Favourite Thing: Making stuff up, to see if it will work! Science is a process of trial and error, and I don’t think many people appreciate how creative the “trial” part of that process is. I run models all day of “alien planets” including the earliest history of life’s on Earth. My favorite moments are when we come up with a new idea to test with our models.
University of Rochester: 1997-2002, The Pennsylvania State University: 2002-2007
I’ve been doing NASA-funded research for most of my career, and all of it has been focused on one question: how can we look for life on other worlds? I’ve published a series of papers on “biosignatures” that will help us do just that. Along the way, I’ve ended up leading various conferences, workshops, and documents on our search for life. I also run an astrobiology and planetary sciences blog, which you can read here: http://paleblueblog.org
The Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, NASA Headquarters
I’m a Research Space Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (I still can’t believe that’s my job title!)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Me and my work
I look for ways to look for alien life!
I research alien planets from the comfort of my computer. The way this works is we simulate other planets to find out what they would look like through a telescope. We spend a lot of time thinking about the atmospheres of planets, because this is a part of the planet that life affects in a way that could be detectable. For example, think about the oxygen we all breathe in, the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and the methane that we… well, that lots of organisms produce. Those gases are all detectable in Earth’s atmosphere! This means that if similar life forms are present on another planet, we should be able to detect them with a telescope. Being a part of the team that builds and operates that telescope is essentially my life’s goal.
What I worry about is the possibility that there are planets that would “trick” such a search. For example, for about a third of the history of life on Earth there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. This means that if we all jumped in a time machine and went back to that point in history, we’d all suffocate! It also means that we wouldn’t be able to recognize that planet as having life if all we looked for was oxygen and methane. I’ve come up with some other ideas for (SMELLY!) gases that life would produce on such a planet. The gases you smell in nasty old shoes, for example, are made by bacteria. Those gases could be detectable on one of these oxygen-poor planets. So now I’m trying to convince the people that would design the telescope that we need to not only look for oxygen, but also for the smelly stuff!
I also think it’s my job to talk about all this stuff with non-scientists (that’s YOU). So I put together a blog, which you should feel free to check out. http://paleblueblog.org. I don’t post there as often as I’d like to, but try to whenever I have the time.
My Typical Day
My typical day is spent almost entirely in front of a computer: writing computer code, answering emails, making plots, and doing lots of writing.
I spend a LOT of time writing. I have to write proposals to get funding for my work. If the proposal gets funded, I start working on it in earnest. Once I get some preliminary results, I have to write short descriptions of the work that will advertise presentations of the research at conferences. And once I think I’ve got it all figured out, I have to write it all up in a manuscript! Then… I have to re-write it, because my co-authors will point out some silly mitsake I’ve made somewhere. And then I have to re-write it again because the peer reviewers at the journal will want us to improve our methods or our discussion. And then, finally, when the paper is accepted, I do my best to write a brief description of the work on a blog I’m managing.
So yeah, I write. A LOT.
But I also spend a lot of time in front of computer code. That’s where we try to find new types of planets we haven’t thought about before, and what the implications those planets would have for a future life search. Much of this time is spent debugging. We’ll have this great idea, put it into the computer code, run the model, annnnddd… CRASH. Nothing. The model won’t even run. So then I dig back into the code, and try to find out what went wrong. Eventually, we’ll get it sorted out, and then we start to write. On that note…
Finally, I spend a good part of my day on email, trying to figure out what our next research proposal will look like, talking about the results of experiments with colleagues, planning meetings and conventions, and doing a lot of the “day-to-day” things of progress reports and the like.
It’s a lot of writing, but the reason for that is in a digital era, a tremendous amount of our conversations – scientific and otherwise – take place in written form. Some of that is starting to shift, as videoconference technology improves and some of those conversations take place in that format. (To someone who doesn’t like to write ALL the time, this is a good thing.)
What I'd do with the money
I’d try to kick-start a science outreach 2.0 project.
I have a strong conviction that scientists need to do a better job meeting the public more than halfway. We need to be where the public is – online. And we also need to be talking about the things they talk about. That means more pop culture, sports, and news.
Along those lines, I have a few colleagues that are interested in doing some “viral science videos.” I’d kick-start this effort by getting the camera and software needed to produce them. Then we’d spend weekends churning out things like an interplanetary version of the “Harlem Shake” as well as some more “serious” content on the science behind coffee, soda, and sports.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Goofy Alien Hunter
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Pearl Jam! I got hooked on them when I was around 12.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
A trip to Florida last year, when I got to taste butterbeer (see profile pic) and also see Curiosity (NASA’s new Mars rover) launch from Earth.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. A healthy baby daughter (due in July); 2. A lead role on a mission that looks for life beyond Earth; 3. Perfect health, without worrying about what I eat.
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be a physicist, working on a particle accelerator similar to CERN.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
I used to get horrible grades sometimes, because I’d slack off on my homework.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
FameLab! I’ve been helping run the first FameLab competition in the US. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/user/AstrobiologyFameLab
Tell us a joke.
Here’s me in my old office in Seattle (don’t have a pic in my new office yet):
Here’s a picture of me giving a pep talk to contestants in last year’s FameLab Astrobiology finals:
A couple years ago, I got to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural history, and they let me hold a 4660000000 billion year old rock in my hands! These are the sorts of rocks my work tries to use to explain the history of the planets in our solar system.
They also let me hold these two rocks:
In one hand is a piece of the Moon! In the other hand is a piece of Mars!! When they told me that’s what I had in my hands, I almost feinted.
When I went down to Florida last year, on top of trying butterbeer and seeing a rocket launch I got to visit one of the old Saturn V rockets that launched humans to the moon. This thing is HUGE!!
Lastly, here’s a picture of me chilling in a tree. Not explicitly me doing work, as I was on a hike with my wife and my dog…. BUT, my mind is almost always on science. Even in the middle of the woods, I’m thinking about the colors of the trees, and the gases they produce, and trying to imagine what types of life might crop up on another planet, what that life might look like, and how we’d detect it across interstellar space. Not a bad way to relax, in my world. 🙂