earth.

But wielding the reality distortion field has its dangers. In the case of Mr Lansdorp, it has led him to press on with his plans despite intense criticism from experts.

In 2014, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed numerous basic flaws with the Mars One strategy.

From the number of missions needed to form the colony to the technology able to sustain it, the MIT team found wishful thinking taking precedence over reality.

Even if Mr Lansdorp somehow managed to get people to the planet, the report stated they would suffocate in less than 70 days.

Whether his reality distortion field can work its magic on the mystery investor remains to be seen. What is clear is that such a phenomenon really exists – and that even the smartest people can fall prey to it.

Just ask former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former US defence secretary general James Mattis, and the top businesspeople and investors who believed in Elizabeth Holmes.

In 2004, aged just 19, she dropped out of Stanford University to develop technology for performing tests on tiny samples of blood. It was an idea with the potential to revolutionise medicine, giving everyone access to fast, low-cost health checks in local stores or at home.

Ms Holmes immediately faced scepticism about doing so much with so little blood. But emulating her hero Steve Jobs, she activated her reality distortion field and pressed ahead.

Within months of dropping out, she had set up Theranos and raised $6m. By 2014, Holmes had raised more than $400m, with her company having an estimated value of $9bn, and Forbes magazine declared her the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

She counted Mr Kissinger and the other luminaries among board members, and had been invited to join Harvard Medical School’s Board of Fellows.

Then the truth emerged. In October 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Theranos machines had never worked properly, yet the company still allowed them to be used for patient tests.

Ms Holmes’s company collapsed last September, costing investors an estimated $60m. How many patients were put in harm’s way is unclear. Ms Holmes has been indicted on multiple counts of fraud and faces up to 20 years in jail.

The state of her reality distortion field isn’t clear, but certainly it was working full tilt when the revelations about Theranos emerged.

Quizzed about the reports on TV, she simply declared: “This is what happens when you work to change things. First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then, all of a sudden, you change the world”.

There’s no suggestion Mr Lansdorp is up to anything as questionable as Ms Holmes. It may be he’s closer in spirit to explorers like Columbus, who found the New World using three small ships propelled by self-confidence.

But post-Theranos, Mr Lansdorp is likely to find that investors are far more sceptical of geeks seeking bids.

Updated: February 16, 2019 12:17 PM

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