Today, while I walked across north Denver with my wife, Tory, a charging dog startled us before its human called it off. This set off all nearby dogs, and a barky wave propagated off into the distance. “Do you think that could be the alien signal?” Tory asked.
Our alien jokes are running pretty dry because we’ve just returned from two weeks on the ET life circuit. In New York, I spoke at the Hayden Planetarium and did several radio interviews, including Batchelor and Alexander on ABC radio where it seems I’m becoming the regular astrobiology commentator. (Every show should have one.) In Washington, I lectured at the Smithsonian and taped an interview at NPR with Scott Simon, who was relaxed and kind and seemed to have read my book. Late that night I did a radio show with call-ins. Some guy asked, “So, what’s with all this probing? Why are these aliens so obsessed with probing our privates?”
In San Francisco, I listened, schmoozed, and schemed with colleagues at the American Geophysical Union meeting, a massive nerdfest where thousands of geologists, climatologists, paleontologists, and planetary scientists thronged the Moscone Center. I was especially interested in the sessions on “astrobiology”—the scientific study of extraterrestrial life—a relative newcomer to this scene. There was a lot of talk about “thinking outside the box” in our search for life on Mars, but it struck me that nobody really knows how to do that. The box is the limited knowledge of life we are stuck with until we find some examples from other planets. I also gave a planetarium talk in Golden Gate Park (scroll down). Friday, our last night in San Fran, we saw the Counting Crows at the Warfield then went back to the hotel and packed. On this trip we also both caught and got over colds. Crowded flights this winter feel like petri dishes, but Echinacea does seem to work.
I had committed to give a keynote address at a conference in Boulder on Saturday night, for journalists writing about the upcoming Mars landings. So on the plane back from San Francisco, I put together notes about the history of ideas about Mars over the last century—a cycle of expectation and disappointment in which we repeatedly develop scientific fantasies of life on the red planet, then get embarrassed when it (literally) doesn’t live up. Saturday afternoon I put my visuals together and barely made it to my talk on time.
On Sunday, a mural on a church near our house sparked a conversation on how you can justify space exploration with so many people dying of AIDS and hunger. My answer: We need to feed the soul. As we seek our company in the universe, we also seek an understanding of our own place in space and time. It is a scientific search that is also a spiritual quest.
Early evening: Tory calls me outside to see Venus, now bright in the west. This is partly a ruse to surprise me with our pear tree adorned in colored solstice lights. In this picture Venus is the light that is not on the tree.
Due to an orbital polyrhythm, Venus repeats her appearances exactly five times every eight years. The last time Venus was in the evening sky as the winter solstice approached, Tory and I had just gotten hitched. Now we’ve been married for one entire eight-year Venus cycle. Venus has always been my second favorite planet after Earth. Venus is not considered by most scientists to be a likely planet to find life, but I think the bright clouds shrouding our sister planet could be a fertile habitat for some cleverly adapted bacterium. Lately there have been some signs that, while not widely embraced, this opinion is being tolerated. In fact, I’ve been invited to give a plenary talk at the Third Astrobiology Science Conference, the biannual gathering of the tribe for this new scientific movement devoted to alien life. The title of my talk will be “Sympathy for the Devil: The Case for Life on Venus”
7 a.m. Monday—just woke to find the world glazed anew with fresh snow. Unexpected and beautiful—that’s life in Colorado. You would never, ever, see a morning like this on Venus, where it is always about 900 degrees Fahrenheit and where the sunrise, which comes from the west, lasts for many weeks. Except maybe on the mountain tops where it is a chilly 800 degrees, and the high peaks do seem to be glazed with something mysterious and shiny—perhaps metallic snowfalls of lead and bismuth. If we ever do go snowboarding on Venus, we’ll need some rad and reliable protective gear.