I rent a space in Denver I call Funky Science. It’s the place where I work on my projects that are not NASA-funded: writing mostly, and some music. I keep my gear there and books I can’t fit at home or at SwRI (Southwest Research Institute). My officemates Jason and Aaron run a PR firm for activist groups. Sometimes at night my jamming buddies show up and we make noise. Working here, far from the slings and arrows of outrageous peer review, frees me to reach out beyond the science set.
Today I am concerned about a breaking weather story: There is a dust storm brewing in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is now summertime. Once in a while, when it’s summer on the southern hemisphere on Mars, the entire planet freaks out and enshrouds itself in howling winds and murky dust. These global storms always start out like the regional one now raging. This could be bad news for Beagle 2, our first spacecraft sent to look for microbial life on Mars since the two Viking Lander missions in 1976, since it is scheduled to land at Christmas. Driving dust is not healthy for machines, especially solar powered ones.
When our first orbiter, Mariner 9, arrived in 1971 to map Mars, the planet was completely obscured by a hellacious dust storm, almost as if Mars were hiding something. After a couple of weeks, that storm settled and Mars revealed, for the first time, towering volcanoes and ancient river beds.
So, here we go again. The timing is a bit spooky, but in all likelihood this storm will settle down in a few days and will not threaten the mission. Stay tuned.
Now I’m cranking www.boombasticradio.com, my favorite station (Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, Golden Flamingo Orchestra, Blackalicious, and Baaba Maal). I like the mix they play—if you pull out what all these songs have in common, you’re left with the essence of funk. I’m also dealing with e-mail. First one: Colleagues conferring on fixing a perceived weakness in our Venus mission proposal.
Next: An earnest woman contacts me, concerned about humanoid aliens living underground and tampering with the ozone layer (which she points out they don’t need, since they live underground). She directs me to a Web site cataloging several species of aliens interfering in human affairs—the site includes the aliens’ stars of origin, distances in light years, and various physical and behavioral characteristics. The stellar data seems accurate, but the alien species are unconvincing—minor variations on humans with reptilian eyes or tails or fur. The problem with these theories about aliens on Earth is that they seem like B movies and I just don’t believe we live in that kind of universe. I am skeptical by nature, yet I am always searching my own logic for crutches or false surety, and I think this makes me somewhat open, for a scientist, to fringe ideas. I’ve even gone to some alien conspiracy meetings to listen, but they always end up sounding like hackneyed movie plots or bad Star Trek episodes. (Though if there’s one that seems like a good Trek episode, I’ll pay attention.) Some scientists who advocate SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) through searching for radio signals nevertheless dismiss the idea that we might be, or might have been, visited by advanced aliens. They use “the Drake Equation” to convince themselves that, given so many stars and planets for evolution to work its magic, we should hear from someone sooner or later. Yet the same math also convinces me that we could be visited or find an artifact of alien technology as we explore the solar system. The scientists’ frequently cited objection is that the stars are too distant for interstellar travel. But this depends on a human-centered assumption that travel times of centuries or millennia are prohibitive. Why should alien life expectancy be as short as ours, or why won’t they have, say, created machine bodies for themselves with an off switch for long trips?
Many of the skeptical arguments against UFO visitation seem hollow to me. There is no doubt that most UFO reports result from illusion, confusion, or delusion. But, given “Clarke’s Third Law”—that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic—and given the fact that we are such neophytes on the cosmic scene, I remain agnostic about UFOs and alien visitation. Yet I rule out most of the conspiracies with my “non B-grade movie hypothesis.” The universe is more imaginative than a hack director. So, I am always disappointed when I go to an alien revival meeting or a UFO Web site only to encounter a recycled plot line. Real aliens, and real contact, will not seem like a mediocre sci-fi movie.
The yellow instrument on the right is my Zendrum—a programmable MIDI instrument that I use to play percussion samples, astronaut voices, processed bird songs, altered silverware sounds, and messed-up movie snippets. You can see me playing it for a minute in Tim Ferris’ PBS show Life Beyond Earth.