Entry 4

Here is a picture of two things I love in Lower Downtown Denver (LoDo): the Tattered Cover bookstore and Manny Salzman:

Manny in front of the Tattered Cover
Manny in front of the Tattered Cover

Manny is 85 and rides his bike every day. He wears many hats besides the bike helmet: retired cardiologist, pioneer of LoDo redevelopment, and mycologist who started the Telluride Mushroom Festival 25 years ago and still runs it every year. The mush fest is a blast: intellectual symposiums, mountain foraging expeditions, culinary adventures, and Dionysian celebration. Last year, I gave a talk there called “Knocking on Heaven’s Doors of Perception: Psychedelic Mushrooms and Extraterrestrial Life,” which covered “Panspermia”—the radical notion that life is spread throughout the cosmos by spore-forming organisms blowing between the stars—an idea going back 100 years to the Nobel-Prize-winning Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius—and some thoughts on the nature of consciousness, evidence, and illusion. Maybe you had to be there. Manny is also the landlord of Funky Science. How many people can say that they love their landlord?

Chase, Kirk, Tory
Chase, Kirk, Tory

Today I’ve been asked to teach a workshop in nonfiction writing for Denver middle-school students. My first thought was “Forget it. I don’t know how to teach writing.” I’ve won teaching awards and taught all levels from second grade through grad school. I’ve also taken many writing classes. But I’ve only taught science and a little music. My second thought was “What have I got to lose other than a few hours and my pride and dignity?”

This morning Denver feels very small-town. We had dinner last night with our friend Kirk Johnson and his fiancee, Chase. Kirk knows everybody. He is:

  • a paleobotanist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who studies fossil plants. This overlaps with astrobiology more than you might think. One of our few sources of clues about the possible paths of life on other planets is the life history of our own biosphere, examined for patterns with universal causes. Dr. Johnson is a great explainer, and it is a pleasure to talk with him about the history of life.
  • sort of an Indiana Jones type, and the model for at least two fictional characters. My current insomnia reading is The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn a novel (to be published in March) by another Colorado writer, Janis Hallowell. I met Janis at a large regional publishing trade show this fall where we were both nervous, expectant authors schmoozing at the HarperCollins booth. I was surprised to learn that one of her characters—who is a woman—is loosely based on Kirk, but now that I’m reading (and loving) the book, it makes perfect sense. Last night I learned that Kirk is also the sexy lead character in Let It Bree, a saucy romance novel. (Sorry, Kirk.)
  • best buddies with John Hickenlooper, the new mayor of Denver. So Hizzoner, who actually plays decent guitar, is now in my circle of friends. See: It’s a small town. Hickenlooper has started a campaign to change Denver’s image, but it really is kind of a cow town, and some of us like it that way.

Twice today I’ve been asked what alien life will really be like, as if I’m some kind of expert. Yeah, I know I just wrote this book, but really there are no experts on alien life, at least none on this planet. I have, at best, my own scientifically informed hunches about what we’ll see when we find them, or they find us. For example, they will have bodies made of cells because it’s a good organizational scheme. They’ll have some hereditary mechanism that parallels DNA, though I bet it won’t be DNA. And I think they’ll look, to us, as weird as strange undersea Earth creatures like nautili and squid, but not necessarily stranger. I say this because I think that there is probably a universal architecture of living things. Many shapes seen in Earth-life are remarkably well-described by the equations of fractal geometry and complexity theory. For example, this looks like a fern, but it is really an equation.

But how universal is math? Aha!—a question of natural philosophy. Actually it’s a matter of faith. This is my religion talking now, not science, but I believe that such equations were not invented by humans but were discovered by us. It is a crucial difference. If I am right, then there is nothing terrestrial about the shapes of life, which means some aliens will look strangely familiar to us.

So, I rely on faith. But this belief may someday be put to the test. When we meet ET, we’ll compare math books. If I’m right then some of the pages will look the same