Home of the Wonderful

Mark Thompson’s 140-hour ‘Ultimate Space Lecture’

264 hours stands as the current Guinness World record for staying awake the longest. However, unlike jumping out an aeroplane without a parachute from 7,500 metres and landing in a net, Guinness stopped recognizing it due to safety concerns. Instead, Norfolk-born President of the Norwich Astronomical Society Mark Thompson decided to attempt the longest running lecture.

Spanning from 11 to 12 September, the BBC Stargazing Live Presenter attempted to break the current record of 139 hours, 42 minutes, and 56 seconds before falling into a well-deserved 20-hour sleep. The experience went how you’d imagine: “There were a lot of occasions where I wasn’t with it in any way, be it visual, auditory, or just being so tired I just wanted to sleep.”

I asked Mark which moments were particularly strenuous. “There were so many times where I was hearing voices and thinking: “are they real voices?” When I was hallucinating, and I was hallucinating a lot, not just visual disturbances but also being away with the fairies for a little while. There were times where I wasn’t aware that I was disappearing off to a happy place for a little while.” The auditory hallucinations were scarier. “There were times where I thought there were other people talking when I was talking, and times when I kept hearing my own voice in my head and I couldn’t quite figure out if it was someone else copying me or someone genuinely talking while I was talking, so I paused what I was saying to try and trip them up.”

At some points, the voices didn’t seem to only come from his head. “There were a few telescopes on stage, and I thought they were actually alive. A real freaky, weird, moment. I remember thinking: “I’m going to have to move these, because they’re putting me off now,” and I remember trying to pick them up and moving them.” A few family members witnessed the event, filling the gaps in his memory loss. “Apparently, I was telling jokes when I had no idea I was telling jokes. There was one moment when everyone was laughing, and I asked: “why are you laughing?” I had no recollection of telling a joke.” Although he hasn’t watched the lecture himself, he said he “might stick together some clips and make them into a kind of compilation video.”

Mark allowed sleep scientists an opportunity to test on him. “I had three research teams which were doing a lot of things like seeing how much circadian rhythm was shifting as I became more and more sleep deprived,” which involved measuring melatonin levels and body temperature. There was another crew measuring his cognitive response times and brain activity and photographing every two hours to record how his visual appearance changed.

This isn’t Mark’s first time delving into sleep deprivation. In 2015, he delivered a 24-hour lecture at the Royal Institution in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care where he first found out about the world record. “I found out it was five and a half days and thought “no, I’m not doing that.” After years of recovering, I thought “Yeah I’ll have a go at that.” I did a stint when I stayed awake for two nights and then gave a one-hour lecture, and that was just to see if I had the capabilities of dealing with sleep deprivation. I coped with it really well and decided to try and break the record.”

Last year, Mark received an honorary doctorate from UEA, so that’s where it seemed appropriate to brave the event. “I feel at home there, so it was the perfect choice for location.” Staying awake for 140 hours is best spent in a place one can call home. “It is a huge commitment for any venue to offer a lecture theatre for six days constantly, but they couldn’t have been more supportive from day one. There was some scepticism from the point of “what the hell are you doing that for” because it does sound crazy, but they were one hundred percent supportive.”

I asked Mark how UEA responded to the lecture. “There was technical support from the UEA events team, which was fabulous, but essentially I pulled a team of people together because it wasn’t your normal, run-of-the-mill event, so I had to make sure I had specialists involved who knew about the science of sleep and the impact.” 

Mark’s team advised him to lecture for 2 hours, have 5-minute breaks, and save a 90-minute gap for a sleep after 40 hours. In the breaks, frequent light meals were consumed consisting mostly of nuts and eggs, mashed up for faster digestion.

To prepare, Mark had an increase in calories the day before to give his body a temporary respite from calorie restriction. “I had some good nights’ sleep in the lead-up to the event so I didn’t start off sleep deprived. The last thing I wanted to do was to build up my tolerance to tiredness. It’s not like running a marathon where you can build yourself up to it, the more you do that the worse it gets.” He also had a vocal coach to ensure his voice could keep talking for five days.

 “Apart from eating healthily, getting myself off caffeine to make sure I could use caffeine as a more effective tool in the event, there wasn’t a lot I could do to prepare.” Unfortunately, the caffeine didn’t stop the hallucinations, only the sluggishness. “Caffeine is almost like a dam which stops the build-up of melatonin. If you start drinking it too early, then the melatonin levels start building up too soon. As soon as you start doing that and the caffeine wears out of your body, you get a burst of melatonin which forces you to sleep. It would have been counterproductive to start too early.” Sound advice for anyone planning all-nighters during assessment period.

While breaking a world record is a motivating prospect, it wasn’t the only one fuelling his ambition. Mark also used the event to fundraise for charity. “I’ve been an ambassador for Barnardo’s for four or five years now, and they’re a brilliant charity who do great work for underprivileged kids in the UK. It went without saying that I was going to support Barnardo’s with it. Anything I can do to help in their work, I’m very happy to do.” Mark’s work with children is extensive, most popularly with his Spectacular Science theatre show designed to “get kids excited about science.” 

He sees his role in society as someone who “can make science fun and interesting but also teach them a little along the way. Once you ignite that spark, the education system can take that and hopefully mould scientists for the future.” Mark’s passion for astronomy was first enthused at age 10 when he saw Saturn through a telescope, and he advises parents to get telescopes if they want their kids excited about space. Perhaps avoid the animated ones, though.

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Jim Gell

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June 2022
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