Today I don my scientist hat and head for Southwest Research Institute in Boulder where for the last three years I’ve been a half-time research scientist. The other half of me has been writing Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life in an old warehouse space—a place I call “Funky Science”—in Lower Downtown Denver.
It’s my first day back in the office after weeks of travel, so the mail is heaped high, with a few buried nuggets: I’m the book-review editor for the journal Astrobiology, and some new books have come in. I skim the most tempting ones to review myself. Today I am seduced by the manuscript for Life in the Universe: Expectations and Constraints by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Louis Irwin from University of Texas. Scanning the contents, it looks as though they’ve tried to dig beneath the foundation of consensus opinion about alien life underlying the current scientific discussion. They ask: “What is life, really?”; “Must it always be carbon-based and live in water?”; and “Where, other than on the surface of planets, might it reside?” These questions are tough for science to deal with, so we sometimes ignore them and settle for a creeping consensus. I wrestle with these ideas in Lonely Planets but in a more personal and informal style. This new book is scholarly in tone and form, with thick lists of references, and I welcome it. All this without having actually read it yet …
So, how do I convey the day of an astrobiologist?
Bob Grimm, a planetary geophysicist, pokes his head in my office, smiles, and says, “Tap, tap, tap. … Dear diary, now I’m typing on my computer …” We’ve already discussed the problem of how to make what we do not seem boring. Another colleague suggests I start with “I went into the meeting room and there were lines of smack on the table. My lab director offered me a snort …”
Although we actually get paid to think about distant planets and alien beings, the daily life is hardly the stuff of a sci-fi thriller. Sure, we get to do cool things: I’ve flown in a high-altitude aircraft to make infrared observations of Venus that couldn’t be done from the ground. I’m a member of a team developing an autonomous robot that will search deep in hot thermal caves in Yucatan, Mexico, for exotic, unknown life-forms. I’ve also participated in missions of exploration with mind-blowing “Eureka” moments—for example, I was in the room when the first Voyager pictures came down from Jupiter’s moon Europa in 1979, hinting at a possible life-giving ocean beneath the icy surface.
But on a typical day I am not doing any of that. I’m sitting in my office sifting through information, writing computer code, gathering in meeting rooms with my peers, dreaming up proposals for new planetary missions. This morning we meet to discuss a proposal to develop a new instrument for the “Mars Science Laboratory Mission,” which NASA will launch in 2009. If you were a fly on the wall, you’d be bored out of your exoskeleton listening to us hash out the best detector wavelength to measure a certain gas in the atmosphere. But if you stayed awake for our discussion of how we’ll justify the importance of the measurement, you might even get inspired. We have to make a compelling case that NASA needs to send our instrument to Mars, and this gets us talking about what we need to know (Where on Mars is the water to support life and methane made by life?) and why. Which I find sort of romantic. And then of course, on a less romantic note, there are the politics of trying to figure out who at NASA is calling the shots or has an inside track for this funding, and what their agendas are. Writing this, I realize that much of what we talk about at these meetings is secret. Not in the “hidden bodies in Area 51” sense, but in the “competition sensitive” sense.
I grab lunch with my good friend Mark Bullock, and we bounce around ideas about what to do next with the planetary climate model we’ve been developing for years.
I was Mark’s thesis adviser at the University of Colorado several years ago, but by now he has taught me at least as much as I’ve taught him, and we are peers. These days, now that astrobiology has suddenly become very much in vogue at NASA, we are both funded to study the evolution of possible habitats for life elsewhere in the universe. And that doesn’t suck.
I am also spending time on a proposal for a new mission to Venus. These proposals are high-risk activities. We work hard to put together an offer that NASA cannot refuse. If our team is selected we’ll get years of funding and, most importantly, we’ll get to send a robot to Venus or Mars to learn new biographical details of our planetary siblings and gain new insights into how and why life came to Earth (or—as I like to think of it—Earth came to life). But all this proposing is done on spec, and if we aren’t chosen we get nothing. Still, it beats flipping burgers.
Tomorrow I’ll work down at Funky Science and show you how my other half lives.